In a class of his own: Orser owned 2013-14 seasonSkaters coached by icenetwork POTY won every major title in the sport
Getting to the top of your profession is one thing. It's quite another to arrive there, only to tumble from your perch, and then work your way back to the summit.
That's precisely what Brian Orser did.
Everything was rosy in Orser's world in 2010. His sensational skater, Yu-Na Kim, had just reached the apex of the sport -- winning the Olympic gold medal -- and she did it with a performance that is regarded as one of the greatest in figure skating history.
It all came crashing down later that year, when Kim and Orser went through an acrimonious split. Mud was slung, and the full story has never really come out, but it's safe to say there was plenty of blame to go around.
It didn't take long for Orser to land on his feet and restock. In June 2011, Javier Fernández, a brash Spaniard possessing all the talent in the world but needing direction, arrived in Toronto to work with Orser. The following year, Yuzuru Hanyu, a spindly Japanese lad coming off a third-place finish at worlds, and Nam Nguyen, a pint-sized former Canadian junior champion, joined Orser's camp.
Two years. That's how long Orser needs with a skater for his methods to really take hold. Kim was great when she got to him, in 2007, but it wasn't until the 2008-09 season, when she won four of her five competitions, including her first world championship, when she really became the Queen.
Fernández went from finishing 10th in the world in 2011, the year before he started taking from Orser, to standing on the world podium, as a bronze medalist, in 2013. Hanyu, who came to Orser as the most refined of the three aforementioned men, went from a sometimes-on, sometimes-off skater to the 2014 Olympic champion. And after struggling with inconsistency throughout his first two seasons under Orser, Nguyen capped off his most recent campaign with a stunning win at the world junior championships.
Whether this is by design or mere coincidence, no one -- except for maybe Mr. Triple Axel himself -- can be sure. But Nguyen sees logic in this two-year plan.
"The first season is a time where you figure each other out, and how effectively you work with each other. Once the first season is over, you have your offseason where you reflect on what's the best way to approach each other," Nguyen said. "The second season shows [the results].
"The first season, I didn't do so well. I had gone to a different coach, with a different style," he continued. "When the second season came, it all clicked."
A Nguyen-ing strategy
Nguyen's story is illustrative of what happens when a skater goes to train under Orser.
When he arrived at Orser's doorstep, Nguyen needed to improve several areas of his skating.
"Everything about my skating was small and slow," Nguyen said. "He worked really hard for me to get power in my legs and in my sequence of jumps, and therefore make my jumps much bigger."
With Nguyen's restrictive height -- he was well under 5 feet tall when he started with Orser -- posture was another area they worked on. So, Orser drove into his young pupil that if he wanted to compete at the highest level, he needed to project a presence that was much larger than his actual stature.
"I told him (when he arrived), 'OK, enough of the cute factor.' It was fun and it was cute, and everybody was like, 'Oh my god, he's so cute,'" Orser told Lori Ewing of The Canadian Press in a March 18 article. "'But now you've got to be a big boy, and you've got to skate like that, and there has to be maturity.' So we started developing that."
A growth spurt that kicked in about two months after Nguyen arrived in Toronto helped the skater appear older, but it also presented new challenges.
Orser's attitude toward combating this change was simple: "You have to fight it," he told Nguyen.
Besides his technical know-how, one of Orser's greatest strengths is being able to see the big picture, and getting his skaters to do the same. Nguyen said he is the type of skater who requires absolute consistency in his training, so Orser made sure to keep him focused on the overall objective.
Coming into this year's junior worlds, Nguyen set a personal goal of finishing in the top five.
"He told me to skate like I did in practice, keep everything normal, stick to the plan," Nguyen said. "I did what he told me to do, and I came in first."
Nguyen credits much of his success to his coach's temperament.
"Brian's a great guy; he has a great sense of humor. He works really hard," Nguyen said. "One of the really good things about him is he will push you in the best way possible."
Winning the world junior championship is hardly a predictor of success on the senior level. But if anyone can get Nguyen to the promised land, it's the man putting him out on the ice.
