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'Silver Skates' A Slice of Forgotten Chicago

By Casey Cora | January 15, 2013 8:07am

McKINLEY PARK — Fervor for the sport of speed skating may have dwindled since its early 20th Century heyday, but that hasn’t stopped dozens of amateur competitors from vying for the city’s Silver Skates crown.

The Silver Skates finals are slated for 9 a.m. Saturday at McFetridge Sports Center, 3843 N. California Ave.

The event has taken on various forms since it was first held at the frozen-over Humboldt Park lagoons in 1917, where historians said spectators turned out by the tens of thousands.

“It was probably the oldest, coolest and most renowned speed skating event in the country,” said Carl Cepuran, a coach for the Glen Ellyn Speedskating Club. “Back in the day, when there was no TV or video games, I could see it being a real big community thing.”

Chuck Burke knows what it was like to compete. He raced in the 1937 Silver Skates, at a time when the papers would splash the winners on their front pages.

"[Silver Skates] was big. A huge, huge event," said Burke, 82, a member of the U.S. speed skating teams in the 1952 and 1956 Winter Olympics. "Now, it’s not near where it was."

After the Chicago Tribune yanked its longtime sponsorship in 1974, Silver Skates was taken over by the city.

Despite the state’s speed skating pedigree — Illinois has churned out legends including Shani Davis and Bonnie Blair and sent skaters to nearly every winter Olympics — the sport’s popularity faded and, at some point, the city lost interest in hosting the annual competition, Cepuran said.

The Glen Ellyn club carried the mantle by hosting its own Silver Skates event, which drew mostly advanced competitors to indoor suburban ice rinks, a far cry from the legions of neighborhood kids pining to be the fastest on the block.

“It kind of stopped being the open event where people in hockey skates or people who didn’t race or only raced once in awhile showed up and took their shot,” Cepuran said.

But in the mid-1990s, the city’s version of Silver Skates experienced somewhat of a renaissance, beginning with the opening of the old “Skate on State” ice rink. Cepuran said that led to the city reclaiming the competition, this time called “Mayor Daley’s Silver Skates.”

Now, the city-hosted event is getting back to its roots as a grassroots outing, with open-to-all qualifying events held at the city’s public ice rinks throughout January.

Before Thursday's qualifying time trials began at McKinley Park, Vi Chovak was warming up in the skate rental trailer, sitting alongside her brother Bryce.

Chovak, 11, is a goalie with the Chicago Bulldog Youth Hockey club who said she’s captured first place in the Silver Skates competition in years past. Likewise for Bryce.

“We do this every year. It’s a tradition, I guess,” she said.

Interested in competing? Three more qualifying meets are scheduled before the finals, including Tuesday at Riis Park, 6100 W. Fullerton Ave., Wednesday at McFetridge Sports Center, 3843 N. California Ave., and Thursday at Warren Park, 6601 N. Western Ave.