One Night Only: Professional And Pro-Am Competitions That Didn't Stick Around

In the period that followed 'the whack heard around the world', there was a marked influx of new professional and pro-am 'made for TV' competitions. CBS led the way in this trend, desperate to fill a weekend vacancy after losing the rights to broadcast NFL games to FOX. Many of these events, like Ice Wars, the World Team Championships, Rock and Roll Championships, Canadian and US Professional Championships, Gold Championships, Ladies Professional Championships and Legends Of Figure Skating Competition stuck around for several years. Others proved to be a one-shot deal. Today we'll take a look at 6.0 professional and pro-am figure skating competitions of the nineties that were held only once! 

Denise Biellmann performing at the Nikon Skating Championships


The event that would have originally 'christened' the brand new Kiel Center (now Scottrade Center) in St. Louis, Missouri on October 12, 1994 was postponed specifically because Oksana Baiul injured herself during practice on September 28 of that year and required arthroscopic surgery. Her one point five million dollar contract with Jefferson-Pilot Sports specified that she participate in this event, and so organizers rescheduled the event for October 24, 1994. 

An exhibition basketball game between the Chicago Bulls and Washington Bullets replaced the CBS made-for-TV vehicle. It wasn't the first professional event that year to have been changed because of Baiul's contract. The October 15, 1994 issue of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted that the promoters of the Outdoor Figure Skating Championships were scrambling to figure out how to recast the Sun Valley event into non-sanctioned competition for the men and a sanctioned competition for the women who want to retain their eligibility. " 

Ticket holders ultimately got their chance to see the 1994 Olympic Gold Medalist perform at Jefferson-Pilot Sports' Nikon Skating Championships, which featured competitions both in men's and women's singles. Denise Biellmann won the women's event, ahead of Baiul, Caryn Kadavy, Josée Chouinard, Karen Preston, Liz Manley and Lily Lee. Brian Boitano bested Viktor Petrenko, Mark Mitchell and Petr Barna to win the men's event. A crowd of seven thousand, four hundred and fifteen people watched the St. Louis event live at the Kiel Center.


Held October 19, 1994 at the twenty thousand seat Gund Gateway Arena (now the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse) in Cleveland, Ohio, the Vicks 44 North American Open boasted competitions in men's, women's and pairs skating, all later televised on CBS. Skaters performed a technical and artistic program (the latter under theatrical lighting) and received one set of marks out of 6.0 for each performance. The total purse of prize money totalled three hundred and sixty-six thousand dollars. After Kurt Browning withdrew due to injury and Surya Bonaly pulled out and opted to retain her eligible status after 'urging' from the FFSG, 1982 World Champion Elaine Zayak made her return to the professional ranks at this event as Bonaly's replacement, finishing a disappointing last. A skate-sharpening problem led to an even more disastrous occurrence... a scary fall on a lift in the technical program from 1993 World Champions Isabelle Brasseur and Lloyd Eisler.

Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov performing at the Vicks 44 North American Open

Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov won the pairs event; Denise Biellmann the women's. A trio of Olympic Gold Medallists - Viktor Petrenko, Brian Boitano and Robin Cousins - took the top three spots in the men's competition. It was Petrenko's first win in a professional competition held in North America. He told Associated Press reporters, "I really wasn't thinking about winning or losing. I wanted the people to enjoy my program."


Susie Wynne and Russ Witherby at the American Skating Invitational

Held November 27, 1994 at the Municipal Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee, the American Skating Invitational was another 'made-for-TV' professional competitions run by Michael Burg that aired on CBS in the autumn of 1994. It was advertised locally as the Music City Figure Skating Championships and drew in four thousand spectators ... no small crowd for a city not exactly known for its figure skating events in those days. The event featured competitions for both women and ice dancers, with forty thousand dollars up for grabs to the winners, in addition to each skater's appearance fees. Two of the competitors, Katarina Witt and Rosalynn Sumners, flew six hours on a private jet straight from that year's preview show of Stars On Ice in Lake Placid to compete. The two medallists from the 1984 Winter Olympic Games in Sarajevo placed third and sixth in the women's event. 1981 World Champion Denise Biellmann took the title despite a rare fall on her trademark Biellmann spin in the technical program, with 1994 World Champion Yuka Sato finishing second. 1994 Olympic Gold Medalist Oksana Baiul struggled through both her performances and finished fourth. Caryn Kadavy, the 1987 World Bronze Medalist, got in the Christmas spirit a little early by skating to "O Come All Ye Faithful". She finished fifth. Rounding out the field in seventh was Canadian Champion Josée Chouinard.

