Ice Network

Where champions train: The rise of the Cricket Club

Orser, Wilson team up in Toronto to groom sport's best over past decade
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The winning tradition of the Toronto Cricket, Skating and Curling Club began with Yu-Na Kim and has continued with Yuzuru Hanyu and Javier Fernández. -Getty Images

TORONTO - Put more than a dozen highly decorated figure skaters on the same practice ice at the same time, and there is bound to be some friendly in-your-face stuff.

Yuzuru Hanyu, Javier Fernández and Nam Nguyen will do quadruple jump after quadruple jump, each trying not to be the first to pop a jump or fall. Gabrielle Daleman and Sonia Lafuente will do the same with triples.

What each wants most, though, is to do well enough that Brian Orser, or one of his fellow coaches at the Toronto Cricket, Skating and Curling Club, rings the 16-inch brass bell that hangs outside the glassed-in, computerized music room on one side of the ice surface.

That sound is the reward for anyone who does a clean run-through of a competitive program in practice.

"When someone does clean and then the next two people do clean, it's like, 'I can't be the one to break that streak,''' Daleman said.

After all, no one wants to silence a victory bell.

"The ringing bell," Nguyen said, is "even better than high scores from judges."

And these are skaters who know what it feels like to get high scores in competitions.

In the 10 seasons since Orser and Tracy Wilson took over the club's skating program, the athletes who train there have rung up one success after another.

In the current group are an Olympic champion, two world champions and six past or present national singles champions from four different countries. Nine Cricket Club skaters are to compete at next week's World Figure Skating Championships in Boston, seven in singles and two in pairs.

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"I had no idea what this was going to be when we began with Yu-Na in 2006," Orser said between bites of lobster risotto over dinner at a trendy Italian restaurant near the club.

There was much greater uncertainty when South Korea's Yu-Na Kim left in a bitter, but still undetailed, dispute over training methods with Orser a few months after she won the 2010 OIympic gold medal. When two-time (2008-09) world junior champion Adam Rippon (he won only his second world junior title under Orser's tutelage; his first was with Nikoli Morozov) left after the 2011 season, also citing training issues, the elite program seemed on very thin ice.

"I knew we were doing something right, but I went through a period of second-guessing, asking myself, 'Was I really a good coach?''' Orser said.

Others clearly thought so. A few weeks later, a Spanish figure skating official called to ask if Orser would be interested in coaching Fernández, at that point a skater of little distinction. Japan's Hanyu followed a year later, Canada's Nguyen a couple weeks after Hanyu.

All three have become world beaters since.

"It has made me feel great as a coaching team that it wasn't just smoke and mirrors, and it wasn't just luck." Orser said.

"Sure, it was nice to start off with Yu-Na, and I'm sure a lot of people thought that we would fall on our faces afterwards," Orser continued. "We have created a lot of champions since."

In addition to Hanyu, Fernandez and Nam, whose accomplishments are too numerous to list, a couple of female national champions, Spain's Lafuente and Elizavet Tursynbaeva of Kazakhstan, train full time at the Cricket Club, and reigning Canadian champion Alaine Chartrand skates there part time.

Its ice is home to second-year pairs team Lubov Iliushechkina and Dylan Moscovitch, who earned a place at worlds by finishing third at this year's Canadian championships.

There also is an 11-year-old sensation, Stephen Gogolev. He began landing quadruple jumps in practice at age 10 and hit a triple axel to win this year's Canadian novice title.

And a promising young South Korean, Jun Hwan Cha, began working with Orser this year. Cha, 14, finished third in seniors at this year's Korean championships and was the youngest of the 24 free skate qualifiers at last week's world junior championships, where he finished seventh.

"Brian stuck to his guns and kept soldiering on," choreographer David Wilson said of the coach's post-Kim triumphs.

And to think that there were fewer than half a dozen kids aged 5-10 in the elite program when the Cricket Club asked Orser and Wilson, the latter a longtime friend of the former, to become its skating consultants in 2006.

When his lengthy show skating and pro competition career ended, Orser, now 54, the 1987 world champion and 1984 and '88 Olympic silver medalist, was looking for a new challenge, so he moved from Ottawa to Toronto.

Wilson, also 54, the 1988 Olympic bronze medalist and three-time world bronze medalist in ice dance with the late Rob McCall, was a busy mother of three and TV commentator. Already living in Toronto, she figured her Cricket Club job would last three months.

"Tracy and Brian have such gleeful enthusiasm," David Wilson said. "They both have been bitten by the teaching bug."

Both had such warm memories of the Cricket Club's atmosphere that they felt compelled to help assure its future as a figure skating center.

"The goal was never only to produce top skaters," Wilson said. "It was to teach skating at all levels and pass on our love of the sport."

And then Kim arrived as the reigning world junior champion to work with David Wilson, one of the sport's leading choreographers, in the summer of 2006.

Wilson, who previously did not know anything about Kim, had so much work at the time that he nearly said no when the skater's mother, Mee-hee Park, first asked for his help. Soon, Mrs. Kim would ask Orser if he could give her daughter, then 15, some help on technique.

"The whole thing was happenstance," David Wilson said.

There would be more later.

If Rippon hadn't left, Orser would likely have turned down Fernández out of idealistic loyalty to the guy who already was there, and he would later ask Fernández for his feelings about bringing in Hanyu. But the departures of Kim and Rippon became a reality check for a coach who says he still does not have formal contracts with his skaters.

