Kaetlyn Osmond, Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier, Patrick Chan/ Photos: Skate Canada

I don’t remember my parents taking us to sporting events when I was a kid. Why? Well, we were immigrants. Popular Canadian sports like basketball, skating or hockey (which my Mum still refers to as “ice hockey”) were not played widely in England or Ireland, where my parents grew up. So, despite their diligence in registering us for local recreation programs, our family was more likely to sit down to a roast dinner than attend a Sunday afternoon hockey game.

2016 Canadian Championships Elvis Stojko CanSkate

Photo: Skate Canada/Stephan Potopnyk

I think this feeling of distance from Canadian winter sports is a common “newcomer phenomenon” which usually rectifies itself by the second generation…and this was my primary goal in taking my 7 year-old daughter to the 2016 Canadian Tire National Skating Championships in Halifax, Nova Scotia this winter. Ice Skating. A sport I knew nothing about.

We attended several events throughout the week, but one evening, the seats at the Halifax Scotiabank Centre were unusually empty. It was The Skate Canada CanSkate Demonstration: not at top of every spectator’s list, but definitely at the top of ours.

With the energy of champions still lingering in the air, here was a chance for my daughter to see the ‘real’ side of the sport: kids her own age skating on championship ice in a demonstration of the CanSkate program, something I also knew very little about.

Canskate Showcase Jeff Buttle Halifax 2016 Article by Helen Earley, Photo: Skate Canada/Stephan Potopnyk

Photo: Skate Canada/Stephan Potopnyk

Now, if you’ve ever lived in Halifax, you will know that  it’s the kind of place where everyone looks familiar, and the CanSkate demonstration was no exception. The first person I saw skating across the ice was instantly recognizable as someone I had attended high school with. Her jacket read: “Coach Wendy”, and she looked pretty much the same as  she did circa 1990.

Next came about 20 young athletes, skating round and round the rink, wearing figure skates, hockey skates, various types of helmets and street clothes such as leggings and jeans, covered with branded Halifax Skate t-shirts.

There were a few adult helpers, two of whom had particularly nice – um, jeans. Round and round they skated with the kids, giving the odd high five, grinning happily at the audience. They too looked very familiar, but I was pretty sure they hadn’t attended high school with Wendy and me.

Later I discovered that these stylish assistants were actually retired champions Elvis Stojko and recent Skate Canada Hall of Fame inductee, Jeff Buttle. If you have the time, I encourage you to click on those names and read their amazing stories. Once I learned more about them, I learned more about the skating world: the sacrifices that skaters make, the dedication of their families. I noted that Elvis Stojko was the son of an immigrant family. Clearly, it didn’t stop him from embracing the Canadian ice!

But what about CanSkate itself? How does the CanSkate program differ from a recreational skating lesson? After the demonstration, I spoke to my old schoolmate Wendy to learn more. A former competition skater, Wendy Stewart is a Professional CanSkate Coach and administrator for the CanSkate Halifax Skating Club.

The main difference in The CanSkate program is continuous movement. Whereas other skating lessons might have students standing still, waiting and taking turns, CanSkate has a set of circuits which Wendy says, “Skate Canada has worked tirelessly to perfect”.  This means that from start to finish, young skaters are moving on the ice,  building balance, control and agility with a sense of confidence, guided by Nationally certified coaches. Wendy says “sometimes coaches come off the ice, and they’re drenched in sweat too”. (Now we know why she hasn’t aged since 1990).

CanSkate Cartoon Program Banner
I suggest to Wendy that the program is for “serious” skaters only, but she disagrees. Although CanSkate graduates include Figure Skater Patrick Chan, Speed Skater Ivanie Blondin and NHL pro Matt Duchene, CanSkate is not just looking for the next world champion. The program teaches skaters of every kind, at every level. Increasingly, says Wendy, there are parents who are learning to skate through the program, and the Halifax Skating Club is considering offering a program for newcomers to Canada in the Spring.

CanSkate Collage Family Fun Canada Photos: Skate Canada Halifax 2016

Photos: Skate Canada

As I sit backstage at the Scotiabank Centre, chatting with Wendy, my daughter is behind us swirling, twirling and twirling, falling and jumping on the concrete floor. She imagines she is a champion skater.

It’s my belief that attending  a sporting event with your child offers valuable lessons, especially if it’s not “your sport”. Exposing kids to a variety of professional and amateur sporting events gives them a better chance of visualizing themselves as successful athletes of any kind. If that new sport happens to becomes their sport, then spectatorship can easily be transformed into membership. This is the value of being a spectator. It’s not just watching. It’s halfway to belonging.

Next on our list: “Ice Hockey”!