Ice Network

Legendary, innovative coach Burka dies at age of 95

Holocaust survivor 'changed skating,' nurtured career of Toller Cranston
  • Ice Network on Facebook
  • Ice Network on Twitter
Ellen Burka's students remember the revered coach for her demanding and tough training techniques, as well as her sense of humor. -Skate Canada Archives

"I truly believe Toller Cranston would never have become what he became in skating or as an artist without her. I witnessed it. She gave him structure, discipline, a direction and confidence while nurturing his extraordinary talent and heart," Sandra Bezic said about legendary coach Ellen Burka, who died Monday at the age of 95.

Burka, a holocaust survivor born in Holland, emigrated to Canada in 1950. The Dutch champion in 1946 and '47, Burka went on to become a coach at the Toronto Cricket, Skating and Curling Club. Among her students was her daughter, Petra Burka, who won a bronze medal at the 1964 Olympic Winter Games and the world title in 1965.

Her many national- and world-level students included Bezic and brother Val, Donald Knight, Elvis Stojko, Patrick Chan, Tracey Wainman, Karen Preston and the student with whom she is most frequently identified, Cranston. She was named to the Order of Canada in 1978, and inducted into the Canadian Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 1992 and Canada's Sports Hall of Fame in 1996 in the builder category.

"She was a force of nature, and tough," Bezic said. "Later in life, I learned why when she revealed her own background, and it all made sense to me. But it was not easy to be her student. We were also with her when Toller was, too, so their dynamic had a huge effect on our lives. The climate was electric, intense, volatile, inspiring, large and loud."

Burka continued to coach into her 90s. Former Canadian ladies competitor Signe Ronka worked with Burka throughout her competitive career.

"She was a whirlwind of different things -- from tough-as-nails attitude to being your best friend," said Ronka, who kept in touch with Burka until her death. "She would always speak the truth, no matter if you wanted to hear it or not. She always had your back, but she always told the truth.

"You always had to be the best you could be every single day at practice," she added. "That brought all of us up stronger and more ready for competition.

Now a fitness and skating coach, Ronka feels Burka's presence in her work.

"I can hear myself talking like her when I'm coaching. … I coach my skaters the way she coached me: the 'Burka polish,'" she said. "When you'd see her skaters, to the very last finish -- every finger, every line, every extension -- everything was always perfectly finished."

Canadian ice dance champion Barbara Berezowski knew Burka since childhood and was a world and Olympic teammate of Cranston's. She also introduced Burka when she was inducted into the Etobicoke (Ontario) Sports Hall of Fame as a coach. Berezowski was touched by how enthusiastic Burka was about the honor.

"I skated at the Toronto Cricket Club as a singles skater way before I started dancing," Berezowski said. "I was around Ellen Burka almost every day growing up. I saw how she interacted with her students. She had a really good sense of humor, but she was very serious about her craft."

Like Bezic, Berezowski didn't learn about Burka's personal history until years later. Burka's daughter, Astra, directed a documentary about her mother, Skate to Survive, which premiered at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival in 2008. Three years ago, Burka was inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.

Bezic spoke at the ceremony, calling Burka "an innovative force."

"She also wanted to educate her students in a more well-rounded way -- about life, music and the potential of creative expression," Bezic said.

Two-time Canadian champion Karen Preston was also a student of Burka's. She fondly remembers working with her on a group lesson in which Burka pushed her to land a triple loop for the first time. She, too, said Burka influences her coaching.

"I give a piece of myself to each of my skaters, and I hope they remember me the way we all remember her," Preston said. "[Her contributions to skating are] too many to list: forcing women into the realm of triples; teaching skaters discipline and laughter hand in hand; six Olympic Games; coach of Toller Cranston -- together, they changed skating."