HIGH ACHIEVERS: Stay-At-Home Edition
Keeping Local Sport Spirit High During the Pandemic
By Martin Cleary
The Gloucester Skating Club, which is recognized as much for its popular CanSkate program as well as its athletes who Can Skate (and do it exceptionally well), is celebrating a milestone anniversary this year.
Fifty years ago last month, Ottawa’s east end welcomed its first figure skating club thanks to people like community-minded Terry Heaslip and Lana Richer. It opened with three hours of ice per week for a 10-week program at Earl Armstrong Arena.
My how it has grown. Today, Gloucester has more than 1,000 skaters at all levels, 14 coaches, including eight with 30 years or more experience, 12 CanSkate coaches and five off-ice coaches, and a full-time general manager and director of skating.
The club, which now skates out of one instead of five arenas, started celebrating its first half century last month and will do so throughout the year mainly, but not exclusively, with a digital campaign on Facebook, Instagram and its website.
Gloucester coach Jodie Bierko, the chair of the club’s 50th anniversary committee, had “to think outside the box” about ways to celebrate the milestone, after the COVID-19 pandemic squashed many of the original ideas.
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Besides the digital campaign, which will feature daily posts of photos, videos and fun facts about its skaters, coaches and volunteers, the club will release its 50th anniversary logo pin at the end of the month or early March.
The City of Ottawa will proclaim May 7 as Gloucester Skating Club Day and Bierko is hoping there will be an outdoor celebration, which will reveal a commemorative banner. But that all depends on the state of the pandemic.
The club also has scheduled an open house at its headquarters in the Bob MacQuarrie Recreation Complex in September, and a wine and cheese get together in October or November. Bierko is hoping the pandemic is under control by then.
The club has celebrated many highlight moments over the past five decades. Micheline Rioux was its first skater to qualify for the Canadian championships in 1973. Its first Ice Review was in 1979. Bob McEvoy was the first coach.
And it was McEvoy who developed the upbeat and energetic Elizabeth Manley into a strong free skater and the 1982 world junior bronze medallist. But they parted after that and Manley trained in Lake Placid, which almost ended her career.
When noted coaches Peter and Sonya Dunfield joined Gloucester, Manley returned, got back on track and went to her first Winter Olympics in 1984. From there, she timed her peak perfectly in 1988, winning Olympic and world championship silver medals.
“I’m ecstatic to be a member of the Gloucester Skating Club. You are the backbone of my career. I love everybody there,” Manley said in an Instagram video. Her pro career took her many places, but she has stayed connected to Gloucester.
While Gloucester certainly attracted top international skaters under the Dunfields, like Japan’s Yuka Sato and Finland’s Elina Husa, the club also welcomed many young skaters who wanted to become jumpers and spinners.
What makes Gloucester unique among Canadian figure skating clubs is its ability to cater to a wide range of skaters. Besides competitive skaters, the coaching staff has adult, synchro, recreation, CanSkate, and power skating programs.
But not all club members became figure skaters. Ivanie Blondin loved to skate fast and one coach suggested she try speed skating. Today, she’s a world champion in long-track, after a career in short-track. Ottawa Senators defenceman Erik Gudbranson also got his start at Gloucester.
Consistency in coaching is also a big plus for Gloucester. “I have been there 41 years,” said Cathy Skinner, one of numerous Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement honourees connected to the club. “When a core group of coaches has upwards of 25 to 30 to 35 years of experience, that says something about the club.”
“It’s a real community, very much a family. It gives a nice touch to the way our organization is run,” said Sheilagh McCaskill, who retired in 2020, after 44 years as a Gloucester coach. She remains as a resource person.
Gloucester also is a community-minded club, participating in Winterlude and outreach programs in Orleans. It has become more diverse and inclusive by welcoming children from immigrant families to enjoy the skating experience.
“Our CanSkate program is very diverse and inclusive. It gets them to the next stage,” Joseph added. “The sport is expensive, but we’re looking at creative ideas to support youth to continue to skate for competition or recreation.
“They could become volunteers, officials and coaches. The longer we can keep them in the sport, not only will it be better for them, but also for our family.”
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for over 47 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com and on Twitter @martincleary.