Thursday, 11 May 2017

Nigel Stephens: An Overlooked Canadian Champion


When your last name is Stevens, people always ask "is that with a 'V' or a 'PH'?" My response is probably usually paired with a 'qu'est-ce que fuck?' look because most people in these parts use a 'V'. Maybe it's my British snobbery coming out; maybe it's the fact I don't think I personally know anyone with the alternate spelling. I'm thinking probably the latter. At any rate, it turns out that a Stevens has never won a senior title at the Canadian Championships but TWO Stephens have. In 1969, Anna Forder and Richard Stephens were Canada's senior pairs champions and way back in 1945 (before World War II had ended) Nigel Stephens was Canada's men's champion. The historical record has overlooked this one time hero of Canadian skating and with plenty of digging, I'm thrilled to be able to share his story!

Born in Ottawa, Ontario on December 10, 1925, Nigel was the son of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Greaves Stephens. He had two sisters (Joan and Daphne) and as a boy learned to skate at the Rideau Rink on Waller Street, which was later taken over by the Minto Skating Club and renamed the Minto Rink. A precocious young talent, he won the Gilmore Memorial Cup as intermediate boys champion at the Minto's annual competition in April 1939 and finished third in the Wilson Cup competition for third class school figures. A consummate athlete, he also excelled at squash, golf and boating.

With many Canadian men's skaters going overseas to fight in World War II, the teenage talent continued to earn accolades. In his first trip to the Canadian Championships in 1942, he was second in the junior men's event to Will Thomas of the Toronto Skating Club and the "Ottawa Citizen" reported on February 2, 1942 that "his showing in competition with the cream of Canada's junior skaters was a decidedly good one." By the next year, no senior men's event was held at Canadians as there was a the lack of competitors due to the war. At age sixteen, Nigel Stephens was Canada's junior men's champion in 1943, besting a sixteen year old Norris Bowden, Frank Sellers and Vancouver's Roger Wickson to take the title.

Although he trained during the winters at the Minto Club, Nigel attended the famous summer school in Schumacher and wrote about his experience there in Louise Nightingale Smith's book "Schumacher: Voices In The Gold Fields": "I arrived in Schumacher early in the morning of July 10, 1943. Leaving the train, my first view... was the magnificent sight of the McIntyre head frame, gleaming in the sun. For a seventeen-year-old boy, on his first trip away from home, going to his first job and being 'on his own' for the first time, this was a very exciting moment. The only person I knew in Schumacher was Alex Fulton, who was nineteen. Alex worked in the McIntyre mill. We had met earlier in the year, January to be exact, in Toronto, where we had competed in the Canadian Figure Skating Championships. Alex and his partner, Olga [Bernyk], had won the Canadian Junior Pairs Championships and I had won the Canadian Junior Men's Championships. Alex subsequently persuaded me to come to Schumacher for the summer to train at the McIntyre Summer Skating School. The previous summer, Schumacher had opened the first summer skating school in Canada at the beautiful McIntyre Community Centre. There was one other facility in North America which offered summer skating (at Lake Placid, NY) but it did not have the full range of facilities which were available at the McIntyre. Nor did it have the 'newness' or excitement of Canada's north country... I started my own job as the lowest member of the 'garden gang', tending the meticulous gardens opposite the rink, at the rate of forty cents an hour... I worked the seven to four shift, and then donned the skates and skated from 4:30 to 9:30 with a short break for supper in the McIntyre cafeteria. Skaters came from all over North America to summer skate in Schumacher, most of us just teenagers working hard at skating and having new experiences and meeting new friends... I spent three summers... among the most generous and friendly people one would ever hope to know." 

The following year, Stephens did not compete at the Canadian Championships but did perform in the Minto Follies show. The "Ottawa Citizen" reported on March 3, 1944 that "if there had been a men's senior Canadian championship this year, there is little doubt that Nigel Stephens would have taken it. His strong, smooth skating last night demonstrated this to the full." That moment did come in 1945. Winning the Minto Skating Club's senior competition that year and performing as a soloist alongside Barbara Ann Scott in Oshawa Skating Club's "Ice Frolics Of 1945" show, he entered the 1945 Canadian Championships in Toronto as the favourite. However, the February 21, 1945 edition of The Maple Leaf  tells us that he "had to overcome an early advantage gained by Frank Sellers, of the Winnipeg Skating Club" in the school figures. He won his Canadian senior's title on the merit of his strong free skate to José Padilla's "El Relicario" and "Habanera". That win proved to be it. There was nothing else to strive for yet: no Olympics, no World Championships. A flash and the pan and he could have just moved on from the skating world... but he didn't.


After graduating from Trinity College at the University Of Toronto with a degree in economics, he began his professional career at Bank Of Canada, later founding his own investment counsel firm in Toronto. He got married in 1952 and had two sons (one also named Nigel) but he always had one skate in the rink door. At twenty five years of age, he joined the executive of the Canadian Figure Skating Association, serving on numerous committees and judged nationally and international for thirty years. In his early thirties, he was actually a judge at the 1958 World Figure Skating Championships in Paris, where Canada won three medals. He also continued to skate professionally for a time in club carnivals, teaming up to skate pairs with Olympic Silver Medallist and World Champion Andrea Kékesy.

Andrea Kékesy and Nigel Stephens skating in the Oshawa Skating Club's carnival in 1950

In the early sixties, Stephens turned his attention for a time to the administration side of the sport. He was the CFSA's Vice President in 1961 when the Sabena Plane Crash occurred and not without controversy either. When ISU secretary general George Hasler informed him and then CFSA President Granville Mayall of the decision to cancel the event, they (according to the February 18, 1961 edition of the "Montreal Gazette") cabled Mr. Hasler "expressing sorrow at the American tragedy but pointing out that the decision would nullify many months of preparation by the competitors and the host Czechoslovakians." Any perceived insensitivity didn't cloud the respect he earned as a judge and dedicated administrator. Later that same year, he began his two year term as CFSA President offered assistance and support to the U.S. figure skating community in any way possible. After his presidency, he continued to serve on various committees and judge and was named an honorary member in 1968.

Inducted to into the CFSA's Hall Of Fame in 1993 in a who's who year of inductees including Frances Dafoe and Norris Bowden, Gustave Lussi and Barbara Wagner and Bob Paul, Stephens remained active in the sport in one way or another for much of his life until retiring from his investment counsel firm. Settling in Bowmanville and devoting his attention to raising prize winning sheep and Australian Shepherd dogs in his later years, Nigel Stephens passed away on October 20, 2012 at Peterborough Regional hospital in Ontario. 

One of the reasons that I make a point of telling the stories of the skaters who skating's historical record overlooks is that they are rich and layered like all of our lives are. We wear different hats at different times... but when skating plays that central role in anyone's life we know that they loved it... and Nigel Stephens clearly did.

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