Skate Canada Coach Yvan Desjardins realizes goal with NCCP Level 5 certification

Don’t try telling Yvan Desjardins that 13 is an unlucky number.

A highly-respected coach at École Excellence Rosemère in Montreal, Desjardins, working with legendary coach Manon Perron in Skate Canada’s High Performance Mentorship Program, recently joined elite status by becoming the 13th Skate Canada coach to achieve the lofty Level 5 certification with the National Coaching Certification Program (NCCP).

Level 5 is the pinnacle of the NCCP and highest status a coach can receive.

“It was definitely one of my goals,” said Desjardins of the Level 5 distinction. “I didn’t know when I would finish, but I wanted to get my Level 5.”

Skate Canada’s High Performance Mentorship Program provides professional development opportunities to a select group of coaches working with targeted athletes, including one-on-one mentoring to help coaches prepare their athletes for the competitive journey ahead.

A former national team member and world junior competitor, Desjardins originally received Level 4 certification while attending the University of Montreal more than a decade and a half ago. Plans for full Level 5 certifications were put on hold when Desjardins and his wife welcomed two children into the world. Coaching took a back seat to fatherhood.

Desjardins, who has been coaching for more than two decades, joined the High Performance Mentorship Program in 2014. Working side-by-side with Perron, Desjardins achieved his Level 5 status last August and was officially presented with his certificate of achievement during the Canadian Tire National Skating Championships in Halifax this past January.

“It wasn’t about the actual level,” says Desjardins. “I was not looking for recognition. I wanted to be the best coach I can. I learned a lot in the program, and improved as a coach. Programs like this open your mind and allow you to see what other coaches are doing with their training.

“Working with Manon has been great. She reassures me that I’ve been doing the right things, and that means a lot coming from her. She also has a lot of contacts that have helped, as well. We all need mentors, in skating, as an organization and in life. You have to have that balance.

“That’s what Skate Canada is doing with the High Performance Coach Mentorship Program, and that is a very good thing.”

Desjardins has developed a special bond with all his athletes, including 2015 national junior champion Nicolas Nadeau. Later this month, Desjardins and Nadeau will head to Hungary for the ISU World Junior Figure Skating Championships.

“Nicolas’ father said to me ‘you spend more time with my son than I do, and I really appreciate what you are doing for him’”, says Desjardins, who also coaches Joseph Phan, the 2016 junior men’s champion.

“It’s a special relationship coaches have with their athletes, and those relationships develop each year. And it’s not just about the skating,” adds Desjardins.

“I want to push my athletes to be the best, on the ice and in life.”

Skating coach finds lost skating keepsakes after 25-year mystery

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.

“For me, skating began as therapy,” admits Bryon.Young Bryan Topping

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.”

Bryon Topping

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!

Master Coach Sheldon Galbraith Leaves Lasting Legacy

Sheldon Galbraith’s funeral was anything but quiet and sombre.

Old friends by the numbers filed in and the chatter filled the room. The chatter became a din. It was like an old family reunion. Galbraith always had lots to say. So did his family and that includes folks who felt his big presence over the years.

Galbraith was just short of 93 when he died on April 14, and it was clear from all the gibber, that the life he had lived was full and meaningful to many. He was a man who was a game-changer, ahead of his time, with a big personality that radiated gloriously through glossy black-and-white photos of him skating shadow pairs in his early Ice Follies days with brother Murray.

Photos lined the room of Galbraith’s life: an incredibly handsome photo of him in naval uniform; Galbraith toting an enormous golf bag, with an amused look thrown back over his shoulder; Galbraith going deer hunting, or perhaps it was for moose (the bigger the game, the better); Galbraith in his familiar coaching uniform – long baggy coat, big galoshes, cap with floppy ear flaps pulled over his head – as he leaned over to inspect a compulsory figure; Galbraith with family, wife of 69 years, Jeanne and their four daughters and one son; Galbraith receiving the Order of Canada.

Galbraith’s list of accomplishments is long: coach of Barbara Ann Scott, winner of the first Canadian Winter Olympic gold medal in 1948; coach of world champions in three of the four skating disciplines; coach of Olympic champs Barbara Wagner and Bob Paul, the first Canadian pair to win this gold; two-time world champions Frances Dafoe and Norris Bowden, who also took Olympic silver; coach of 1962 world champion Donald Jackson, who became the first skater to land a triple Lutz in competition, coach of Vern Taylor, credited with the first triple Axel.

He also earned a string of awards: he was the first figure skating coach to be inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame (1980), and he’s also a member of the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame (1990), the Canadian Figure Skating Hall of Fame (1991), the World Museum Hall of Fame in the United States (1996) and the Professional Skating Hall of Fame (2003). Galbraith, the first president of the Professional Skating Association in Canada, also received the Order of Canada and the Order of Ontario.

