A Fond Look Back At Overlooked Canadian Figure Skating TV Moments

Photo courtesy Toronto Public Library, from Toronto Star Photographic Archive. Reproduced for educational purposes under license permission.

In the second half of the twentieth century, a week scarcely passed without figure skating making its way to Canadian television sets at least once. From amateur and professional competitions to movies, talk show interviews and made for television specials, there seemed to be something for everyone. Today on the blog, we'll look back at a handful of Canadian television skating moments you may have forgotten!


Barbara Wagner and Robert Paul. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

On February 26, 1961, CBC made history with the very first full-length skating special in Canadian history, "Planet Ice". Filmed at the East York arena in Toronto, the show was an 'ice fantasy' set on "the undiscovered Planet Ice, where everything is made of ice and everyone skates from birth." The fictional planet's Prince and Princess were played by Barbara Wagner and Bob Paul, the reigning Olympic Gold Medallists and World Champions. Gordon Crossland, a silver medallist in ice dance at the 1955 Canadian Championships with Geraldine Fenton, who went on to skate with Ice Follies, played an astronaut who landed on the planet by accident. Actor Paul Klingman, comedian Jack Duffy and dancer Paul Elsom laced up and took to the ice as a group of scientists on the planet's ice factory who were trying to invent 'a perfect ice man'. The production was choreographed by Sheldon Galbraith.

In his biography "A Nobody's Dream... Came True", he wrote, "Don Hudson, the Director of 'The Wayne and Schuster Show', approached me about doing a figure skating special. Canadian Champions, Barbara Wagner and Bob Paul had just won Worlds and it would be a good showcase for them. Don also contacted my old skating friend from Kitchener, Marilyn Schlicter, [whose] stage name was Sheppard. She was developing her name as a night club singer. She is the first girl Miss Beryl [Goodman Williamson] had put me with to try out as a pair team, back as an amateur skater. Marilyn and I were cast as the story line leads, in a flimsy script called 'Planet Ice'. It was the first ice show story ever told on ice and I give Don full marks for the attempt. He certainly led the way for the many that followed. He loaded it with a lot of the top Canadian television stars, from the CBC's stable. It was mainly comedians of the day which gave it an absurd mix. Thus, it had mixed reviews. Don released a kinescope copy... and gave me a projector so I could take it home. I'm very critical of my work and think it was the worst thing I ever did. All the acting classes had produced, in my opinion, a wooden slob at best, and my skating was embarrassing. I felt the rest of the cast were wonderful."


Toller Cranston in "Dreamweaver". Photo courtesy Toronto Public Library, from Toronto Star Photographic Archive. Reproduced for educational purposes under license permission.

"Strawberry Ice", "The True Gift Of Christmas" and "The Magic Planet" may have been Toller Cranston's best remembered CBC specials, but before these gems came another lesser recalled one, "Dreamweaver". Produced by J. Edward Shaw and Charles Weir and directed by Shaw, "Dreamweaver" was a hodge podge of a skating fantasy, with music ranging from disco to Tchaikovsky. 

Joined by singers Dan Hill and Salome Bey, composer André Gagnon and North American pairs champions JoJo Starbuck and Ken Shelley, Cranston was his imaginative self in this 'dream sequence' variety show which aired in Canada, the U.S. and Europe in 1979. "Dreamweaver" won the Golden Rose of Montreux Award for Best Variety Program and the Grand Prix de Montreux 1980 at the Montreux Television Festival in Switzerland as well as six ANIK awards.


Rita MacNeil and Anne Murray. Photos courtesy Library And Archives Canada and Toronto Public Library, from Toronto Star Photographic Archive. Reproduced for educational purposes under license permission.

Two of Nova Scotian's most famous songbirds, Rita MacNeil and Anne Murray, were hugely famous in the eighties and nineties for their annual televised Christmas specials. In between renditions of Christmas carols by the leading ladies and their musical guests, there were often performances by top skaters to add an even more wintery flavour to the hour-long broadcasts.

Cape Bretoner Rita MacNeil, who had brought down the house in Halifax with her song "We'll Reach The Sky Tonight" at the 1992 Skate The Dream tribute to Rob McCall and fundraiser for AIDS research, had Jamie Salé and David Pelletier and Barbara Underhill and Paul Martini in her specials. The "Anne Murray's Family Christmas" specials featured the likes of Elvis Stojko and Brian Orser.


