The beginner's guide to the greatest pastimes: Special skating edition with Kurt Browning and Ron MacLean

We asked these icons of the ice to take a break from Battle of the Blades to teach us how to skate!

We asked these icons of the ice to take a break from Battle of the Blades to teach us how to skate!

(Courtesy of CBC)

Ice is a slippery surface that poses obvious risks. To the uninitiated, strapping knives to one's feet and scampering across it may seem counterintuitive. Yet, doing exactly that is one of Canada's favourite activities. Ice hockey and figure skating are two of the country's most popular sports. At the elite level, we're world leaders. At the grassroots, pick-up hockey and leisure skating are favourite pastimes across the country. 

Many Canadians were nearly born on skates. But if you weren't, how do you get started? We asked Kurt Browning, four-time World Champion in figure skating, and Ron MacLean, famed co-host of Hockey Night in Canada. Together, they appear on Battle of the Blades, a beloved CBC reality show where hockey players pair up with figure skaters to compete at figure skating for the first time. The show — featuring MacLean as host and Browning as head judge — should be encouraging for beginning skaters since even Olympic and NHL hockey stars, when they first put on figure skates, are beginners all over again. "When they begin, they're terrible," says MacLean. "There's gravity everywhere," added Browning. But soon enough, they're dancing on ice.

But even if starting out can be tricky, MacLean and Browning both think it's worth it. "Learn to feel that exhilaration of skating," said Browning, "feel the world slide underneath you and slip away. It's a peaceful wonderful feeling." MacLean loves going backward. "You don't swim backward, you don't run backward. You don't play any sport backward but skating... That is just such a sensation!" They've got practical advice tips and advice for learning or improving your skates, too. 

Plan to fall

Beginners often feel embarrassed or intimidated about getting on the ice, especially if it's filled with people who know what they're doing. Don't be, said Browning, "The better the other skaters are, the more they appreciate what you're doing." As MacLean put it, "you'll be with a lot of like-minded fools. Nobody judges a skater…You can't be self-conscious on skates."

It makes more sense to worry about hurting yourself. Ice is slippery and hard and you're probably going to hit it. But skating doesn't have to be dangerous. MacLean and Browning recommend getting a helmet and pads for your knees, wrists, and elbows. If you're wearing figure skates, MacLean also recommends ankle sleeves. "They're brilliant for the blisters you're bound to get. It's a godsend."

Figure skates vs. hockey skates

You'll also need a good pair of skates. Rental skates are fine if you're really just giving it a try, but if you intend on going out regularly, you want a quality pair. "I don't care who you are," said Browning, "if you're in a bad pair of skates, you're a bad skater."

If you're set on pursuing one of the sports, you'll know what kind to buy. But if you aren't sure, there are real differences between the two types of skates. "They're physically different," said MacLean. "The [figure skating] blade is 2 mm thicker. It's longer… then there's the picks. They're a mindbender." Figure skates have a spike at the toe-side of the blade, whereas hockey skates don't, and this can literally trip up people who are used to a hockey skate. "But they're lovely," MacLean says. "As Kurt always analogizes, the hockey skate is a sports car, the figure skate is a luxury car. You really feel the smooth powerful ride of a luxury car."

(Courtesy of CBC)

Learning to move — and stop!

The first thing you have to learn to do is move on ice. When we walk, we usually push straight backward with one foot to propel ourselves forward onto the other. But if you try this on skates, the blades will just slide across the ice. To build forward momentum, you need to turn your skates out at a 45 degree angle and push off the back skate using the edge of the blade. It's tricky to learn but will feel natural once you get it. One of Browning's favourite images of someone who "doesn't really know how to skate" is from Rocky. "Adrian does a step-step-glide. She takes two steps then she has to recover because she can't figure out how to transfer her weight from one skate to the next one. It's the cutest thing. But when you finally get to step-step-step, when you're swaying back and forth, then you're really skating."

"I can skate, but I can't stop," is one of the most common beginner complaints, said MacLean. The parallel stop, where you turn sideways with both skates and grind to a stop with a spray of snow, is an important but tricky skill to learn. Partly this is because turning a blades sideways against momentum seems like a bad idea. It will make you feel like you're going to fall over. One tip for mastering it is to build up the sensation of moving your skate sideways across the ice to "make snow." Another, says Browning, is to imagine you're sitting down in a chair. You can watch YouTube tutorials for visuals of the step-by-step progression to help you learn to stop.

Easy moves for looking good in figure skating

We also asked MacLean and Browning for some impressive-looking but easy-to-learn figure skating skills to work on once you master starting and stopping.

Waltz jump

You can do waltz jumps in hockey skates or figure skates. "They're real easy," said MacLean, "it's like kicking a soccer ball and you spin in the air as you do it, then you just skate out of it." It looks like this.

Spread eagle: The spread eagle consists of opening your feet up so they are more or less lined up and gliding sideways, usually in a large arc. Browning recommends starting with the "inside eagle" which means performing the trick on the inside edge of your skates. The outside eagle is a more advanced skill.

(Courtesy of CBC)

The easiest way to break into hockey

Canada's hockey culture is so strong that you don't need to buy a full set of equipment and join an organized league to play. The easiest way to give hockey a try is to drop in on a game of "shinny" (informal pick-up hockey). Shinny is played all over the country. It's usually free, though some indoor venues charge a nominal price to join in. Beginners are generally welcome, but you should come with a basic grasp of the rules of the game. MacLean recommends bringing two sticks, in case you break one. 

He also that when you get started you should, "be generous with the puck. Don't go wheeling around selfishly. You definitely want to break in as a passer rather than a scorer." Also, if you're playing outside and shoot the puck out of the rink, it's your job to go find it.

(Courtesy of CBC)

Kurt and Ron's top tips for beginners

Bend your knees: "People get scared and they stiffen up," said Browning. "Bend, bend, bend your knees."

Harvest pucks on the first winter thaw: MacLean told us that when he was a boy, he'd always be on the lookout for the first winter thaw in February. "I would rush to the rink to get the pucks because the sun would melt the snow and expose all the pucks that people had shot out of the rink and couldn't find. It was a good day for collecting pucks."

Always take your skate guards off before you step on the ice: This is obvious, but you'll forget, and the fall is inevitable. Browning says it happens to every skating coach.  

Skate for the joy of it: "Don't be hard on yourself," says Browning, "You skate for the joy of it, not to excel. Allow the world to slip underneath you and slip by, and your worries will slip away with them."

Battle of the Blades airs Thursdays at 8pm (9AT, 9:30NT) on CBC and CBC Gem.

Clifton Mark writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and other life-related topics. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter.


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