But reading between all of those lines is even more astonishing. Brian Foley, the Pied Piper of Canadian dance who also choreographed for Dorothy Hamill, Robin Cousins, John Curry and Toller Cranston, said he first set foot at the Toronto Cricket Skating and Curling Club in 1966, when he met Galbraith, then the head coach.

“I’ll never forget that first introduction with Sheldon,” Foley said. “He was, in his way, very polite in chastising me, that I was standing and teaching in his space.”

In a far corner of that space, Foley saw the many teaching tools Galbraith used to bring out the best in his skaters: “a homemade flying contraption,” Foley said. “Trampolines with crash mats. A few wooden poles. Some climbing apparatus and other paraphernalia that reminded me of an early Cirque du Soleil.”

And who could ever forget the video room? “I want to assure everybody that nobody was invited or allowed into that room,” Foley said. Well, international judge Jane Garden did. Galbraith showed her videos, taught her to see errors, made her a better judge. Later, he advocated for judges to pass on what they learned at skating events. Not only did he teach skaters. He taught judges.

Galbraith spent his life researching and developing his own philosophies, adapting his training as a flight instructor to figure skating. He made it all a science, but intuition worked too. Technique in figures, jumps and spins was all-important. He taught the science of momentum and balance and centre, which are elements that you need to do quality spins, Foley said. He researched the physical transfer of weight from edge to edge, carrying the weight appropriately over the ball of the foot. He measured the amount of velocity required in order to skate forward and backward with great flow.

If there is anybody who carries the Galbraith torch of technique, it is Gary Beacom, the master of the skate blade. “I am grateful that my most influential coach plumbed the depths of technique with such enlightenment and a sense of adventure,” Beacom said. “I credit my skating proficiency and capacity for innovation to decades of training the Galbraithian relationship of speed, curve, lean and rotation. Sheldon Galbraith advocated continuous harmonious motion using momentum and rhythm for both technical and artistic advantage.”

Beacom says he had Galbraith to thank for reviving the cross-foot spin as a compulsory program element during the mid-1970s. The cross-foot spin became Beacom’s signature move.

Casey Kelly, now an international judge, began to take lessons from Galbraith when her family moved back to Canada in 1973. She remembers his fairness and sense of equality. Cranston had a habit of drifting over the lines of the space allotted to him for training figures. He was working toward a world championship: Kelly was working on her third test. She would politely step aside for Cranston.

However, Galbraith told her: “Don’t you dare stop. You deserve to be here just as much as he does.” Kelly smacked into Cranston three times, before he finally moved back into his own space. “That was something I never forgot,” she said.

Donald Jackson also discovered Galbraith’s sense of fair play before he even began to work with him. Jackson had been training with Pierre Brunet in the United States, but Galbraith, the Canadian team coach, took over watch on Jackson during the 1960 Olympics when Brunet was too busy with other skaters.

Galbraith was the official coach of Wendy Griner at the time and the question became: who would take to the practice patch first? “It was always better to skate second, because the ice would be a little bit softer and more like the ice you were skating on when you skate in front of the judges,” Jackson said.

Jackson was astonished when Galbraith flipped a coin to determine who he would coach first. He could easily have saved the best patch for his own student. “That was just the type of man he was,” Jackson said. “Fair. Honest. It was what I really appreciated.” The next season, Jackson moved into Galbraith’s fold.

Galbraith changed the technique on all of Jackson’s jumps, laboriously. Then one day, he asked Jackson to do a double flip, which Jackson could do with his arms folded. But Galbraith told him to relax into a backspin position as he went up. “No problem,” thought Jackson, who promptly landed on his toes and fell, hard. Galbraith glided over and said: “I saw what I wanted to see. Don’t do it again.”

It was too late for Jackson to change that technique on a flip. But now, everybody does jumps with backspin technique. “Every time I see the skaters doing triples and quads, I think of what Mr. Galbraith developed for skating,” Jackson said. “And I think of my bruise, too. I guess I was the guinea pig.”

And yes, he was Mr. Galbraith to everybody. Hardly anybody ever called him Sheldon. Barbara Wagner said she called him Mr. Galbraith even as she became an adult. Kelly said her mother, Andra, never called him Sheldon, even though they’d sit next to each other at Hall of Fame functions, because of her husband, hockey great Red Kelly.

“He was a very special man who was way ahead of his time,” Wagner said.

Tracy Wilson Brings Elite Skaters Back to the Basics

Tracy Wilson figures she learns as much as she teaches.

