The Last Few Winners
By Steve Milton

You the man!! No, you the man!!

As the dynasty gradually becomes a thing of the past, and once-beloved teams play in empty stadiums, it's comforting to note that at least one winning tradition persists in this country. And Brian Orser and Elvis Stojko are about to take it to an even higher level.

One of the sad realities of Canadian sports -- and perhaps of sports everywhere -- is that reliable tradition is breaking down. The Canadiens are no longer automatic, fleet-footed challengers every season. The Expos are going, going, gone.

The Blue Jays win, but still don't draw, their emotional hold on the public interrupted, perhaps forever, by the strike of '94. The Maple Leafs, their uncritical supporters notwithstanding, had a 20-year break in tradition, at least at the ownership and managerial level. At best, they are regaining their tradition, not extending it.

The Crazy Canucks are long-gone. The Oilers have lost Glen Sather. And the CFL is re-establishing itself now, but it surrendered an entire generation, except in Edmonton.

But in Canadian men's figure skating, the relay team of excellence -- Brian Orser to Kurt Browning to Elvis Stojko -- is still intact, at least through Salt Lake. We don't know yet if there is a star to whom the baton will be passed after 2002 -- although the situation is looking more encouraging than it did a couple of years ago -- but the fact is, if you skip four lean years in the late '70s, this string of world-class standard-bearers stretches all the way back to Toller Cranston.

That's three decades of world-class, trend-setting, Canada-honouring excellence, with just a couple of years out of the playoffs. When the rest of the figure skating world thinks Canada, they think men on the podium.

Now that's a real tradition.

And so there is an immense historical significance to the fact that this summer, Stojko has chosen Orser to be his choreographer. That's like Gretzky taking lessons from Gordie Howe, or Jackie Parker tutoring with Doug Flutie.

"We'd been wanting to get together with Brian for a long time," Stojko was saying this week. "But our schedules never permitted it. So when I decided to stay in until Salt Lake, I called him and we decided to do it. Brian was my hero."

What's touching about this arrangement is that Stojko arrived at Mariposa School of Skating as an unknown 15-year-old in the mid-1980s, when Orser was already near the top of the world. Like Orser had been in his early days, he was a jumper and not a whole bunch more. He wanted to work with Orser and coach Doug Leigh. Orser, an international star, treated the new kid well and Stojko never forgot it.

They were two different types. "My one guy (Orser) was like a colt who just got let out of the barn, the other was more methodical," Leigh once told me. "But they both had the same burning desire, they both worked harder than anyone else and they both studied their sport until they knew everything."

And now they're working together. Stojko had already decided on one of his trademark movie-theme programs -- this time to Gladiator -- and had chosen the music. Orser arrived at Stojko's training base near Philadelphia in June, and they began choreographing the free skate. They're at it again later this month, perhaps in Canada, and then they'll touch base about once per month.

This isn't a classic student-teacher association. It's more like equal levels of input. Uschi Keszler, Stojko's coach of record now that he's left Leigh, is also an integral part of the mix. She was Stojko's choreographer, and originally made her name as Orser's choreographer toward the end of his amateur career. She has a complex notion of movement-vs.-motion that she first practised on Orser and has refined throughout Stojko's career.

So there are a lot of connections here: world championships, innovative definitive jumps (Orser the triple Axel, Stojko the quad), Mariposa in Barrie and Orillia, Doug Leigh, movement theories, and Uschi Keszler. Not to mention, of course, that Stojko and Orser have won two Olympic silver medals apiece.

Canada has never won Olympic gold in men's skating, despite those near-misses by Stojko and Orser. How fitting it would be if the two combined to win the first one.

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