That was no mere Skaters’ Ball inside the Fairmont Copley Plaza’s grand ballroom last Saturday night. The attendees - from Dick Button to Tenley Albright to Dorothy Hamill to Brian Boitano to Nancy Kerrigan to Paul Wylie to Peter Carruthers to Randy Gardner - have enough gold, silver, and bronze in their personal collections to stock the shelves at Shreve’s for the next century.
It was a gathering worthy of the moment: the 100th anniversary of a venerable mainstay of Boston sports, the Skating Club of Boston. “It almost feels like a college reunion,’’ said Tina Noyes, a two-time Olympian.
Virtually all of the sport’s glitterati who came to the benefit banquet have passed through the club’s Quonset hut-like premises overlooking the Charles River on Soldiers Field Road, and many of them represented the Skating Club at the Olympics and world championships.
It isn’t the oldest skating organization in the country - the Philadelphia Skating Club & Humane Society was founded in 1849 and the Cambridge Skating Club in 1898. But no other American club can match Boston’s influence on the sport since it was incorporated in April 1912.
It is the training ground for stars: Six members of the world Hall of Fame and more than 20 members of the domestic version. Seven presidents of the US Figure Skating Association. Two Olympic champions (Button and Albright) and five other medalists. More than a dozen men’s and women’s national champions. And the planet’s oldest continuing annual carnival in the century-old Ice Chips, which will feature Vancouver gold medalist Evan Lysacek in this year’s edition at the end of next month.
What began as the Back Bay Skating Club, whose devotees skated on pond ice, moved indoors to the Boston Arena in 1909; across the river to the intimate (i.e., cramped) Ice Pavilion on Massachusetts Avenue after the Arena burned down in 1918; then back to the rebuilt venue two years later until the familiar building with the sloped roof and steel arches was erected for $185,000 in 1938.
“We also supported collegiate hockey from the day the place opened,’’ recalled club historian Benjamin Wright, a former association president, international official, and a member of the world Hall of Fame. “We were running around the clock.’’
It was as much a social club as it was a skating club - members had to be elected - and many of them belonged to the city’s exclusive institutions. “The Skating Club was an adjunct to the country clubs in the area,’’ said Paul George, a former US Olympic Committee vice president who both belonged to and competed for the club, winning the US junior pairs title with sister Elizabeth. “It was the winter activities center.’’
There were Friday night dinners preceded by cocktails and a formal affair on New Year’s Eve. But the socializing revolved around the skating, with everybody from toddlers to septuagenarians lacing up. “The club has been a marvelous source of congeniality and friendship and opportunity for people who just liked to plain skate,’’ said Button, who trained at the club when he was a Harvard student.
The elite skaters have been the club’s centerpiece, ever since Theresa Weld and Nathaniel Niles were the entire Olympic team at the 1920 Games in Belgium. The golden era was the Fifties when Button and Albright practiced there.
“I was with some pretty heavy hitters, standing around and watching them,’’ said Noyes, the Olympian who grew up in Arlington and began skating at the club when she was 7. “It was a bunch of soon-to-be Olympic champions. I certainly had role models. You were always pushed for greatness at the Skating Club.’’
The coaches already had been to Olympus. Bud Wilson had won nine Canadian titles and competed in three Games. And Cecilia Colledge, who was only 11 when she first made the British team, won silver behind Sonja Henie in 1936 and inherited her world crown.
“When you were at the Skating Club nobody mentioned the Olympics,’’ said Noyes. “They didn’t have to.’’ It simply was assumed that the club’s top skaters would get there.
When the plane carrying the entire US team and four other club members crashed in Brussels en route to the world championships in Prague, killing 10 Skating Club members, the ice was empty for weeks as the club went into mourning. “It was quiet for quite a while,’’ said George, who spent that February attending funerals. “But people began to pick up the pieces and came back to the rink.’’
The Skating Club hosted the 1962 national championships, where its next generation stepped up. Lorraine Hanlon went on to win the 1963 crown and Noyes finished second four times behind Peggy Fleming and participated in the 1964 and 1968 Winter Games.
If you were in the Boston area and you had competed in the Olympics or hoped to, you turned up at the Quonset hut.
All of them came to the same spartan structure that was both outdated (the rotting wooden roof finally was replaced in 1993) and undersized. “We were losing members because we weren’t providing enough programs,’’ said president Joe Blount. “We were focusing on elite skaters and we weren’t feeding the bottom.’’
When interest rebounded during the past decade and membership doubled to more than 600, it was clear that a new facility on a larger site was necessary. “We started talking about doing it 20 years ago,’’ said Wright, “but it takes a long time to gestate.’’
So the club, which runs satellite programs in Newton, Marlborough, and Foxborough, is finalizing a land swap with Harvard that would give the university the Soldiers Field Road parcel as well as the adjacent plot leased by Days Inn. In return, the club will get a larger site at 176 Lincoln St. in Allston.
It plans to build a three-rink facility that will include a 2,000-seat arena and separate surfaces for figure skating and hockey, and that will allow for more public access. “We feel very comfortable with where we’re going,’’ said Blount, whose club is bidding for the 2014 national championships at which the Olympic team will be determined for Sochi.
More space will make for more participation and allow the club to further expand its programs beyond the membership. Since 2010 the club has operated the Frog Pond rink in partnership with the Parks Department and now provides free lessons and transportation for Boston public school students. “We’re trying to be part of the community and the outreach will be beneficial in the long run,’’ said Blount.
What hasn’t changed since 1912 is the Skating Club’s draw for skaters with international dreams. Ross Miner, who made last year’s world team and is an alternate for this year’s, moved down from Vermont to train at the club. “I’ve had a girl drive up from Connecticut two days a week,’’ said Suna Murray, a 1972 Olympian and coach of the club.
Last month more than 20 skaters competed at various levels at the national championships in San Jose. They train daily in a building that doubles as an American minimuseum, its walls adorned by framed photos of champions past, its upstairs lounge lined by trophy cases crammed with loving cups and medals.
But the Quonset hut on the river is destined for the wrecking ball as the Skating Club moves into the 21st century.
“It’s a new beginning for the club,’’ said Noyes. “The memories will always be there, but they won’t be in that building.’’John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.