Cathy Lee Irwin skating in the Bursary Fund Gala in 1971. Photo courtesy Toronto Public Library, from Toronto Star Photographic Archive. Reproduced for educational purposes under license permission.

From the early eighties to mid nineties, the annual Bursary Fund Dinner and Gala in Toronto was an important fundraiser for amateur figure skating in Canada. Much like the annual Evening Of Champions show at Harvard University, the shows were low-budget and casts were often an electic mix of up-and-coming amateurs and seasoned professionals, all united for the great cause of raising money to provide bursaries to skaters.

Considering there were very limited show opportunities for skaters who ranked outside of the top three in Canada at the time aside from Parade Of Champions at Canadians and club carnivals, it was a rare treat for Canadian skating fans to see their favourites as well as a host of 'new names' under spotlights. Donald Jackson made several special guest appearances, landing a double Axel over twenty years after he won his World title in Prague in 1962 in one show.


Released on March 14, 1984 on what is now Global Television, "The Golden Age Of Canadian Skating" was produced by Milad Bessada and hosted by newscaster Jan Tennant. It was researched and written by David Young, who released his book "The Golden Age Of Canadian Figure Skating" that year. Through interviews with eleven of Canada's figure skating legends, including the likes of Barbara Ann Scott and Donald Jackson, this special remains to this day one of the more important historical documentaries on Canadian figure skating ever produced. 


Katarina Witt and Brian Orser. Photo courtesy Toronto Public Library, from Toronto Star Photographic Archive. Reproduced for educational purposes under license permission.

First broadcast on CBC on November 10, 1991, "Night Moves" was the 'middle child' of Brian Orser's TV specials, sandwiched between "Skating Free" and "Blame It On The Blues". It also came after "Carmen On Ice", the Emmy award winning special which Orser also appeared in. Produced by Morgan Earl, directed by Ron Meraska and choreographed by Sandra Bezic, this special drew from Chris de Burgh's hit "The Lady In Red" to tell the story of a man (Orser) on a quest to find an elusive woman (Katarina Witt). The special also featured Toller Cranston, Barbara Underhill and Paul Martini, Jozef Sabovčík and Michelle McDonald and Martin Smith. The Nylons, Cynthia Dale and Taborah Johnson all performed, and the music of Prince, Colin James and Lou Reed were also featured. Much of the filming was done in Toronto 'on the backshift' from seven at night to seven in the morning. Some of the more memorable moments from this special were Orser rollerblading on Yonge Street and ice skating on a rooftop and Witt and Orser's closing duet to Chris de Burgh's famous song. 

In her review of the show, Henrietta Walmark remarked, "The costuming is downtown black leather and denim, tarty club wear and Queen Street West hair. Neon lights, security camera entrances, giant video screens and dissaffected extras contribute to the downtown nightlife atmosphere. Great editing and the outstanding staging and choreography of Sandra Bezic, who also co-produced Night Moves, shift the action effortlessly from street to studio and back again. While roller blading on the street, Orser encounters The Nylons singing on a street corner. He breaks into dance and it's only when you notice he's wearing ice skates that you realize the action had moved from the street to a studio. The transitions are seamless. Bezic incorporates bits and pieces of the street - a TTC stop, a stairway, a newspaper box - with backdrops that match locations in their colour and tone... The saxophone interludes and the eclectic mix of urban music, moody lighting and gritty setting provide a sophisticated backdrop for a sport that has evolved into an art form." The special earned Gemini nominations for Best Variety Program and Best Performance In A Variety Program Or Series (Witt and Orser) as well as the Golden Rose of Montreux Award in Switzerland in 1992.


In February of 1995, CBC piloted a figure skating magazine style show called "Skate". It aired over a five-week period on Monday nights before "This Hour Has 22 Minutes", filling a prime-time slot that once belonged to "Kids In The Hall". The show was hosted by Tracy Wilson and featured appearances by Kurt Browning, Sandra Bezic, Toller Cranston and others. The show was produced by Insight Productions, in association with IMG and the CBC. John Brunton, the show's executive producer, called it "part Entertainment Tonight, part Fashion Television and part Global Sportsline." Ultimately, the show fizzled after the 1995 World Championships. 

