Winter isn’t dreary in Canada any more, not with the new CanSkate program.

In a frosty rink in Toronto, toddlers in jelly-bean coloured snowsuits and tiny skates zip around brightly hued pylons and cones, arms out to the side, eyes bright. It’s a hub of activity. They are like little bees zooming about the hive. No piece of the ice surface goes unused. They are intent, yet they’re having fun. They are learning to skate, the new way.

It’s part of a revolution in the way Canadians learn to skate, and last week, the Skate Canada program came to Skate Ontario, where 75,000 folks are learning skills that may take them to an Olympic podium in various ice sports. Or for most, it may be the launching pad for thousands to have a skill for life, stroking away on a Saturday afternoon at an arena, hearts pumping, faces glowing.

The new program is set up to become the best learn-to-skate plan in the country, so that speed skaters and hockey players can also hone their abilities to move across the ice efficiently. The skills aren’t tied specifically to figure skating skills, but on skating skills in general.  

The program became mandatory at all 1,200 figure skating clubs in Canada in September, and in Ontario, it’s getting a boost from a Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport financing, and from Canadian Tire, which for the past couple of years has allied itself to Olympic and grassroots sport and which has become Skate Canada’s most important title sponsor. Skate Canada chief executive officer Dan Thompson refers to CanSkate as the “engine room of Skate Canada.”

The CanSkate blueprint came to life because of a Sport Canada directive to set out specific long-term athlete development programs. To make it happen, Skate Ontario is tapping into an Ontario Sport and Recreation Communities Fund, with a budget of close to $3-million meant to get people moving at the community level. Skate Ontario gets $197,220 to help pay for 360 kits filled with props (small cones, pylons, rhythmic ribbons, Frisbees, bean bags, plungers (who knew?), plastic polka-dotted balls and an enormous “parachute.” Canadian Tire provides the enormous equipment bags to carry it all.  

The side-effects of this idea?  It could maximize social and economic benefits. (Ontario spends $4-billion on recreation, sport and fitness.)  And it could bring health costs down. “We know that an investment into healthy lifestyles is an investment into spending less in health care in the long run for sure,” said Micheal Coteau, who was just named as minister of Tourism, Culture and Sport last June.

Coteau had never seen the CanSkate program in action before, and he paused to watch all of the youngsters on the ice hoist an enormous red and white “parachute” and make it flutter up and down like a giant stingray.

Coteau knows the value of the CanSkate concept first-hand. His children both go to skating programs. “I’ve noticed that the more engaged they are with fun and the more the teacher uses different types of tools, the more interested they become in skating,” he said. “The truth is, a lot of sports, it they’re not done properly in the beginning, they’ll shy away. If you can capture them at the beginning by engaging them at a completely different level where they are intrigued by the fun of it, you can leverage that to get them to increase their level of skill.”

It’s worked for his children, aged four and eight, he said. They are skating, swimming and into music programs. For the first two years that his daughter took a skating program, she found it frustrating, he said. When she got to the point where she could skate well, she began to enjoy it. The CanSkate program will change all of that, offering up basics in balance, control, and agility in six stages. Students learn stronger skills and learn them faster under this program.

Skate Canada also knows that the golden years of learning are between ages seven and 11, when neural pathways are most easily formed.

Olympic silver medalist Elizabeth Manley began to toddle onto the ice at age 2 ½ and she took her first learn-to-skate lesson at age five. Her first pair of skates came from Canadian Tire. She’s now a coach, teaching CanSkate.

Kim Saunders, associate vice-president of sport partnerships for Canadian Tire, also followed Manley’s path, taking the old learn-to-skate program as a child and picking up all the skills – the hard way. Figure skating is near and dear to her heart – and to that of Canadian Tire, which began sponsorship of Skate Canada in 2013. The Canadian Tire National Skating Championships in Kingston, Ont., in January will be the company’s third tour as title sponsor of that event.

At about the same time, Canadian Tire made a general investment in Olympic and Paralympic sport – and other sport associations, too. But Skate Canada is special.

“We’ve been selling skates for 90 years,” Saunders said. “It’s just part of our heritage. We were looking for a way to support amateur sport in this country is a bigger way and Skate Canada was just a natural fit. It’s a fit for us from a business point of view. It’s a fit for us from a philosophy point of view too, to what skating can do for a child. It’s a great passion for us.”

“We are all part of the Canadian canopy,” she said. “We have to talk about spirit, with that notion that strong healthy kids make strong nations. They also make great athletes.”