The making of an icon
If anyone knows what went into making Orser the coach, and the man, he is today, it's Elvis Stojko. He and Orser trained together under Doug Leigh at the Mariposa School of Skating in Barrie, Ontario. Their careers didn't overlap much -- Stojko was coming up in the ranks as Orser was exiting the sport -- but Stojko was around the rink enough to observe the influence Leigh exerted on his star pupil.
Stojko calls Leigh "the best coach in competition." One of his greatest strengths, Stojko contends, is not only having an innate sense of what to tell a skater in the big spots but also knowing exactly what not to say in the moment of truth.
"He doesn't clutter your mind. He stays focused on the game plan. He knows how to stay relaxed. If he's relaxed, the skater's relaxed," Stojko said. "That translates very well for Brian, and for his skaters. That feel, that energy -- that's one thing he knows very well."
It was clear Orser took Leigh's lessons to heart in his preparation for competition.
"Brian was the quintessential skater," Stojko said. "He knew how to deal with the hoopla and the emotions going on. He knew how to block it out and focus on his work."
Teaching always came naturally to Orser. As a young skater -- a "little whippersnapper," as he calls it -- at Mariposa in the 1980s, Stojko naturally idolized Orser. On the occasions when he would ask him for advice, Orser would gladly oblige.
"He was always helpful," Stojko said. "He always translated information very well."
The sting that came from missing out on an Olympic gold medal -- particularly in 1988 -- was something Orser was not equipped to handle, however. He retired after the 1988 World Championships and made the natural transition to competing professionally and show skating. He was good at both, but he found fulfillment in neither.
He had dabbled in choreography during his post-competitive career, but he didn't land a full-time coaching gig until 2005, when he was named skating director of the Toronto Cricket, Skating and Curling Club.
That's when the light went on.
"Everyone has their place; you've just got to find what it is," Stojko said. "When he talked about when he started to coach, it felt good when he did that. He felt he was in his place and comfortable. … That's where he found his peace."
And his niche. In the years since, the hardware his skaters have collected, and those skaters' countries of origin, serve as validation of the universality of Orser's teachings.
"He has so much to give back to skaters; he has so much knowledge, so much to give," Stojko said. "It's amazing for the skaters he works with."
It took a long time for Orser to get over being viewed as the "second-place guy," as Stojko put it. Being someone who accomplished so much in the sport -- and who was such a trailblazer for skating in his home country -- it's reasonable to assume that the feeling of emptiness that consumed him after missing out on the ultimate prize is, in the end, what pushed Orser to prove himself in another arena.
"So many athletes base their self-worth only on results, and that's a hard thing to deal with," Stojko said. "[Brian] being able to teach and take a skater to that level, it's wonderful to see."
In a class of his own
The heights Orser's skaters reached in 2013-14 were not just remarkable; they were downright historic. He is believed to be one of only two coaches to have his or her skaters win the Olympic, world, European and world junior championships in the same season. The other was Jutta Müller, who in 1984 guided Katarina Witt to the European, Olympic and world titles, and Karin Hendschke to the world junior crown.
His dominance doesn't figure to end anytime soon. All three of his high-profile men say they are continuing on through the next quadrennium. With Patrick Chan's future uncertain, and the tides seemingly having shifted, Hanyu's reign atop the sport seems to be in its early stages. Fernández surely will be fueled by his Olympic disappointment, in which he came agonizingly close to the podium, missing the bronze by less than two points. And with the newfound confidence Nguyen has gained from his breakthrough victory, the sky's the limit for him.
The man who had given so much to Canada, and the skating world, continues to enrich the sport through his disciples. This begs the question: Was it better, in the long run, that Brian Orser did not win that elusive Olympic gold medal? Would he have been as driven to succeed in coaching if he'd accomplished everything he'd wanted to as a competitor?
We'll never know for sure. What we do know is figure skating is in a better place because of Brian Orser and his monumental contributions to the sport.
That's why he's the icenetwork Person of the Year.