Photo courtesy Debbie May, Nashville Public Library

In the ice dance event, Susie Wynne and Russ Witherby - the lone Americans - went up against a trio of Russian Olympic Medallists ... Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko, Maya Usova and Alexander Zhulin and Natalia Bestemianova and Andrei Bukin. They finished third, behind Klimova and Ponomarenko and Usova and Zhulin, but ahead of Bestemianova and Bukin.

At the time, Scott Hamilton told "Tennessean" sportswriter Tom Wood, "You can try to come up with all sorts of scenarios as to what's going to happen to the sport, to professional and amateur skating, but it's yet to be seen. There's been a lot of demand for programming from all the networks and we'll see how much the public will support. Right now, it's an amazing time for the sport. People who say it's going to hurt the amateur structure, it's going to do this or do that, I think they're speaking too soon. I think you've got to wait and see. Anytime you have an absolute half-way through something, I think you can be wrong. Part of the problem is there is not a total structure in professional competitions now and different events have different rules. " 


Held March 28, 1995 at the West Palm Beach Auditorium in Florida, Skates X 2 featured five teams of two skaters. Two of the teams - 'USA 1' and 'USA 2' - were American, with the remainder hailing from Canada, Ukraine and Europe. The event was marketed as The International Team Figure Skating Championship and named Skates X 2 for television.

Bizarrely, the CBS broadcast cut only the first round performance of Liz Manley, one half of the Canadian team. Her agent later called the good folks at CBS and gave them an earful. After the men's and women's scores were added together for a total score, the top two teams to advance to a final round of head-to-head competition were conveniently 'USA1' and 'USA2'. Without a doubt, the most memorable performance of the event was Paul Wylie 's second program to "Carmina Burana", where a power issue in the arena left the 1992 Olympic Gold Medalist performing in the dark. He received a standing ovation and 6.0's across the board for his effort, and later recalled it as one of his favorite performances of all time.

The final round resulted in a tie, but when the high and low marks were added back in to break the tie, team 'USA1' (Nancy Kerrigan and Brian Boitano) took the win by one tenth of a point. 


Nicole Bobek performing at the Metropolitan Open

Also marketed as The Best Of The Best, The Metropolitan Open was an ISU sanctioned pro-am competition held on September 22, 1995 at the Brendon Byrne Arena in the Meadowlands town of East Rutherford, New Jersey. Tickets ranged from twenty seven to forty dollars and three men, three women and three pairs competed for prices of forty five, forty and thirty thousand dollars in each categories. With the last minute withdrawal of Katarina Witt due to a neck injury, the women's event wasn't technically a pro-am as all three of the women who participated - Lu Chen, Nicole Bobek and Michelle Kwan - were all ISU eligible skaters. All three of the men who competed - Scott Hamilton, Todd Eldredgeand Paul Wylie - were American. In fact, American skaters swept all three disciplines, with Nicole Bobek, Scott Hamilton and Jenni Meno and Todd Sand taking home titles in their respective disciplines. The loss of Russians Elena Bechke and Denis Petrov in the pairs event would be overshadowed less than two months later by the loss of another great Russian pairs skater ... Sergei Grinkov. Gordeeva and Grinkov had originally been slated to compete and were replaced by World Champions Radka Kovaříková and René Novotný.

Photo courtesy Rhoda Portugal, Rutherford Public Library

This event marked Jenni Meno and Todd Sand's first competition as a married couple. Quoted in the September 22, 1995 issue of "The Record", Meno said, "[Being a couple] gives us a special look when we're out there. It's worked well for us; it may not work for everyone." 


Katarina Witt performing at the Starlight Challenge

Held October 30, 1995 at the Wollman Rink in New York's Central Park, The Starlight Challenge was a unique pro-am competition skated outdoors under the stars. This particular event, which was televised on FOX, had its own unique host of problems. The competitors, all from a generation unaccustomed to competing outdoors, were less than appreciative of skating in seven degree weather. Heavy gusts of wind hampered skater's triple jump attempts in practice but the fifty thousand dollar prize for the winner of each discipline was enough to make them soldier through. 

The biggest complaint was the judging. ISU judges were brought in to judge the first "major" competition held outdoors since the 1967 World Championships, and the professionals didn't take kindly to having to adjust their programs to ISU rules on short notice. Rosalynn Sumners received a deduction for using vocal music in her short program; Katarina Witt received marks as low as 4.0 and 4.3 for missing required elements in hers. Isabelle Brasseur and Lloyd Eisler intentionally performed illegal lifts in their artistic program, believing they had no chance of winning anyway. ISU eligible skaters - Nicole Bobek, Oksana Grishuk and Evgeni Platov and Jenni Meno and Todd Sand - took top honors in every discipline but the men's event, won by four time World Champion Kurt Browning. It was Browning's first competitive win after leaving the amateur ranks following the 1994 Winter Olympic Games in Lillehammer.

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