"I learned that it was a mistake to turn down other skaters who were fishing around," Orser said.

Now, he doesn't even have to bait the hook. There are 60 skaters at various age levels in the elite program. Twenty-four have competed in a national championship.

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Only one of the Cricket Club's current skating coaches, Ernest Pryhitka, who would become Nguyen's primary coach, was there when Orser and Wilson took over. There now are four others: Ghislain Briand (primary coach for Lafuente and the second Spanish man, Javier Raya); Lee Barkell (coach of Daleman, and Iliushechkina and Moscovitch); Andrew Hallam (stroking, skating skills, steps); and Paige Aistrop (spin doctor).

On a recent Wednesday, Orser was at the rink by 7 a.m. to work with younger elite skaters before they headed to school. His usual weekday arrival time is 9 a.m., and he stays until 4 or 5. He also comes in on an occasional Saturday, especially lately, because that is when Chartrand and her primary coach, Michelle Leigh, train at the Cricket Club.

While there are such "primary" designations, which apply mostly to private lessons, what the skaters like is how willing every coach is to work with any of them.

"The good thing here is you know if your main coach is away, someone else is going to be there to help you," Daleman said. "They are so close as a team."

Added Lafuente: "We all have bad days, but the coaches always have a smile on their faces. You can see they enjoy what they are doing. It helps you through the hard days."

Jeffrey Buttle, the 2008 world champion, is at the club nearly every day working as a choreographer. He marvels at the cooperation among the coaches and skaters, especially with up to 14 leading skaters often on the ice at the same time.

"There is no competitiveness among the coaches," Buttle said. "The skaters all gain momentum from watching the way champions like Hanyu and Fernández respect each other. It generates a good competitive spirit among all the skaters."

Three are men who finished in the top five at last year's worldsFernández (first), Hanyu (second) and Nguyen (fifth). Talk about the possibility of mind games and clashing egos.

"I have never felt any jealousies here," Nguyen said.

Joe Pacheco, the club's skating supervisor for 26 years, also has been struck by the camaraderie.

"They all feed off each other," Pacheco said. "You see the big names giving pointers to the other kids. It's not something they keep for themselves."

It is exactly that sort of environment that led Daleman to the Cricket Club a year ago. She came as a reigning Canadian champion who was losing her passion for the sport.

"Her skating has gone to another level because she's enjoying the sport again," Daleman's mother, Rhonda, said. "It's not just about results."

Rhonda Daleman was talking in the comfortable lounge area where the skaters often eat lunch or relax between twice-daily practice sessions. A glass wall separates the lounge from Cricket Club's figure skating ice surface, creating an openness reflected by the skating area.

It is a surface with no boards. Mirrors are spaced along the walls and ice level. Light comes in from multiple windows on the end wall opposite the lounge. Coaches watch from an apron surrounding the ice, then simply step out anywhere if they need to demonstrate something. The feeling is more of a dance studio than a rink.

The venerable club has everything a skater could need: fitness center, wellness center with physiotherapists and massage therapists, restaurants and snack bar with many varieties of healthy food.

A few years ago, when the club was doing renovations, coaches were asked for recommendations.

"I told them not to change anything," Tracy Wilson said. "We're not sure why things work, but I don't want to mess with it. There is a funky energy here."

Where else, after all, is there a skater who can also give tips on martial arts like Moscovitch, who specializes in Krav Maga, a hand-to-hand combat system used by Israel's defense forces?

"Sometimes, our way of warming up is wrestling with each other," said Lafuente, laughing about tag team "matches" pitting the women against the men.

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For skating clubs, heydays can be fleeting. When Orser was at the peak of his career, the Mariposa School of Skating in Barrie, Ontario, was the place to be, and that drew future world champions like Buttle and Elvis Stojko. Kristi Yamaguchi and Kurt Browning made the Glenora Club in Edmonton a mecca.

Oberstdorf, Germany, the World Arena in Colorado Springs (formerly the Broadmoor) and Toyota Sports Center in Los Angeles also have recently been the training homes of multiple national and international medalists.

"It comes in waves," Buttle said.

At the Cricket Club, they have been riding the wave for a decade, with no signs of slowing. In the past 50 years, there has never been such a confluence of so many top skaters from so many different countries coexisting for so long.

"There are times Tracy and I just stand back at a practice session and say to each other amazement, 'Look at this,''' Orser said. "These skaters make us look pretty good.

"Just because we're the hot spot now doesn't mean we will always be the hot spot," Orser continued. "As soon as you feel complacent, you need to do something. I don't take anything for granted."

Both Orser and Wilson have ice cred as Olympic medalists. Choreographers like Buttle and David Wilson like to work with them -- and their coaching colleagues -- because the coaches appreciate the art and requirements of program choreography. The coaches like to work with Buttle and David Wilson because they are choreographers who appreciate technique and the athletic demands of each element.

And the skaters appreciate each other, never more so than in the contest to keep the rink bell ringing. There is a spirit of all being in this together, not unlike what John Donne meant when he wrote that any funeral bell tolls for all humanity, even if he was thinking about matters far more serious than sport.

"People in the rink with you understand your suffering, and also your glory," Nguyen said.

So it was a while ago when a struggling Nguyen ended his weeks-long drought of clean practice programs. Orser banged the bell so hard three times that it left a joyous ringing in everyone's ears.