By Sean Rooney on May 17, 2018.
After competing for a Canadian junior figure skating crown, then travelling the continent performing with Ice Capades, Gay Dubeau decided she’d try coaching in Medicine Hat for a couple years before finding somewhere else to go.
“That was in 1975,” deadpanned the 62-year-old, who along with hockey player Jenna Cunningham will be inducted to the Medicine Hat Sports Wall of Fame tonight (7:30 p.m., Family Leisure Centre).
“I am teaching grandchildren of former students, because when I started I was young. I had a few families text me ‘this doesn’t mean you’re retiring, does it?'”
Don’t worry. Gay’s not going anywhere; she’s having too much fun to stop now.
The renowned power and figure skating coach has trained thousands of athletes over the years, from four-year-olds right up to NHLers. She’s literally written the book on power skating, developing new levels for Skate Canada’s CanPowerSkate program.
But her start in the sport didn’t happen until much later than most kids begin nowadays.
Born in Cabri, Sask., Dubeau got serious about figure skating when she was 11 and the family had moved to nearby Swift Current; her dad ran the Esso station on the Trans Canada Highway there.
“So here I am, very far behind, and because it was something I aspired to do my parents provided every opportunity for me to spend all of my summers in either Saskatoon or London, Ont.,” said Dubeau. “There were a lot of winters where I got on the Greyhound bus on a Friday in Swift Current, rode the bus to Regina, trained at the Wascana Winter Club Friday night, Saturday, Sunday and took the bus home.”
She was Saskatchewan’s junior ladies champion in 1973 and 1974, going to Vancouver for nationals the first year at the age of 17.
“Then, I decided I wanted to try out for Ice Capades. I just wanted to go to Calgary, have the opportunity, have them say ‘yes, we want you’ and I was going to say ‘no thank you.’ I had no aspirations to do it.”
She did it anyways and loved it. After the airline lost her luggage on a flight to Bakersfield, Calif., she trained for a full month — all she had were what she’d carried on, which included her skates (which she notes are now considered weapons on today’s flights). And although she was accepted for another Ice Capades run in England two years later, she instead decided to get back to her competitive roots and start coaching.
Dubeau helped found the Cypress School of Skating in 1987, noting that she couldn’t have done it without Maureen Elliot. “I’m so grateful to all she did getting that club off the ground,” said Dubeau. But in order to appeal to a broader population, she thought it prudent to get certified as a power skating instructor.
That end of things went so well she wound up helping Skate Canada add three more levels to the program.
“I kept phoning Ottawa, saying ‘when are you going to expand this program? We’ve got people attaining Level 3 gold, we need to do something.’ So I got commissioned from Ottawa, plus a gentleman from B.C. and a gentleman from Ontario, and we re-wrote the CanPowerSkate manual. We added levels 4-6, created a pre-power for children between the ages of four and six.”
But life throws you curveballs, too. After raising two children with Gary Patzer, the couple divorced and she later married Don Dubeau. Don died after battling brain cancer in 2004.
Gay, then 48, knew it was “too early to retire.”
“I phoned my daughter, she said ‘mom, you love your power skating so much, why don’t you do something with that?’
“I was walking through the Kinplex one day, it was Brian Ellerman in the office next door. He said ‘what’re you doing today Gay?’ I said ‘I just bought a copy of the Medicine Hat News, I’m going to go through the classified ads.’
“This man from nowhere pokes his head around the corner, says ‘my name is Brad Cobb, I’m the general manager of Medicine Hat Minor Hockey. I know who you are and we need to talk.’ It fell into place that they wanted to start offering power skating to teams on a regular basis.”
Platinum Star Power Skating was born. She kept coaching with Cypress for a while but now the power skating business is full-time, with sessions in 14 communities a year.
A major turning point came when Medicine Hat Tigers alumnus Stefan Meyer credited her with helping him make the Calgary Flames in 2010.
“When you start working with people in the NHL, the WHL boys kind of take notice,” laughed Dubeau. “Then the AAA midgets, because they were too cool before.”
Cunningham, who will be inducted alongside Dubeau tonight, considers the coach’s presence an important part of her upbringing as a female hockey player.
“What was so unique with Gay, when I look back as a female playing a predominantly male sport and playing with males, yet having the opportunity to do power skating with a female, a well established female was a unique experience,” said Cunningham, who won the Clarkson Cup in 2016 with the Calgary Inferno. “She was the first female coach I had on the ice. And for power skating, I’ve realized it’s a cool full circle thing.”
Meyer now works with Dubeau, as do a raft of other ex-players and coaches. And they were the ones who nominated her to be on the Wall.
“I am so humbled by this whole experience,” she said Wednesday. “When you get into sport, it’s all fine and wonderful to have all the medals and trophies and plaques, but those things get dusty and they get put away. It’s the people that I have crossed paths with, made life-long friendships (that matters).
“I am one of those lucky people that gets to get up in the morning and do something they love to do.”
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