Ice Network

In banner year, Orser achieves 'greatest triumph'

Icenetwork's reigning POTY was by the boards for several big victories
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Brian Orser has thrived in managing the careers of skaters like Yuzuru Hanyu. -Getty Images

Icenetwork will announce its choice for 2014-15 Person of the Year later this month. Here's one of the nominations for that honor from icenetwork contributor Lynn Rutherford.

Thornhill Community Centre, home to an important Canadian summer competition, has a plain but serviceable viewing room, where parents drink endless cups of coffee while watching their kids practice stick handling or try single salchows.

On an August day in 2013, Patrick Chan debuted the Four Seasons program he would skate at the Sochi Olympics. In a portend of what was to come, the three-time world champion's triple axel wasn't there, and he was soundly beaten by Japan's Nobunari Oda. As the mini-drama played out, my eye was drawn to Brian Orser, who was examining 15-year-old Nam Nguyen's skates and waiting patiently for the female event referee to grant him an audience. Orser questioned her eagerly, hanging on her every word.

"These are the folks putting up the scores; you have to see it from their perspective," Orser said. "I learn something new every day."

Life wasn't supposed to turn out like this for Orser. After winning his second Olympic silver medal at the 1988 Calgary Games, he enjoyed a 17-year professional career. He thought he'd get into the restaurant business, or perhaps real estate. He swore up and down he would never be a coach.

"I would be on a talk show and they'd ask, 'When are you getting into coaching?'" Orser said. "And I would say, 'God no! I'll never do that. I don't want to have to put up with people like me.'"

With his pro career winding down, he was offered a job as director of the skating program at the Toronto Cricket, Skating and Curling Club. It was a temporary post, just six months. When longtime friend Tracy Wilson said she would do the job with him, he accepted.

"We were supposed to try to find somebody to take over the position, and then we kind of got the bug," Orser said. "And then Yu-Na [Kim] came (in 2006) and that became a project. So here we are now...it's been about 10 years."

Sometimes, Orser has felt it's taken every one of those years to earn widespread respect.

Even after coaching Kim to the world title in 2009, he heard whispers. She was a natural talent. She already had her technical base before coming to Toronto. Orser had gotten lucky.

"I've always said it was hard to take someone to the top that was super talented, because if you don't, you've screwed up," Orser said. "It was a tall order to take a junior world champion, at age 14 or 15, to the next level. But when she left, some said maybe it was smoke and mirrors."

Kim, of course, won 2010 Olympic gold medal, only to part ways with Orser a few months later. The next season, Orser's relationship with Adam Rippon frayed, and the U.S. skater moved to Detroit in June 2011. The rupture caused Orser to re-examine his communication style.

"I did consider it a failure on my part," Orser said. "For whatever reason, it happened. I felt that I could, perhaps, have finessed it better. ... I take things personally, which I'm trying not to. I wanted to be the best coach for them and handle any glitch we were going through. Because of them, I learned a lot."

A week after Rippon left, Orser got a call: Javier Fernández, then 10th in the world, was looking for a new training home. Over the next few years, Orser -- along with Wilson and choreographer David Wilson (no relation to Tracy) -- turned a charismatic but undisciplined skater into a three-time European champion. This March In Shanghai, Fernández won Spain's first world figure skating title.

"It's been my greatest triumph," Orser said. "It wasn't a matter of just cracking the whip. We told him we believed in him, and then he started believing in himself. And when he won a silver medal at (2011) Skate Canada, he said, 'Oh, that wasn't so hard.' We gave him some direction, watched every step, nurtured his talent."

While this season was Fernández' time to shine, last year belonged to Orser's other star, Yuzuru Hanyu, who won Japan's first men's Olympic gold. Orser has coached both men since the spring of 2012, and there's no end in sight.

"One reason it works is they are such opposites, and they do respect each other a lot," he said. "This past season, we didn't have them on the ice together a whole lot. We had them in the summer for a few weeks, and into the fall, getting ready for the first few Grand Prix events. And then after the crash at [Cup of] China, Yuzu never came back to Toronto."

At the season's third Grand Prix event, in Shanghai, Hanyu collided with China's Han Yan during the six-minute warmup for the free skate, suffering multiple injuries. He recovered to win the Grand Prix Final in Barcelona, Spain, and shortly thereafter took his third straight Japanese title. He underwent abdominal surgery at the end of December, but managed to return for worlds, where he placed second to Fernández.

Orser doesn't think either of his top skaters has hit his peak. Both have two different quadruple jumps, salchow and toe, and don't require much new technical firepower. Rather, the focus for them will be on choreography and performance.

"Javi hasn't done the perfect long program yet," Orser said. "(At worlds) he fell on the first quad salchow. Yuzu also made some mistakes. There is still some room for both guys for that ultimate performance."

As usual, the skaters are preparing for next season at different times, and in different ways. Hanyu will stay in Toronto for a few weeks, then head back to Japan to perform in shows, and then return to the Cricket Club in mid-July. Fernández will remain in his hometown of Madrid for the time being.

The scheduling is a far cry from Orser's days coaching Kim, who spent most of her summers hunkered down training in Toronto, away from the media glare in Korea.

"With these guys, I've learned to trust that they're going to be fine," Orser said. "Sometimes I worry we won't get the programs done in time, but we do. I've learned a lot these last few years."