Ice Network

Amid hysteria in Barrie, Hanyu goes about business

'Hanyu Mania' grips sleepy city as Olympic champion debuts new free
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Although his jumps weren't all there, Yuzuru Hanyu presented programs worthy of an Olympic gold medalist. -Skate Canada/Stephan Potopnyk

The presence of Yuzuru Hanyu at the humble Skate Canada Autumn Classic International in Barrie, Ontario, a small city north of Toronto, this week was a game-changer.

No longer listed as part of the ISU Challenger Series, the Autumn Classic takes place in a national training center with five or six rows of viewing seats. Even last year, when it was part of the Challenger Series, it carried a no-frills budget.

But once the Sochi Olympics men's champion from Japan signed up to open his season and unleash a new free skate for the first time here, and Skate Canada got wind of an army of Japanese fans booking flights to Canada, it sent a media staff, set up tables beside the ice surface and found a mixed zone in a (rare) quiet corner.

When the Japanese federation heard that a flurry of Japanese fans had booked flights to get to Barrie, it sent its own little force to protect Hanyu: two strong-looking men who followed him everywhere and allowed only seven minutes for post-event scrums. For the fans, it was a rare opportunity to get as close and personal as possible with Hanyu in a small venue.

Barrie never saw anything like it. The fans arrived in droves for practice on Tuesday, lining up all the way down a ramp to buy tickets at 6:30 a.m, half an hour before the place opened. Seats weren't assigned, so they claimed their spots, laying sweaters and scarves and bags on the seats in the Allandale Recreation Centre arena.

The first night, puzzled janitors removed the sweaters and various seat-holders and placed them all in the lost-and-found department.

Aghast, the fans resorted to camping out at the front entrance overnight, forming a row of sleeping bags. Skate Canada staff tried many times to comfort them, saying they could sleep in a hotel bed and return early the next morning to get their seats. Despite temperatures that hovered a few degrees above freezing, the fans didn't budge.

Skate Canada live-streamed the event so that when fans in Japan -- who hadn't made the trip -- saw it, they texted their friends, asking them to buy programs for them. The Japanese snapped up multiples copies, despite only three pages being devoted to the actual competition.

When Hanyu made his first appearance for a practice on Tuesday, the video cameras and smartphones came out and followed his every move. A group of Japanese media made the trip as well. Jet-lagged, they could be found in a backroom arena corner at times, nodding off on benches en masse.

And what a show they got.

Hanyu won the event with a total of 277.19, 36.09 points ahead of Canadian champion Nam Nguyen, who had a powerful short program but a troubled free skate. Sean Rabbitt, a 25-year-old competing at his first international, took the bronze medal, a finish that brought the Californian to tears.

Despite stumbling out of his quad toe loop, Hanyu won the short program with 93.14 points. He's using his Jeff Buttle-choreographed routine from his troubled 2014-15 season because, as coach Brian Orser put it, "it had never had a home run with him."

"I'd hate to retire it," Orser said. "It's such a beautiful piece."

But everybody had been waiting to see Hanyu's new free skate. And they weren't disappointed.

Orser said Hanyu showed up this spring in Toronto and immediately brought a whole body of music from the popular 2001 Japanese movie Onmyoji. This was only the second time that Hanyu suggested music; last season, he picked The Phantom of the Opera.

In the movie, legendary Japanese actor Mansai Nomura plays the role of the Onmyoji, also known as the Yin-Yang Master. What mattered most to Hanyu, however, was Nomura's long involvement in Kyōgen farcical theatre, a popular art form in Japan that dates back to the Middle Ages.

Earlier this year, Hanyu met Nomura, now a 49-year-old actor and mentor. The meeting was engineered by Akiko Ebisawa of Nippon Television -- who was in Barrie this week.

Ebisawa filmed the meeting between Nomura and Hanyu, comparing their art and the movement they use. Hanyu appeared overcome at meeting Nomura.

"He is a huge fan," Ebisawa said. "[Hanyu] was very nervous."

The first motion in Hanyu's free skate is a move used by Nomura in a kyogen stance: Hanyu places two black-gloved fingers in front of his lips, then swings his other arm over his head. When Nomura performs the movement, he wears a traditional Japanese medieval costume, with long, boxy sleeves. Nomura and Hanyu decided that he had to adapt this costume and movement to suit a figure skating routine. At the Autumn Classic, Hanyu unveiled his version: a soft ivory-gold, belted tunic, with slight bell sleeves, more streamlined for figure skating.

In the film, Nomura shows Hanyu that he can draw attention to a movement by swinging an arm aloft first. You cannot just copy Kyōgen, Nomura says: "You must think what the movement means -- which gesture would be most effective."

Many of Hanyu's arm movements flash at the sound of a drum. At the end of the program, when the final drum-bang rings out, Hanyu stands at center ice and snaps both arms out and up.

Three-time world champion Elvis Stojko, known for his own martial arts routine, stopped in at Allandale on the way home from a movie shoot. He's glad he stayed to watch, he said.

"[Hanyu's free skate is] not overly dramatic," he said. "There is a certain humble quality to it that I like. The style of the program and the music builds. It's not in your face. I hate it when it's overly done. It's just nice and clean skating. It speaks for itself.

"And he's filled out, so his body is a little stronger," Stojko said. "There is a maturity to his skating. He's not as flingy as he was before. Now he's more controlled with his movements."

Hanyu wasn't perfect, but for his first outing of the year, he was breathtaking. He landed a tightly rotated quad salchow but then put a hand down on a quad toe loop that followed. He fell on his second quad toe loop in the second half of his routine. He turned out of a triple axel, one of his favorite jumps. He regretted those mistakes, he said later in Japanese.

His spin combinations were crisp and ever-changing and imaginative. His ina bauer, leaning far back into the position, was without compare.

Shae-Lynn Bourne choreographed the routine, and she's even included a hat tip to herself in it: Hanyu "hydroblades" -- a move that Bourne and partner Victor Kraatz made their trademark way back when.

Hanyu is better prepared for this season than last. He has spent more time in Toronto with Orser. He made his debut at the Autumn Classic, about an hour away from his training base. His next appearance will be at Skate Canada in Lethbridge, Alberta, which keeps him in Canada. After that, he'll have three weeks in Toronto to train for his next Grand Prix, the NHK Trophy.

Orser said, "It's really nice to have him around."