Trying to fill big skates

Susan Greer, Free Press staff

, Last Updated: 11:21 AM ET

The legacies of Brian Orser, Kurt Browning and Elvis Stojko hang over the skaters competing for the men's title at the Canadian figure skating championships tonight at the John Labatt Centre. From 1981, when Orser won his first national title, to 2002, when Stojko won his last, these men, in succession, dominated men's figure skating in Canada, winning a whopping 19 national titles among them in 21 years.

They were also powerhouses internationally. Orser was the world's best in 1988 and twice won silver medals at the Olympics. Browning won four world titles and Stojko won three, plus an Olympic silver.

Donald Jackson set the bar for this trio. The four-time national champ was the first Canadian man to win the world title. He did so in 1962 -- accumulating seven perfect marks in the process -- by landing the first triple Lutz in international competition.

Likewise, Orser, Browning and Stojko have a significant history of "firsts."

Orser was the first man to land a triple Axel at the Olympics, in 1984 (following another Canadian, Vern Taylor, who was the first skater to do this most difficult of jumps, in 1978).

Browning was the first to land a quadruple jump in competition.

Stojko was the first to land a quad in combination with another jump -- first a double, then a triple.

These Canadian "firsts" are now "must haves" for the world's best male skaters.

But since 2002, Canadian fans have been waiting for another man to confidently fill these very large skates. So far, it hasn't happened.

Tonight, Emanuel Sandhu, Jeffrey Buttle or perhaps Tillsonburg's Christopher Mabee will try to change that.

Sandhu is certainly the pretender to the throne. As a three-time and defending Canadian champ, he has pulled it out of the fire before. He also has had success internationally, beating the world champion, Russian Evgeny Plushenko, at the 2003 Grand Prix final. But his only win out of five international competitions in 2004 was at MasterCard Skate Canada International.

Sandhu, 24, is one of the most elegant, original male skaters in the world -- when he's on. But he has been plagued by inconsistency and sometimes has difficulty presenting quality performances back to back. So far in this competition, he hasn't been on and currently sits in second.

Buttle, 22, with his unruly hair and grin, is leading going into the long program. He has not won a Canadian title, but won two of the four international events he skated in 2004. He also was second (to Sandhu's fourth) at the Grand Prix final. His short program was the best of the day, but his face showed the disappointment after putting his hands down on a triple Lutz.

Mabee is only 19, but is skating in his third nationals at the senior level, previously placing ninth and sixth. All his international competitions last year were at the junior level, with one win and one second-place finish.

He might have skated away with yesterday's short program if a brain cramp hadn't caused him to turn a required triple jump into a double. Otherwise, he had the goods and executed them as well as anyone, though he sits in sixth place.

When these skaters face off , you can bet they are all enviously aware of the precedents set by Orser, Browning and Stojko and equally aware that Canadian figure skating fans desperately want a new hero.

It will be interesting to see which can grab the brass -- or rather, gold -- ring and how long he'll be able to hold it.


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