Photo courtesy "The Insider's Guide"

A year after her book of the same name came out, Olympic Silver Medallist Debbi Wilkes - the queen of Canadian figure skating commentary - gained an audience with "Ice Time", the country's premiere magazine style television program about figure skating. It was a triumphant return of sorts, after she was dropped from CTV's crew after twenty years of being one of the sport's best commentators.

"Ice Time" first aired in January 1996 on the Women's Television Network. It was a co-production between WTN, CTV and Debbi. Prior to the show's debut, she told "Toronto Star" reporter Ken McKee, "CTV was looking to partner some of the new specialty channels in new program
opportunities and WTN was really interested in some quality sports ventures... I hope it'll be like my book - an honest look at some of the best and the worst aspects of skating... Maybe a combination of Coach's Corner and Entertainment Tonight. I'm a big fan of Don Cherry."

The show's first episode featured highlights from the Champions Series and a look back at Oksana Baiul's winning free skate from the 1994 Winter Olympic Games. The early Saturday afternoon timing of the show before the cornucopia of skating offerings on television in the afternoons and evenings was for many the start to their 'skating weekend'. Many "Ice Time" episodes veered away from the present and featured rare video footage from skating competitions in the seventies, eighties and early nineties.

Keeping in mind that this was ten years before YouTube came along, these performances were something many new fans to the sport had never had the opportunity to see. Likewise, Debbi's accompanying website "The Insider's Guide", was one of the first Canadian figure skating websites... back in the days of dial-up. It featured 'Rink Side' articles, interviews, news, skating lessons, report cards on top skaters, reader mail, caption contests and a 'Tracing Back' section which shared tidbits of skating history. She even shared Irene Stojko's spaghetti sauce recipe!

Photo courtesy "The Insider's Guide"

Although the unique content coupled with Debbi's expertise and wonderful sense of humour carried the show for several years and even sparked a "Retro Ice Time" revival, by the time the professional skating craze ended, the show was sadly no more.

Debbi and I spoke about the legacy of "Ice Time". She said, "Oh boy...This is a fun story! It was right around the time there was a huge change in the broadcast landscape... There was CTV, TSN, CBC then there was this young upstart, which was owned by CBC at the time, called Rogers. CTV also owned the W Network. They had a half dozen different channels that they were supporting, so obviously they were looking for content. One of the best producers of figure skating I've ever worked with, Scott Moore, who recently retired from a huge job at Rogers, loved skating... very, very pro-skating. We'd kicked around ideas about skating shows before but there wasn't really a place for it... Suddenly they decide to do this major expansion and I said to Scott, 'Well, what about a skating show? We've got all the video tape imaginable and we can do it in sort of cellular segments and review old performances, guests... It was a little, tiny skating variety show.' That's really how it came about. PJ [Kwong] worked on it with me and she and I would decide on the theme for each week and we'd write it. It was a great collaboration and it was really fun to do. It lasted a couple of seasons, then it moved over to Bell Sympatico and lasted there for a number of seasons as well. I'd had such a long broadcast career and had been to many of those events [we looked back at]. It kind of allowed me to look at the history of the sport and see some of the trends and watch the judging, the development and progress of the technical side of the sport. It also gave me a chance to put things in perspective. I just found it so juicy! It was thrilling to watch how the sport marched ahead through those many, many decades and to able to use the incredible library that CTV had. The librarian at CTV was a real skating fan and where most material would have been erased, he kept the skating stuff. It was just one of those fortunate coincidences that they had the material, there was a place to put it and someone was willing to support it. It was great - a lot of fun."

If you enjoyed this look back through Canadian figure skating history, have I got the book for you! In "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", you will find hundreds of biographies in a Who's Who of Canadian Figure Skating, interesting facts about the governance of the sport and skating clubs, complete results of the Canadian Championships dating back to the very beginning and much more. 

Order your copy of the paperback or Kindle E-Book edition in order to have it under the tree in time for Christmas! Hard cover copies are also available, but the lead time in shipping would mean you would most likely receive the book after the big day.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating": https://skateguard1.blogspot.com/p/buy-book.html.