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Lofty ideas on ice

New faces join skating idols on Canada's 15th anniversary Stars On Ice tour

Source: Halifax Herald
Date: April 13, 2005
Author: Andrew Nemetz

JEFF BUTTLE admits to a weakness for Dairy Queen Blizzards.

The Barrie, Ont. figure skater also notes he's a fan of the edgy comedy Arrested Development, an ER junkie (the fast-paced hospital drama) and really misses the beloved sitcom Sex and the City where his favourite character was randy man-eater Samantha.

All of which makes the 2005 world silver medallist seem refreshingly human.

The 22-year-old Canadian champion, who makes his HSBC Stars On Ice debut when the 12-city tour kicks off Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Halifax Metro Centre, was originally scheduled to skate at shows in Toronto and Hamilton only, but was added to the roster for all shows after his runner-up performance last month.

"It's huge. I couldn't ask for a better group to skate with," Buttle said of the cast for the 15th anniversary show that includes four-time world champion Kurt Browning and 2002 Olympic pairs champions Jamie Salé and David Pelletier.

"It's an honour to skate with them and learn from them. As an amateur, touring is something you work towards."

Buttle, who finished third at Skate Canada in Halifax last October, recalls how the first time he skated with Browning, now 38, he couldn't talk because he didn't know what to say to the Canadian superstar, who was also the first man to land a quad in competition at the 1988 worlds in Hungary.

"Watching Kurt in competition inspired me as did watching him grow as a professional. He really pushed the boundaries," says Buttle, who was thrilled to do a publicity appearance with Browning at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto in March.

Browning, whose world championships came in 1989, 1990, 1991 and 1993, returned the compliment when he talked to reporters about Stars On Ice prior to Buttle's performance in Moscow.

He said he could tell Buttle has the desire - and the skills including excellent transitions and extension - to be a champion. "He doesn't hold anything back. He's not worried about anything. It's not the technical stuff, but how he comes across as a person that makes judges and audience enjoy his performances so much."

Browning, who was inducted into Canada's figure skating hall of fame in 2000, took part in 17 shows during the 60-stop U.S. Stars On Ice tour.

"This year's theme is imagination and there's a lot of magic - we each had to learn a magic trick. It's a big, colourful, exciting show and the skaters are working really hard under (choreographer) Christopher Dean.

A Rocky Mountain House, Alta., native who now lives in Toronto with his wife Sonia Rodriguez, a principal dancer with the National Ballet of Canada, he calls Stars On Ice his home away from home.

"It's been part of my life for almost 15 years. Over the years the show has matured and changed."

Browning says Stars On Ice always gets rejuvenated with the addition of the Canadian skaters. New blood in the form of Buttle, two-time Canadian champion Emanuel Sandhu who will skate in Victoria and Vancouver and reigning Canadian champion Joannie Rochette who will skate in Montreal and Hamilton, is good for the older generation of skaters.

"They bring a lot of excitement to the show and are really respectful of the generations in front of them."

The skater, who also completed the 17-show Celebration on Ice tour in Canada this spring, says he's busier than ever and is being more selective about engagements since son Gabriel was born in July 2003.

"Timewise I have lots of help at home. My mother-in-law helps out and we have a nanny. But the biggest change is that when I get on an airplane and fly away for weeks at a time, I want my skating to be as good as it can be. I want to make what happens on the ice important because what's happening at home is so important."

Buttle began rehearsing the group numbers for Imagination in Halifax on Monday. He'll also perform two solos: Ave Maria, which he's done in several parades of champions following competitions this season and a new number to a remixed version of Cory Hart's I Wear My Sunglasses at Night.

Though it's been less than a month since his worlds win, the first men's medal at the worlds since Elvis Stojko's silver in 2000, he says the high goes away pretty quickly.

"It was an odd night," Buttle says of the evening in which three new faces stood on the podium - after the emotional withdrawal of hometown favourite and three-time world champion Evgeni Plushenko due to injury. The event was won by Stephane Lambiel of Switzerland while Evan Lysacek of the U.S. picked up bronze. None of the men's medallists skated clean.

"Sometimes everyone skates their best and it's still not enough, but that's what competition is all about, who's best on the night."

Buttle, who placed second at this year's Grand Prix final in Beijing, had never skated in front of a Russian audience before and was nervous. "I'd been warned by my coach (Rafael Artunian) that they are knowledgeable audiences and respect good skating skills. I think I picked up a few new fans. It's always good to skate before new people."

He did a couple of well-received exhibitions in St. Petersburg and returned to Moscow where he was shown around by Artunian's children, who are about the same age.

The partnership with Artunian of the Ice Castle Training Center in Lake Arrowhead, Calif., began after the 2004 Canadian championships where Buttle placed third and missed out on a worlds berth.

"It motivated me. It made me mad, I had to prove I belonged on the world team. I had a disastrous long program and I sat with my coach (Lee Barkell of the Mariposa Skating School in Barrie, Ont.) and I said I wanted a change of venue, a change of faces. He was totally fine with sharing time. And Rafael and Lee really complement each other."

After three years studying chemical engineering part time at the University of Toronto, Buttle has put school on hold until after the 2006 Olympics.

When the tour wraps, there's a vacation - somewhere warm - on the horizon then it's back to training where he'll devise two new programs. "Even if the audience still enjoys it, it's hard on me to train the same program every single day."