Big job for new CEO

TERRY JONES -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 8:33 AM ET

HALIFAX -- Pam Coburn was fired.

Maybe she didn't deserve to be.

It wasn't her fault that a French judge fixed the pairs competition at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake.

It wasn't her fault as CEO that fans dialed out of figure skating as a result of the judging scandal, nor that there was no skater with sizzle left on the scene in Canada, no real headliner like Kurt Browning, Elvis Stojko or Jamie Sale & David Pelletier to follow.

But it's William Thompson's job now.

The newly appointed CEO of Skate Canada has the task of trying to put humpty dumpty back together again - and fast - on the road to the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games.

Poor ticket sales

In many ways it all starts here today with the BMO Canadian Figure Skating Championships. And it doesn't look like it will be off to an especially good start.

Ticket sales are abysmal.

In an arena that was packed for two previous editions of Canadians in 1981 and 1995, and for a world championship here in 1990, only 3,000 seats have been sold for each performance.

TV numbers, which used to knock Hockey Night in Canada out of the box, are no longer expected.

CTV will be happy with half of what they once were for the lead event in the new Olympic quadrennial.

But there is every indication that the 41-year-old Olympic-level judge (both pairs and men's at the Torino 2006 Olympics) and a partner in a Kitchener, Ont., law firm, is going to get figure skating in Canada back on track.

Huge challenge

It's a whale of a challenge.

"No question about that at all,'' he says.

"We have to rebuild the credibility of the sport.

"I think it helped to have a successful Olympics and Worlds. The results were very fair. That was a major test for the sport to survive,'' said Thompson, who has been on the job only a couple of months.

"I actually feel we have endured the worst. I think now we begin to work our way back up in popularity.

"It's not where it was in the days of Kurt and Elvis. We need to help our athletes be introduced to the public.

"People want to identify and we haven't done the best job profiling our athletes.''

Thompson made two initial hires he thinks speak volumes about where he wants to take this.

"For me, one of the most interesting steps was hiring Michael Slipchuk as high performance director,'' he said of Browning's former world-class skate mate out of Edmonton's Royal Glenora Club.

"Michael is universally respected by the athletes and officials.

'Major work ahead'

"We have major work ahead of us in athlete development. We need a significant improvement in the identification of athletes early. We need to bring performance-enhancing team support early.

"I think that's our single biggest challenge. Speed-skating has done that. Look what it has done for them.

"We're good at creating good skaters. We're not good at giving them other things like specialized training.''

Canadian figure skating has also been plagued by too many skaters who want to look pretty being on television, instead of being competitors who are there to win. And not just the women.

"Clearly, Mike's mandate is to convert that to wins, to compete at the top of the world. There is no reason with our talent pool why that can't be.''

Telegraphing it

Another hire Thompson believes telegraphs where he hopes to take this is popular television analyst and former skater Debbie Wilkes as marketing director.

"We're working on doing a whole lot of new things in venues to make skating a good fan experience, far more interactive, far more fun for the spectators, good entertainment for a family and good value. We need to improve the results and improve the events.''

Sounds like a plan.

tjones@edmsun.com


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