Skate Canada plans for the future in Saint John

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Skate Canada

By: Beverley Smith

November 2, 2013 (ISN) – Dan Thompson once climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, with a storied peak or two known to have felled many an intrepid mountaineer. Now he’s climbing another. “I like challenges,” he said.

He’s the new chief executive officer of Skate Canada, charged with bringing the organization into the new world, through at least the next couple of quadrennials. He’s been hired for the job just before the Sochi Olympics, which has been safely put to bed, with Canada getting the largest contingent of 17 berths out of a possible 18, more than any other nation.

But Thompson’s task is to peak beyond this rosy veneer, tackle all of the current and future issues – and get everybody in the nation to pry and question and roll up their sleeves, all together now. He’s the collaborative type.

It’s all about setting a strategic plan for the future and on Sunday, the final day of the Skate Canada International grand prix, he met with about 40 other skating stakeholders (a broad cross-section of clubs, big and small, administrators, coaches, judges, athletes) to thrash out and shape the beginning of a strategic plan that will lead the association to 2022, an Olympic year.

Thompson was a former swimmer who won two gold medals at the 1978 Commonwealth Games and two silver medals at the 1979 Pan American Games, and then made the 1980 Olympic team, only to be left at home during the Moscow boycott after the invasion of Afghanistan. Heartbreak, he understands. Marketing and strategic planning, he also understands. He worked for marketing-sponsorship guru Chris Lang during the 1990s – and ran the figure skating account at a time when the Canadian Figure Skating Association, under officials Bob Howard and David Dore, were trying to forge the grand prix series. Thompson also served as the volunteer President of Swimming Canada for four years helping to reengineer the association and build swimming’s strategic plan but aside from swimming he’s had more experience with figure skating than any other sport.

“I think Skate Canada hired me because I wasn’t a skater and they wanted someone with a fresh vision and a passion,” he said. “I don’t have to be a skater to be passionate about the sport, just passionate about the task to come.”

Thompson most recently served as President of Canadian Tire Jumpstart helping to double the size of the charity in just over five years. Jumpstart reduces financial barriers for children whose families can’t afford to enrol them in sport. His Mount Kilimanjaro climb was part of a fundraiser for the program that raised $250,000.

When he got the Skate Canada job, he said his first task was to properly articulate a strategic plan with clear goals and outcomes. “There was kind of a strategic framework, but it really wasn’t directed,” he said. “It didn’t have clear goals and outcomes.”

And these new ideas and plans can’t sit on a shelf, he added. “They’ve got to be dynamic. And they’ve got to be revisited and constantly updated.”

Thompson brought in Rose Mercier, a strategic planning consultant who was a former director general of the Canadian Cycling Association and responsible for coaching education programs for Swimming Canada, to set a framework and guide the conference. The initial step included a Skate Canada survey to over 3,000 members of Skate Canada, asking questions about the sport’s future in the country, the visions needed, the steps required to succeed. About 800 responded, a goodly number. Their answers served to spur discussion at the conference, where the 40 stakeholders were gathered.

Mercier’s framework was intriguing. Calling together a wide spectrum of skating stakeholders (directors of small and large clubs, administrators, coaches, parents, former athletes), Mercier asked two people to discuss the responses, then four, always striving for consensus. In a Saint John conference room, they settled into groups of eight, all asking themselves important questions about five core elements: skating for life, skating to win, the Skate Canada brand, leadership, and partnerships. “None of us is smarter than all of us,” Mercier says. “There should be things that make you gulp a little bit….What are the breakthroughs we need to make?”

Groups circulated from table to table, staying for 10 minutes to cover the five major strategic imperatives. “It’s kind of like speed dating,” Mercier said.

The questions and issues at the tables were legion: how to expand the membership and keep those current members engaged? How to get a better pipeline of athletes to the top? What to do about the gaps (lack of pairs, lack of pair coaches, lack of leaders, lack of sponsors, lack of fans?) How to stimulate meaningful partnerships that will be beneficial to both? How to step into communities? How to notice the blind spots? What are the overarching needs?

Thompson also knows that Skate Canada hasn’t been proactive about skating for life, either. Skate Canada must enhance its learn-to-skate programs so that Canadians won’t think twice about signing up. It’s about building a nation of skaters. Why not tap into the resource of 2.6 million boys and 2.5 million girls between the ages of 5 and 17 in Canada, this country of icy ponds and snow tires?

Another imperative, the way Thompson sees it, is building the brand: building partnerships that are two-way, that give benefits to both. It seems sage to look at partners that can generate revenue, help with the delivery of programs or generate awareness of the sport. The scandals of 2002 have stalled the sport in many ways, but organizations must take the bull by the horns and associate itself with a healthy lifestyle, or with music or even fashion.

In recent months, Skate Canada has generated a handful of new sponsorship deals, but its annual budget of $16-million has stagnated over the past 10 years. Thompson thinks Skate Canada is a $25-million business. “You have to keep moving forward and you have to totally reinvent yourself,” he said. “My perception is that we haven’t reinvented ourselves over the last decade. We’re really good when we host international ISU events, but not so good when we don’t, in terms of revenues.” A strong business model is needed.

Arising out of the Saint John meeting were imperative teams who will flush out the ideas and report back to the board to see if they are on the right track. By mid-January, they will be ready to present strategic plans to the board for approval.

These plans may need to be evolutionary and their sweep will be wide. Thompson is already hiring for three new positions: a chief sport officer to oversee high performance, national team development and coaching programs and even competition delivery; a new chief marketing officer; and a chief operating officer.

At the very least, the message is that Skate Canada cannot stand still. Sport is becoming competitive and so are other nations. Long-term athlete models – that all sports are adopting – have pushed all ice sports to become more sophisticated. It’s now time for Skate Canada to do the same.

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