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Young skaters left out in the cold as club slips

Fiscal disputes put noted nonprofit on thin ice

Maureen Garrahan coached Amanda Gollaher last week at North Star Youth Forum ice skating center in Westborough. Gollaher trained with the New England Figure Skating Club before it unraveled last year. Maureen Garrahan coached Amanda Gollaher last week at North Star Youth Forum ice skating center in Westborough. Gollaher trained with the New England Figure Skating Club before it unraveled last year. (Erik Jacobs for The Boston Globe)
By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / January 13, 2009
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At its peak, the New England Figure Skating Club trained Olympic stars and provided coaching to scores of aspiring young skaters at one of the region's finest facilities. Now the Marlborough organization exists in name only, its skaters and coaches scattered, and the club's past and present leaders engaged in a bitter dispute about finances and leadership.

Current officers say the founder and her husband frittered away club funds before departing after a state investigation found shoddy bookkeeping, but not theft. That left the club unable to negotiate for ice time, retain coaches, or attract new skaters, they said.

"These are kids with the talent and the drive and the ambition, and I really feel like the people entrusted betrayed them," said Kathleen Manning, the current treasurer, whose 14-year-old daughter trained five days a week with the club and competed under its banner.

Barry Eavzan, who served as volunteer treasurer for the nonprofit club, acknowledged that he kept incomplete records and failed to properly monitor the use of the club's bank card. But he and his wife, club founder Julie Graham Eavzan, contend that questions about finances turned into vendettas and accusations of impropriety. He said they were driven out by a "witch hunt" and a "hostile takeover."

Julie Graham Eavzan left the club in June. It faltered over the summer and ceased to offer ice time late last month.

"I didn't leave because I wanted to," she said. "How much abuse can one person take?"

The dispute provides a window into the close-knit and sometimes intense world of figure skating, where some families invest hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each year to allow their children to pursue the sport.

In Marlborough, many of those young skaters have been left out in the cold.

Instead of taking her 9-year-old daughter, Amanda, to her regular club after school, Denise Gollaher of Hopkinton now shuttles her to different rinks at different hours, following coaches as ice becomes available. Without a home-club discount, they now pay $18 an hour for ice time, or 50 percent more than before, on top of coaching costs.

"It's such a shame that it has come to this. We had such high hopes that things would work themselves out," said Gollaher, whose daughter tried a learn-to-skate program 2 1/2 years ago and fell in love with figure skating - and being part of the club. By last winter, she was practicing four afternoons a week.

Unaware of the fray, Gollaher's daughter asks when they will be able to return to Marlborough, she said.

Growing conflicts between club leaders reached the attorney general's office two years ago, after Manning and others raised concerns about perceived financial discrepancies and an inability to obtain detailed records.

That led to a state settlement last May in which the club acknowledged that its record-keeping practices were inadequate. The club agreed to hold new officer elections and submit quarterly reports to the state; Eavzan, who had recently resigned his role, was barred from serving on the board for at least 10 years.

Eavzan's wife, a skater and coach for half a century, had founded the New England Figure Skating Club in the mid-1990s at Marlborough's New England Sports Center, a multirink complex that boasts a food court and glassed-in viewing area. The facility hired Graham Eavzan to be its skating director, and she, in turn, established the club as a US Figure Skating-affiliated venue for serious coaches and athletes as well as beginners.

By the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, the club was home to gold medalists Ilia Kulik, Evgeny Platov, and Pasha Grishuk, as well as other Olympians. But it served predominantly as a highly regarded program for children and teenage skaters, training as many as 100 a year and placing competitors at regional, sectional, and national events.

Meanwhile, the club remained an all-volunteer-run nonprofit. It negotiated for ice time and paired students with coaches but typically did not handle that money directly, so annual revenue and expenses were usually less than $100,000, according to state filings. Money came from member dues, competitions, and fund-raisers, and was supposed to defray competition trip costs, subsidize some ice time, and pay other expenses, said Manning and Anne Swinton, the current president.

Manning and Swinton said they hope the state continues to investigate. They said the current board wrote to the attorney general in August alleging that the Eavzans had spent much of the club's funds on undocumented personal expenses, with another $30,000 or more going to lawyers to address the state inquiry.

A spokeswoman for the attorney general said she could not confirm or deny whether the club remained under investigation.

Barry Eavzan, a Sherborn businessman, acknowledged in an interview Wednesday that he had used club funds to buy more than $1,000 in home garden mulch in 2005 - after he and his wife had invested their own money for years, he said, and at a time when he was angry with some members.

"It was a big mistake and I regret it," he said. "I said, 'I am not going to give this club any more money, and I'm not going to do anything else for these people. All they want to do is destroy it.' "

Manning and Swinton said they hope the Eavzans repay the club so that it can continue.

But Julie Graham Eavzan, who left shortly after the settlement to coach with a Boxborough club, said the organization's sustainability is not about money, but leadership.

"There wasn't anyone who was going to put in the effort or the know-how that I had with it," she said. "I don't mean to pat myself on the back, but Barry and I were the club."

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.

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