Tom Collins, an exuberant promoter whose star-studded Champions on Ice tours capitalized on surging interest in figure skating in the 1980s but ended when the sport’s popularity in the United States faded two decades later, died on Sunday at his home in Edina, Minn. He was 88.
His son Mark said the cause was complications of a stroke.
From 1969 to 2007, Mr. Collins’s troupes, which included Olympic and world-class amateur and professional skaters like Michelle Kwan, Brian Boitano, Kristi Yamaguchi, Nancy Kerrigan and Johnny Weir, toured the United States.
Being asked by Mr. Collins, a headliner with the Holiday on Ice show in the 1950s, to join his exhibitions was considered a career coup, as well as a good paycheck.
“Your goals were to get a U.S. medal, a world medal, and to be in Champions on Ice,” Mr. Boitano said in a phone interview. “To get a job with him on tour meant you had made it.”
Mr. Collins’s tours, which were initially staged every two or three years and later became annual events, found a new level of popularity after the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, where Mr. Boitano and Katarina Witt of East Germany won individual gold medals in men’s and women’s figure skating.
For the tour that opened that spring, Mr. Collins signed nearly every top Olympian: Mr. Boitano and Ms. Witt; the silver medalists Elizabeth Manley and Brian Orser; and the bronze medalists Debi Thomas and Viktor Petrenko, as well as Natalia Bestemianova and Andrei Bukin, the ice dancing gold medalists, and Elena Valova and Oleg Vasiliev, who won the silver medal in pairs.
“Tom knew the value of stars and superstars,” Christine Brennan, a USA Today sports columnist whose book “Champions on Ice” (2002) chronicled Mr. Collins’s tours, said in a phone interview. “Everyone was watching the Calgary Olympics, and he just pounced on it.”
The 1988 tour was Mr. Collins’s longest to date, with 34 shows around the country. By 1992, the next Olympic year, there were 42.
The 1994 tour, with 70 shows in 59 cities over three months, was the beneficiary of spectacular television ratings, powered by figure skating, for the Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway, where the main story was the rivalry between Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding. About a month before the Olympics, Ms. Kerrigan was clubbed in the right knee by a man hired by Ms. Harding’s former husband. The figure skating drama ended with Ms. Kerrigan winning a silver medal and Ms. Harding finishing eighth.
The sold-out tour — which featured Ms. Kerrigan and Mr. Boitano, as well as the women’s gold medalist Oksana Baiul and the men’s silver medalist Elvis Stojko — drew about one million people.
“Who can explain it?” Mr. Collins said in an interview with The Washington Post during the tour. “The TV exposure helps more than anything. It’s a clean sport, the demographics are terrific, it’s an affluent audience. And it’s still an untapped market.”
Mr. Collins was renowned for his generosity to skaters and their families; for his constructive critiques of his performers’ music, routines and costumes; and for giving breaks to promising young skaters.
“He really let me be myself,” said Mr. Weir, the NBC Sports Olympic figure skating analyst, who was the 2001 world junior champion and a three-time United States national champion and took part in the tour from 2004 to 2007.
In a phone interview, Mr. Weir added: “This sport can be so political and judgmental, and Tommy said, ‘Johnny, just be the best you can be.’ He’d give me opinions on my music and tell me to really go hard with my rhinestones and costumes. He’d just let me do it.”
Thomas James Collins was born on April 3, 1931, in the town of Kirkland Lake in northeastern Ontario. His father, James, was a gold miner; his mother, Martha, was a homemaker.
Mr. Collins left school in the eighth grade to work in a gold mine with his father.
“He was a kid, descending into the pitch black in an elevator every day, wondering if he’d ever come out,” his son Mark said. “My father would talk about how scary it was. He’d tear up talking about it.”
Figure skating was Mr. Collins’s path out of Kirkland Lake. He had won the Northern Ontario novice men’s championship and wanted to follow his older sister, Martha, known as Marty, who had skated in shows around the United States.
“I really wanted to be a figure skater and join the Ice Capades or Ice Follies,” Mr. Collins said in an interview with the director Keri Pickett for her 2013 documentary, “The Fabulous Ice Age.” At 18, after learning from a fellow skater about Holiday on Ice, he wrote a letter to its office in Manhattan asking for a position. He soon received a telegram asking him to join.
He became a star with Holiday on Ice and met his future wife, Jane Morris — who had been Miss Georgia in 1956 and competed in the Miss America pageant — after she began skating with the show. He eventually stopped performing and became the troupe’s vice president and general manager.
Mr. Collins had another tie to the show: His sister married its founder, Morris Chalfen. She and Mr. Chalfen’s three children died in a plane crash in 1960.
In 1969, Mr. Collins and Mr. Chalfen created what would become Champions on Ice, a tour that followed the World Figure Skating Championships in Colorado Springs.
That first tour, which featured Americans like Janet Lynn and the married Soviet pairs team Oleg Protopopov and Ludmila Belousova, who were two-time Olympic gold medalists, traveled through 15 cities in the United States and Canada. The future Olympic gold medalist Dorothy Hamill, then 12, joined the tour for its finale at Madison Square Garden.
The tours that followed were at first modestly produced events, Mr. Collins recalled.
“We used to come in at 7 o’clock with two black fiber cases, and the show would start at 7:30,” he was quoted as saying in Ms. Brennan’s book. “We had a banner to cover the hockey boards and put it up with gray duct tape all the way round. We had a little tape recorder that we’d hook up to the building sound system and we’d be ready to go. Now it takes us six hours to set up.”
Mr. Collins continued to command large tours during the 1990s and into the 21st century: Champions on Ice played 70 shows in 57 cities after the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, and 93 shows in 85 cities after the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games.
“He was the most powerful man in figure skating at its most important time, when the sport was exploding, “ Ms. Brennan said.
But by 2006, having recognized that the figure skating boom in the United States was over, he sold Champions on Ice to the Anschutz Entertainment Group, which merged it with a rival, Stars on Ice. Mr. Collins staged his final tour in 2007.
“This is the way to go, it really is,” Mr. Collins told The Associated Press at the time. “That was a special era for me and a lot of skaters. Now it’s time for a change.”
In addition to his son Mark, Mr. Collins is survived by his companion, Teri Tucker; two other sons, Michael and Martin; and six grandchildren. Jane Collins died in 2007.
Last May in Minneapolis, Mr. Collins was reunited with many skaters from his tours, including Mr. Boitano, Ms. Kwan, Ms. Witt and Ms. Hamill.
“He said it was one of the best nights of his life,” Mr. Boitano said. “He called me right after and said, ‘I’m still vibrating.’”
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