People and Places

“They’re not only buffalo bones, they’re skates” — Inside the fantastic collection of Jean-Marie Leduc

“Are you the skate collector in Ottawa?”

The call was coming from a man in Norway who was working on a story about the history of Norwegian skating. He had been unable to get the information he needed regarding an old photo of a speed skater. He’d heard of Jean-Marie Leduc, an 81-year-old skate-collector living in Canada, and thought he might be the person to unlock the mystery.

Three weeks later, the photograph arrived by mail, with a small note attached for Leduc. After tirelessly studying the photo of the mystery speed skater, Leduc was able to draw some conclusions: they weren’t Canadian skates, they were German, manufactured in 1890 and the man in the photo was American Joe Donoghue, the 1891 world champion in speed skating.

Leduc doesn’t like calling himself an expert, but he has yet to meet someone who can match his skate collection. The Ottawa-native has been collecting skates for 37 years in an effort to honour and celebrate the history of the sport in Canada and around the world. He’s not in it for the “personality skates,” as he calls them, though he does have a pair that once belonged to hockey legend Bobby Hull. Leduc’s assemblage of skates spans thousands of years and numerous styles, many of which he has documented for the first time in his new book Lace Up: A History of Skates in Canada.

Leduc and his wife Claire live in a small, red-brick home in Overbrook, just south of Vanier, where Leduc was born. Down the narrow stairs that divide the sun-lit kitchen from the shaded living room is a shrine dedicated to his passion for skating.

A large wooden table at the centre of the room is littered with skates — hockey skates, speed skates, figure skates, clap skates, wood skates — each one of which has been tagged with a number and tied with a short green ribbon. The wood-panelled walls are decorated with composites of Olympic athletes, renderings of Vikings on ice, and a black-and-white sketch of explorers playing hockey on a glacier in the Arctic.

Photo by Lauren Sproule

While skates of all types are of interest to Leduc, speed skating is the sport that inspired his devotion. As an announcer for speed skating competitions at various levels, the boom of Leduc’s voice could be heard over loud speakers in arenas all over Canada and even in Salt Lake City in 2002 when he called the short-track races at the Winter Olympics.

For every new round of competition and every event site, Leduc insisted on visiting an antique dealer to see whether there would be something he could add to his collection. But it wasn’t until a trip to Quebec in the 1980s that his passing interest became a vocation.

His involvement in the world of speed skating earned him an invitation to Montreal in 1986, for a commemoration of 100 years of speed skating in Canada organized by Speed Skating Canada.

“That’s fine to have a piece of steak or a piece of chicken to celebrate a hundred years of speed skating,” Leduc says of the gathering. “But do people know the skates that were used in those years? I’m sure that they don’t know.”

By that point, Leduc had accumulated 18 pairs of skates, which he more than doubled in time for the 1988 Winter Olympic Games in Calgary. Now Leduc’s collection numbers 367 pairs, the majority of which are stored in boxes organized by style. The rest are sprawled on the wooden table in his basement.

Leduc delights in his skating shrine, lovingly picking up a wood skate made in 1452, the first of its kind to feature a metal blade.

“There’s a story for each one of them,” he says. He holds up another wood skate his hand, recounting the time he was flying home from Europe when security pulled him aside because of the holsters he had in his carry-on. When he revealed the contents of these holsters to be skates, not guns, the guards laughed. Leduc titters as he tells the story, turning the skate upside down in his hand and flexes his wrist twice, as if firing a pistol.

“Here’s something I don’t show very often,” he says as he hobbles around his makeshift museum. On the surface rests three bones, each fashioned with thin leather straps.

“These are 15,000 years old. They’re not only buffalo bones, they’re skates.”

Salvaged from a block of ice, the bones were tied to the bottoms of people’s shoes so they could glide along the frozen tundra. Leduc says they didn’t come with the leather laces so he spent hours on his front porch cleaning out the holes with an ice pick to be able to weave the laces through.

He has hosted 53 skate expositions over the years and given 38 lectures, with only his memories to serve as talking points. He doesn’t own a computer and up until a few years ago had never made a single note about any items in his collection. For years he had been urged by friends, lawyers, and athletes to write a book and document his compendium of skating memorabilia. This led him to Sean Graham and Julie Leger, two University of Ottawa graduate students interested in sport and archives. In 2014, Leduc, Graham, and Leger began gathering in that wood-panelled basement. After some disagreement over format, the years-long process of converting Leduc’s musings to paper began.

Photo by Lauren Sproule

“We formed an assembly line of sorts,” says Graham, who would write as Leduc spoke and Claire Leduc unwrapped every pair so they could be photographed and catalogued.

Then came the interview stage when Graham sat in that same basement with Leduc and asked him questions about his skates. The process yielded more than 30 hours of tape, not a difficult feat for a man who links together story after story with exclamations of “Listen to this!” and “I’ll tell you another anecdote!”

Perhaps the strangest anecdote of all is the fact that Leduc hates to skate.

Leduc’s arch-less feet makes wearing skates feel like he is putting his foot in a vice grip. He’s never skated more than thirty metres — not even when he found himself on the track in Lake Placid in 1981, where Canadian speed skater Gaétan Boucher had won silver a year earlier. Leduc waddled across the ice in his skates for less than a minute before stopping to take them off and walk the rest of the track in his socks.

The irony isn’t lost on this man who hates skating but has dedicated nearly half his lifetime to the collection of skates. For Leduc, it’s about what skating means to his country. As far as he is concerned, skating is as central to Canadian culture as the maple leaf, and he hopes someone will carry on his work after he has passed.

“No one in my family wants to take over,” he admits, but he’s optimistic that maybe his book will drive someone to become a caretaker of the collection. If Leduc had it his way, they’d be in a museum. He’s holding out hope for a museum dedicated to Canadian sport, where his skates and memorabilia could be shared with others. As he speaks of this dream, he clutches a 1928 national speed skating trophy, standing just around the corner from his smorgasbord of skates.

“Did you know that there’s a patron saint of skaters?” he asks, pointing to a small plaque on the wall. It features a blurry image of a bonneted women skating on a pond. Saint Lidvine, it reads, Patron Saint of All Skaters. It was a gift to Leduc from the secretary of the Dutch embassy.

Health complications mean Leduc is unable to travel more than 80 kilometres, which means his skate-collecting days are limited. It’s a truth he graciously acknowledges, as he understands his skates are not more important than his health.

But if anyone were to ask for a story or two about his collection, as far as Leduc is concerned, he’s got nothing but time.