If you were a boomer raised in northern climates, chances are good that at some point you learned how to ice skate. It was an era when ice skating was a popular outdoor winter activity. People skated wherever there was frozen water: rivers, lakes, ponds, and homemade backyard rinks. Mister B has recalled, in earlier posts, skating on ice that formed in natural depressions in the landscape of a nearby neighborhood park. Yet before boys could graduate to the black and brown hockey skates, and girls got their first pair of white figure skates, the kids had to learn how to skate.
Unlike roller skates, which provided some sense of balance with four wheels under each shoe, ice skates had a single blade. Young boomers would have to learn balance and build ankle strength to become proficient. The learning tool to assist that process turned out to be centuries old; skates that use multiple blades, much in the same manner that training wheels are attached to a child’s first bicycle.
Ice skating appears to have come about as a transportation necessity in Scandinavia more than 4,000 years ago. Earliest known skates that have been discovered were made of animal leg bones, with holes drilled in them so that leather straps could be secured over the foot. However, the resulting contraptions did not glide over ice the way we might expect and were more akin to cross-country skis, requiring poles to move distances. Over time, bone was replaced by metal, and, in the 14th century, the Dutch began sharpening the metal blades in order to cut into the ice, and thereby allow the skater to glide. The recognizable push and glide motion they adopted was termed the “Dutch Roll,” a term still in use today. While it may not be known when the first multiple-blade skates were created for tiny feet, these types of children’s learning skates have been around for centuries.
Mister Boomer recalls he and his siblings had the double-bladed skates when they were first introduced to ice skating. Mister B also remembers that his sister, the youngest in the family, had a pair of the four-blade metal skates. Much like roller skates, these contained small blades at the front and back of each skate, which were strapped over existing shoes or boots. This provided a certain level of stability on the slippery surface.
At some point near the end of the 1950s, Mister B remembers it seemed difficult to move very quickly while using the double-bladed skates. Each boot had a three-sided metal runner attached to the bottom. The flat edge of the metal runs were designed to assist in balance and stability, and not for speed. Also, slushy ice could build up inside the runner, which was necessary to remove before taking the skates off for the walk home, with skates laced together and slung over a shoulder. In Mister Boomer’s neighborhood, ice skates fell into the “must” category of Christmas gifts, along with socks, long johns and snow sleds; at some point, every boomer was going to be given a pair of skates. And so it was with Mister Boomer. One year, Santa replaced his double-bladed skates with the “grown-up” hockey-style skate. However, Mister Boomer had weak ankles and did not become an adequate ice skater until he began indoor roller skating in his pre-teens.
Gender-specific skates were an interesting side note to our ice skating history. The boomer years may have contributed to the more traditional slant of: boys = hockey skates, girls = figure skates. For the boys, future Hall of Fame hockey players like Bobby Orr, Stan Mikita and Gordie Howe became early idols to emulate. For the girls, an up-and-comer in the world of figure skating was fellow boomer, Peggy Fleming. She captivated young boomers, and their parents, with her grace and ease.
Peggy’s family supported her ice skating dream and moved the family, more than once, to assist in her training and development. Her mother designed and sewed all her skating outfits. Then, in 1961, a plane crash on its way to the World Championship in Brussels, killed 34 members of the U.S. skating team. Among those who died in the crash was Bill Kipp, Peggy’s skating coach. The U.S. team had to be rebuilt, and boomers and their parents watched as Peggy Fleming moved up the ranks and won her first U.S. championship in 1965, as broadcast on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. Peggy was just 16 years old, and a relatable idol to boomers, especially boomer girls. A year later, she won the first of her three world titles. In 1968, she was on the U.S. Olympic team that competed in Grenoble, France. It was the first Olympics to be broadcast in color, and Peggy Fleming took home the gold medal, the only gold that the U.S. won that year.
It’s hard to say how much influence these stars on ice had on boomers’ interest in ice skating, but in Mister Boomer’s estimation, they likely hastened young boomers along in replacing their double-bladed skates as soon as possible.
How about you, boomers? Did you have four-bladed skates strapped to your boots, or did you own a pair of double-bladed skates?