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Buttle mania breaks out coast to coast in Canada

Skater finds himself quite the local hero after worlds win

Jeffrey Buttle shows off his men's gold men from world championships in Sweden.
Jeffrey Buttle shows off his men's gold men from world championships in Sweden. (Getty Images)

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By Laurie Nealin, special to icenetwork.com
(03/28/2008) - Jeffrey Buttle put figure skating back on the map in Canada last week, and himself on the front of sports pages across the country.

The National Post, which is sold from coast to coast, devoted its entire sports front to Buttle's decisive world championship win, complete with a large photo showing Buttle's shocked reaction to the results. The headline: GO FIGURE.

In the country where Orser, Browning and Stojko -- with eight world titles among them -- are still household names, Buttle's breakthrough is big news. The last time Canada celebrated a men's world championship was 1997, when Elvis topped the charts.

When he arrived home last Monday, Buttle was greeted at the airport by a swarm of reporters, and television cameras, adoring fans and family.

He said it felt like he was stepping into a party as he entered the arrivals area in Toronto's Pearson Airport. Buttle described the scene as "crazier" than his return to Canada after winning Olympic bronze in 2006.

Tuesday was just as hectic with appearances on three national TV networks and ET Canada. On Friday, Buttle will guest star on the long-running CBC-TV sketch comedy show Air Farce in a bit entitled "Buttle Mania".

"It's a huge honor," Buttle said of the attention his win has garnered. "It [figure skating] should never have gone away in popularity. It's such a great sport, and we have such great athletes and such a great Canadian team right now, it's going to go nowhere but up from here."

Few will argue that Buttle's victory did not come as a big surprise after a season in which the Canadian underperformed in the early going, including losing his national crown to 17-year-old upstart Patrick Chan. Among the disenchanted, not even his silver medal at ISU Four Continents Figure Skating Championships in February was seen as a sign of better things to come.

When Buttle declared heading into the 2008 ISU World Figure Skating Championships he felt very confident, that training had been going really well, the media remained skeptical that the 2005 world silver medalist could repeat what he had accomplished in years past.

Even reigining world champ Brian Joubert had discounted Buttle as a contender. Ultimately, that proved to be the Frenchman's undoing.

But Buttle, one of the nicest guys in the sport, would be the last person to laud anything over anyone. "I was happy with how I skated, but I certainly didn't expect that to win me the championship," he said.

"This is such great reassurance that I've got the whole package and that I'm capable of going out there under a huge amount of pressure and laying down a good program. Obviously, there are things I can improve on, and that will just help me feel more confident going into Vancouver," Buttle added, looking ahead to the home country Olympics, now less than two years away.

Skate Canada high performance director Mike Slipchuk believes Buttle's success last week will pay huge dividends on the road to the 2010 Games. "This sport is so much about the confidence factor and whether you still fit in. With any medal, Jeff would have left here in a positive mood. This is a huge step, a defining moment for him because not a lot of people gave him a shot; a lot of his competitors didn't give him a shot. They didn't see him coming."

As for the heightened expectations that come with winning a world title, Buttle said he believes he can handle them. "I don't think it adds any more pressure than I would already put on myself. It just gives me the confidence knowing I have that title."

Buttle's gold medal win was the exclamation mark at the end of Team Canada's most successful world championships in 20 years. The 2008 contingent also took silver in ice dancing, bronze in pairs, and recorded a fifth-place in ladies.

Slipchuk, the 1992 Canadian champion whose peers included Browning and Stojko, said, "There's nothing better for a team to be there when you win a gold medal. Every medal is important, but when you get a chance to hear that anthem, you can't get anything more motivating than that."

Much was made of the fact that Buttle won the title without attempting a quadruple jump, but he made no apologies for that. In fact, his other elements -- including two triple Axels -- were of such high quality and difficulty, Buttle actually topped the field in technical points.

Still, within minutes of his victory, Buttle announced his determination to add a quad to his repertoire for next season.

"I'm as motivated as ever," he said of his desire to master a four-revolution jump. "The first thought that crossed my mind when I found out I had won was, 'Wow. I've accomplished this much without it, think about how much I could accomplish with it.' Really, that's going to be a key focus for me over the next couple of years."

Skate Canada CEO William Thompson agreed that Buttle cannot rest on his laurels. "The performance bar is going to move over the next couple of years. If Jeff stops and says, 'That's the best scoring I'm going to have, and I'm going to keep targeting that for the Olympics,' then he exposes himself to guys catching him and going by him, potentially. Potentially not."

Thompson saw Buttle attempt two different quads at practice at the world championships in Sweden. "He's got two that are really close. I think if he can get them consistent, that will help him with the Olympic gold.

"It was a decisive win this week, but if Daisuke [Takahashi] goes out and does two quads, two triple Axels, Jeff's total score [245.17] won't be enough. He wants to make sure he does have enough to stay in front, so I think he's wise to keep working on [the quads]," Thompson added.

In the coming weeks, Buttle will be back on the ice with choreographer David Wilson to create his show programs for the Stars on Ice tour. The two will also explore ideas for next season's competitive routines.

Stars on Ice Canada makes stops in 12 cities, beginning in Halifax April 17, and ending May 7, in Vancouver.

"That's always the reward at the end of a season of hard training and competitions -- to do Stars and perform with friends and skating heroes, really," Buttle said, not yet recognizing perhaps that he, too, is now one of those "heroes."