National honour for family that brought speed skating to Island

It was long before Islanders Jamie Benn and Cassie Sharpe struck Winter Olympics gold in hockey and freestyle skiing halfpipe, respectively, at Sochi 2014 and Pyeongchang 2018.

The late Jim and Colleen Shields were derided for even considering winter sports in Victoria and were advised a speed skating club was not viable in a city better known for producing Summer Olympians.

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“They told my dad and mom, from across the country, that you guys are so far remote from winter sports on the Island . . . and where are you even going to practise and train?” daughter Brenda Hennigar recalled. “But our family has had a sheer passion for speed skating and found a way.”

Fifty-four years after introducing the sport to the Island, with the establishment of the Esquimalt Speed Skating Club at the Archie Browning Sports Centre in 1966, the clan last week was announced as the recipient of Speed Skating Canada’s highest honour for lifetime achievement by a family in the sport. The 2020 Gagné Family Award will be presented to the first family of Island speed skating when the pandemic allows.

The Gagné Family Award was established by John V. Sands, a Canadian speed skater who competed in the 1956 Cortina d’Ampezzo and 1960 Squaw Valley Winter Olympics. It was first presented in 1996 and honours the family legacies that run through the Canadian speed-skating community. The annual award is bestowed upon a family whose members have made an outstanding contribution to the development of the sport in Canada.

The citation on the 2020 Gagné Family Award reads: “Jim Shields brought his love of sport to Victoria, a city which rarely sees snow in the winter. The family continues to nurture both kids and adults in speed skating. This award recognizes the lifelong love for the sport and selfless volunteer efforts that the family have given to help speed skating thrive on Vancouver Island.”

The legacy lives on in the current Peninsula Speed Skating Club at the Panorama Recreation Centre, which was founded by Hennigar in 2003.

“It’s very humbling and we are so proud to have been recognized by the national body,” she said.

The family’s success is multi-generational. Jim Shields was a national champion skater as well as a builder, as are his children. Daughter Hennigar and son Dave Shields won Canadian championships, with Dave’s biggest success coming in 1978 as national all-round champion. He represented Canada at the 1978 world championships and just missed out on making the team to the Lake Placid Winter Olympics two years later.

Hennigar was the youngest member of the junior national team at age 16 in 1980 and the youngest athlete in the 1978 Canada Winter Games at 14.

She became North American long-track champion and record holder in the 1,500 metres in 1981. Hennigar was a seven-time North American championships medallist in both long and short track between 1979 and 1981, and 11-time Canadian champion in both long and short track between 1979 and 1996, the latter era following the birth of her two sons. She was three times all-round Canadian champion in long track — in 1980, 1981 and 1996 — and won 26 Canadian championship medals.

Dave Shields’ daughter, Jillian Shields, and Hennigar’s sons, Andrew Freer and Steven Freer, also competed in the sport at high levels. Les Shields, late elder brother of Dave Shields and Hennigar, was an athlete and official.

Dave Shields and Hennigar still coach countless hours at the Peninsula Speed Skating Club with Dave having been provincial coach and B.C. head coach at the Canada Winter Games and guiding the careers of several international skaters. Hennigar’s late husband, Ian Hennigar, coached Olympians in Ontario and co-founded the Peninsula club with her, and was honoured for his contributions as an athlete, coach and builder by Speed Skating Canada during a World Cup event at Calgary in 2015.

“Speed skating has truly been a memorable journey for three generations of the Shields family over the past 75 years [including Jim Shields’ start in the sport in Saskatoon],” Brenda Hennigar said.

“A young skater asked me in the Panorama rink last week: ‘Are you really 75 years old?’ I quipped it feels like it sometimes. If you add it all up with everybody, it’s over 200 years of family involvement in the sport.”

The journey has included literally thousands and thousands of miles skated to a well-earned national lifetime award.

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