Photo albums are documents of life.
For ice dancer Bryon Topping, 1965 world team member with Lynn Matthews, they tell the skating story of a young man from Swift Current, Saskatchewan, his interests and his accomplishments. Sadly, some 25 years ago, his albums disappeared.
“After my mother passed away I went home for the burial and while I was there I packed up a couple of boxes of memorabilia and sent them back home to Ottawa on the bus. One of them made it, however the other one did not.”
It had vanished … along with irreplaceable photos documenting the successful skating career of an individual whose skating-for-life philosophy was neither planned for nor anticipated.
“I broke my leg when I was in grade 3 and spent over eight months in casts,” recalls Bryon. “I was told that I couldn’t participate in contact sports, that if I suffered another break, I could lose my leg.”
Living in rural Saskatchewan, there were few options for rehabilitation so his family decided to enroll him in skating at the Swift Current Skating Club.
Turns out not only did he get the rehab exercise he needed, Bryon also discovered a fascination with the sport and quickly passed his Preliminary tests. Although his family wanted to continue to feed their son’s unexpected interest and ability, they knew there were some tough decisions ahead if Bryon was to choose a competitive path. With no artificial ice available in Swift Current at the time, their eyes turned 150 miles eastward toward Regina and the Wascana Winter Club.
Bryon’s dad, Bert, worked for the railroad which entitled Bryon to a travel pass. “Every Saturday morning I’d get up at 4:30 am, catch the train at 5:30 and be in Regina by 9 to skate for the weekend and then return home Sunday night.”
Bryon also remembers his first competition in Regina in the mid ‘50’s. “It was a Bronze Dance event skating with my first partner Sandra Mitchell. Competing and watching veterans like Alma English and Herb Larson, then President of the C.F.S.A. (1953-55), was a great experience. After that I was hooked!”
Although Bryon’s passion for skating was growing, he was also learning other lessons that were not as positive. “At the time, a small city in Saskatchewan was not a place for a male figure skater. I was picked on, bullied and beaten up. At school, I even had a teacher who I asked for extra help so I could go to a competition. He refused.”
Despite the challenges, Bryon’s motivation flourished. He studied skating, dreamt about the possibilities and watched the best athletes, deciding that one day he would be one of them. With the support of his mom and dad and his grandparents, his training increased. He travelled across the country to seek out high level instruction until finally landing in Toronto with Coach Dick Rimmer.
“That’s when I was partnered with Lynn,” recalls Bryon.
The dance team clicked and as Bryon’s lost photo albums would have shown, the pair spent several successful years on the competitive circuit culminating in an 11th place finish at the 1965 World Championships. After the partnership dissolved, Bryon decided to turn pro to teach back in Regina.
He soon learned that his teaching style didn’t fit every situation. “I had to adapt!” he says. “Thankfully one of my best talents was having a quick eye which helped me see the nature of mistakes and then work on correcting them.”
And correct them he did, counting many students’ successes in Saskatchewan and then again in Ontario when he moved to Stratford and began to broaden his skating experience.
“It was in Stratford that I was asked to help with Power Skating.”
As an avid hockey fan, Bryon had often observed that most hockey players didn’t know the basics and had no idea how to use the blade, balance points, and body position. As a result, he started to design hockey exercises that would develop fundamental skating skills. It caught on … fast!
He also remembers how the players taking his class would snicker when he came on the ice in his figure skates. “After giving them a few minutes to warm up, I’d blow the whistle and order them to take a knee.” He’d then tell them to look at his feet. “This is what I wear so get over it!”
His classes began with basic exercises on quick starts, teaching balance, what part of the blade to be on and what to do with their toes, among other important techniques. “It wasn’t long before they realized I wasn’t going to teach them triple Lutzes. What I was going to teach them was how to be better skaters.”
After relocating to Ottawa, Bryon moved to the Gloucester Skating Club and continued to refine his coaching philosophy to make every skater better.
“I was approached by a hockey player who had a try-out with the Toronto Maple Leafs and asked if I’d work with him. I agreed but quickly realized there wasn’t a lot I could do in just one practice.”
The next year the player came back. “I told him that if he wanted my help he would have to take my 3-week summer class. Most of that class had good Jr. A players in it and he would have to work his buns off to keep up … he agreed. At the end of 3 weeks he was a different skater. He had learned how to turn in both directions with power, stop on all edges, skate backwards with power; all the important moves. He went to the Leafs try-out camp and because of his hard work had many successful pro years in the NHL.”
That experience … and others like it … gave Bryon a great deal of satisfaction. “It was the same when I was the Power Skating Coach for the Cornwall Colts Jr. A team for three years. It was always nice to hear them call me ‘Coach’.”
Although he continued coaching Power Skating till about 10 years ago, these days his time at the rink is spent watching his grandson play hockey. “My knees were giving out on me so I hung up my skates.”
Still … after a lifetime of immersion in every aspect of skating, Bryon was still puzzled by the 25-year mystery of the missing photo albums. Then one day his Facebook page suddenly lit up with details of a recent story in the local Swift Current paper, the Prairie Reporter, telling about a gentleman, Leon Echert, who had bought a box of memorabilia and photographs at a garage sale. Realizing they might be important, he began looking for their owner.
“I am very grateful to Mr. Eckert for finding them and returning them to me,” says Bryon. “And thanks to my friends on Facebook for connecting us. The pictures of Lynn and I are very special, the only ones taken before we left for Worlds.”
Finally … at least some of the mystery has been solved.
Bryon smiles as he adds, “I have a Canadian Emblem that I wear with pride. I’m also proud of the fact that I was a member of the first skating team to represent Canada under the new Canadian Flag.”
And now he has the photographs to prove it!