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Louis Rubenstein Skates His Way to the Top

For the week of Monday, November 7, 2016

On November 13, 2002, the documentary film Inspiring Figure: the Louis Rubenstein Story premiered at the Young Men’s Hebrew Association general meeting in Montréal. Rubenstein was a pioneer in the sport of figure skating – winner of the gold medal in the first ever World Figure Skating Championships – and a recognized contributor to early Canadian amateur sport.

Louis Rubenstein, championship figure skater, Montréal, QC., 1893
II-99946 | Photograph | © McCord Museum

Rubenstein was born into an athletic family in Montréal on September 23, 1861. In his youth, he took up figure skating, often practising at Montréal’s Victoria Rink which would later host the first Stanley Cup playoffs. By his 20s, he had already won many competitions, beginning with the Montreal Championship gold at just 17. By 1883, he was North America’s most prominent figure skater, winning Canadian championships from 1883-89, the North American crown in 1885, and United States titles in 1888, 1889 and 1891.

Rubenstein also acted as a judge and official in both Canada and the United States. This allowed him to be heavily involved in standardizing figure skating regulations. In 1887, he formed the Amateur Skating Association of Canada, now Skate Canada, to address inconsistencies in judging and rules at competitions.

A depiction of “fancy skating” moves ca. 1881. Clockwise from top left: skating forward, skating backward, skating a loop, skating a figure eight
© Arthur Elliot / Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. R9266-2769 Peter Winkworth Collection of Canadiana

In 1890, Rubenstein participated in the first unofficial World Figure Skating Championships in St. Petersburg, Russia. The organizers tried to stop him from competing because he was Jewish. Russia was fiercely anti-Semitic and Rubenstein risked arrest simply by being in St. Petersburg. Fortunately, Lord Stanley, Governor-General of Canada, was a fan and secured his protection through the British embassy, Canada having no embassy in Russia at the time. The organizers let him compete on the condition that he leave Russia as soon as the competition ended. Despite the anti-Semitism he faced, Rubenstein won the championship!

Rubenstein was also very involved in bowling, curling and cycling. Outside the realm of sports, he was a successful businessman and community leader. After retiring from skating, he became involved in municipal politics as a Montréal alderman from 1914-31. He was often described as a gentleman of impeccable character who championed the rights of the working class.

Louis Rubenstein had a direct hand in shaping the sport of figure skating. For more about Canada’s sporting history, read Canada's Governors General and The "Father" of Ice Hockey in the This Week in History archives.

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