By David Arenstam, Contributing Writer —
It was a different era, to be sure. Biddeford during the 1950s was a small coastal community that revolved around the workplaces of its citizens and their accomplishments on and off the athletic fields of the city.
West Brook Skating Rink, an outdoor facility on the Pool Road, was one of those places. It was the home for many skating enthusiasts and every weekend short-track racers met there to compete.
For almost 25 years Dan Gagne was one of those athletes and he was almost always at the center of those races.
Everyone had speed skates,” Gagne explained. “It was strange to see someone in hockey or figure skates.”
Gagne was born and raised in Biddeford and graduated from the high school in 1957, but as the 72-year-old man now looks back on the events of those winters, he realizes it was more than just a pastime.
As a 13-year-old boy, Gagne had seen the older boys compete at the outdoor rink on Pool Street and he wanted to try the sport. He played basketball, football and baseball in school, but he had a feeling he would be good at skating.
“In the beginning all I knew how to do was compete,” he said.
The track was short and the sport tended to favor those who were smaller and powerful.
“I didn’t know anything about racing,” he said.
A smile slowly spread across his face and the words quickly came to him as he explained, “My idea was to go right to the front and see if they could catch me.”
They almost never did.
In the beginning, he didn’t even have a pair of his own skates. “I had to rent or borrow skates if I wanted to race,” he said. “But I was pretty good and before long I was racing all the time.”
Gagne learned that some of the biggest races were held out of state and, if he wanted to get better, he was going to have to travel to those events. He raced on the weekends in New Hampshire and Massachusetts and, according to the news accounts he still has, he quickly became a crowd favorite.
In 1953 Gagne entered a race that he carried with him the rest of his life.
“Skating was big then, much bigger than today,” he said. “And everyone knew about the Silver Skates Derby at the old Boston Garden.”
With another pair of borrowed skates, Gagne and his coach, Henry Parody, traveled to the city and entered the junior division. There were three daily newspapers in Boston and reporters from each of them covered the event.
As Gagne remembered the race, his eyes sparkled and his hands started to make small circles. “It was a 40 lap race and I was up against people from all over New England,” he said.
The gun went off and the group began to jockey for position and, as he recalled, they settled into the rhythm of the event. “My skates didn’t fit so well, but I was alright,” he said.
As the pace quickened, Gagne tried to get to his customary spot and powered toward the front, but this time something happened. He slipped coming into a corner and slid on his backside across the ice.
He quickly jumped to his feet, but by then the pack had lapped him.
“They were fast. I just pushed on,” he said.
According to Gagne, the group went round and round a few more times and as he was thinking about how to catch up, it happened again.
“Now I’m two laps down,” he said. “I was mad, and I knew if I didn’t do something, they’d pull me from the race.”
Gagne skated for all he was worth and as he said, “I was in a zone, and they were less than a lap away.” Eventually, he caught the lead group and, knowing he was still one lap down, he skated even harder.
With a homemade skating uniform, borrowed skates and a heart that knew only one speed, he pushed on and made up the missing lap.
“I still am not sure what the others thought,” he said. “But, I was mad and just kept on going.”
Gagne went to the front and then managed to put some distance between himself and the others. “I couldn’t believe the sound coming from the crowd,” he recalled. “I’d never heard anything like it.”
Gagne won the race and a prominent place on the sports pages of the Boston Herald. He entered the race the next year, and won again, but this time he was in the senior division.
He continued to race and move up through the ranks, both locally and nationally. Eventually, as member of the U.S. Air Force, he was asked to train with the Olympic Speed Skating team, and he was named an alternate for the team that competed in the 1960 winter games.
For most people, the story might have ended there, but Gagne still had a burning desire to compete. During the next four years, using his own money, and sleeping in his car along the way, he traveled from Maine to Wisconsin and Colorado to compete in the U.S. National Championships.
He won some races, lost others, but everywhere he went, he competed as the kid from the West Brook Skating Rink and the Maine Bladesmen.
At home, he helped start a new skating club and settled down to raise a family in the town where he grew up.
Over the years, Gagne has found other outlets for his competitive nature. When his skating days were over he started cycling and playing racquetball.
“I liked racquetball. It was quick and fast,” he said, and it reminded him of skating.
During a 25-year span, Gagne managed to win 32 state titles in both singles and doubles and ultimately, in 2002, he was enshrined in the Maine Racquetball Hall of Fame.
Even today, Gagne often rides his bike over 2,500 miles every summer.
“I have a condo at Sugarloaf and try to ride there in one day.
That’s 140 miles and I can get there in just about 10 hours,” Gagne said, his voice coming alive as he spoke about the ride.
Today, Gagne and his wife Kathy live quietly in a home he rebuilt that is not too far from the rink where it all started for him.
“I don’t skate much any more,” he said. “But I still think I could,” he added and his body leaned a little to one side, as if he were trying to take one more corner and slip to the front.