BY JOSH BINDON
The show last night drew the biggest and the loudest crowd we’ve had so far during our two week engagement in Seoul, South Korea. Families from all around came, watched, cheered and cried for more as their favourite characters from their favourite stories took to the ice for the two hour skating spectacular. Feeling good as I left the ice after the final beat of music, I retired to the locker room to free my barking dogs, change and head home only to return less than 12 hours later and do it all again.
I arrived at the hotel like any other night; showered, ate dinner and hopped online to catch up with family and friends. I was excited about an upcoming tour date that landed me close to home for the first time in 13 years and so I started to contact old skating families about the show coming close to home. That’s when I heard the news that the roof of the Sylvan Lake Arena, a landmark in the tiny town of Central Alberta, had collapsed. My heart broke.
I was 11 years old and the skates were white. The smell of the shoe polish was so strong in the house and I don’t think Dad’s hands were ever the same again but he worked on them all night until the last bit of white leather was a mere tracing left by a single edge. They were all mine and I was about to begin a relationship that you can’t know or explain, you just feel it when steel and ice shake hands for the first time.
The buzzer went off at 4:30 a.m. The deal was I was allowed to skate but my parents would never wake me up to do so. As quietly as a very excited budding athlete could be, I dressed, I ate and I put the kettle on for hot chocolate that could have very well saved my father’s and my life each and every Wednesday and Friday morning. With about thirty minutes until departure, I woke Dad and together we braved the 5:30 a.m. cold and walked to the Sylvan Lake Arena.
We were always the first to arrive and we prayed that Graham Parsons (with chocolate milk and newspaper in tow) was on a similar schedule because it was Alberta cold outside and he had the keys. I would struggle tying my skates and Dad would never help me. He just sat on those window side seats and told me that my hands would never get strong if I didn’t do it myself. So I would race myself to see how fast I could pass the lace through the eyelets and how much extra ice time I could grab before anyone else got there.
We started with figures and to an 11 year old it was the equivalent of watching paint dry. Two or three simple circles and for an hour a day, you traced their patterns using different edges, turns and sustained positions trying to unlock the secret that is skating. On average I grabbed 15 minutes of extra time each morning. With no one else, dim lights, me, my skates and the not so subtle buzz of the giant score board, I began. By 6:00 a.m. the session officially started. By 9:00 a.m. we had done an hour of patch, an hour of dance and an hour of my favourite, freeskate.
These were my first days as a figure skater. The Sylvan Lake Arena was my second home where my family lived and where my career got its first breath of life. I tried and landed my first axle there along with the rest of my jumps. I got dizzy from my very first spins. I collected a wealth of bumps, bruises and the scar on the underside of my chin from a “toe pick” incident. The sheet of ice at the Sylvan Lake Arena was the only place where I was free. That arena was where I learned how to live and it was where I zambonied my path that would lead to my career on the world stage in professional figure skating.
It’s been 13 years in over 25 countries performing thousands of shows in countless cities for millions of people and I owe it all to my first sheet of ice of that arena in Sylvan Lake. Stories of our winter sports are what it means to be Canadian and hockey is always the hero. I didn’t grow up slapping a puck around or playing on a team. I did however, like most Canadians, lace up and step on the ice. I felt that effortless glide. I felt that speed. I breathed the cold air. I lived for the ice and gave it everything it gave me. A sheet of ice is only as special as the community it builds. The Sylvan Lake Arena was known for its world renowned hockey camp in the summer and its countless hockey teams but it was more than that. That arena was home to ringette teams, to the Sylvan Lake Cub Scout chapter, Sylvan Lake Precision Skating team and of course Sylvan Lake Figure Skating Club. That arena was a place where people met for coffee, where they watched their children grow and lived vicariously through them, where I honed my craft and where I found what it is to be a Canadian athlete.
The building may be gone but Sylvan Lake Arena will never disappear. I know this because every time I lace up for a practice, a rehearsal or a show, I look down and I see those old white skates, 5:45 a.m. on the clock Mom and Dad sitting next to me on those rink side benches and I know that I’m going to be faster tying those skates than I was last time.
Josh Bindon is now a Disney on Ice skater.