Yes, we all know she’s a crack skating analyst for various television networks, having won Gemini Awards for her work. But the former Olympic ice dancing medallist has quietly and behind the scenes fashioned a stellar career as a skating coach to some of the world’s best. Teaching all manner of skaters the true art of the blade, Wilson has become the wind beneath the wings of Olympic champions and world contenders.

And she’s done it through partnerships: Learning from other sports as she teaches their athletes. She’s deconstructed puzzles, and has come out on the other side with exercises and methods that seem to work wonderfully well. Several weeks ago, three of her students placed among the top five in the men’s event at the world championships in Shanghai: new world champ Javier Fernandez, Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu and the irrepressible Canadian champion Nam Nguyen who made believers out of many with his fifth-place finish at age 16.

Wilson’s exercises are a hybrid of many things, starting with what worked to make her and partner Rob McCall seven-time Canadian champions, three-time world bronze medalists, and the first Canadian ice dancers to win an Olympic medal (bronze in 1988.) She and McCall did foundation exercises every day as they trained. “It really helped us to find our balance, to create muscle memory so that we weren’t ever having to think,” Wilson said. “Our bodies just know how to maximize efficiency.”

After the death of McCall in 1991, Wilson didn’t skate for five years. She returned to the ice only because her children wanted to skate. Her oldest son, Shane, started playing hockey. Everything changed after a chance meeting with a hockey coach at a cocktail party. Wilson found herself telling him: “Guess what you guys need to do?” The coach asked her if she’d like to do it. Wilson said: “Sure.”

She worked with her son’s team from the time he was about seven or eight until he was in his mid-teens. Another son, Ryan also played hockey. “I just took my ice dance exercises and that’s what I did with these hockey players with music,” she said. She adapted the exercises to the needs of the players.

And of course, the needs were different. She learned that hockey players didn’t care how they looked on ice. They had no need for the pointed-toe thing. They cared about balance and speed and power. She quickly discovered that she had to always stay one step ahead of nine and 10-year-olds, and always tried to come up with new exercises.

“What I gained from them was a freedom,” she said. “It was really interesting to me.” And in turn, she brought that to her figure skating exercises. It’s great to have the correct technique, but best if you couple it with power and energy.

One day, son Shane was on the ice at the Toronto Cricket Skating and Curling Club because he had asked his mother to work with him. Intrigued, U.S. skaters Adam Rippon and Christina Gao, who were training in Toronto at the time, asked if they could train with him. “It was fabulous,” Wilson said. “They got on the ice and you could really see the difference. They were going for style over power. And I said: ‘Guys, just for fun, get in behind Shane. And always listen to his blade and forget about how you look. Just stay in there.’”

She and cohort Brian Orser have both honed in on what works to help different skaters. There is no set formula. When Wilson actually went back to coaching figure skating, her first students were astonishing: Chinese pair stars Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao. Lori Nichol, who had been choreographing for them, sent them over to Wilson to tinker with their skating skills just as both Orser and Wilson had started at the club.

Together, they worked five hours the first day. Wilson took them right back to the basics. At the time, Yu Na Kim’s mother was in the rink, coming to work with choreographer David Wilson, and she asked if Wilson would work with her daughter.

“Sure,” Wilson said. “When?”

“Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday,” she said. So Kim became Wilson’s second student. She had a whole year to work with Kim. Eventually, whatever Wilson could think up for her, Kim could do.

“If you haven’t really broken down the skating basics to their most simple form, you can’t build on top of it,” Wilson said. She had set Shen and Zhao right back to doing two-foot skating exercises, called bubbles (feet go in and out together), and it was to teach them knee action and balance. They spent about 30 to 40 minutes on the first exercises and then moved to inside edges.

“I just knew if I was going to do for them what they needed, we had to start from the very beginning and I didn’t know any other way,” Wilson said. Later she called Nichol and told her she was going to apologize in advance for frustrating Zhao in particular. Nichol said on the contrary: they had loved it and wanted to do it every day. They trained with Wilson for 10 days in a row.

Last spring, Zhao, now a coach, sent three of his pair teams to Wilson so that she could work with them in the same way. They are the same exercises that Wilson and Orser use to teach beginner skaters and adults.

Wilson has also developed off-ice training over the years, too. She herself had worked Pilates, and dance on the floor and adapted some of those exercises onto the ice. “You can be very creative once you have the basics and see how the principles follow through at all levels,” she said.

Most importantly, in the beginning, Wilson wasn’t sure – coming from an ice dance perspective – if what she was doing was what a single skater or a hockey player, or a synchro skater needs.

“But you know what?” she said. “It is. It’s the same.” Yes, partnerships and cross-discipline learning works.