Buttle: No place to hide

ROB BRODIE -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 12:39 PM ET

The glare of the bright lights on Canadian figure skating's biggest stage couldn't have been more debilitating.

All Jeffrey Buttle wanted to do was hide.

"I was a mess," Buttle, 16 at the time, said about his senior men's debut at the 1999 national championships at the Civic Centre. "I didn't sleep very well the night before. I was just really nervous because I'd never skated in front of that many people before. I remember just clinging to the boards before they called my name, not really wanting to go out and skate in front of them ... I've come a long way since then."

Indeed he has. It is a supremely confident Buttle, now 23 and with a world silver medal on his resume, who'll glide to centre ice in the same building Tuesday to begin the task of defending his first Canadian title.

One final step before climbing into the biggest spotlight of them all at the Turin Olympics next month. And there's not a chance he'll cower in front of it.

"I can see it in his eyes, I can see it in the way he trains, that he knows it's the Olympics," said Brian Orser, a two-time Olympic silver medallist.

How confident is Buttle? Confident enough to decide, a mere week before he hits the ice at nationals, to dump the free program he'd used at five competitions this year -- including last month's Grand Prix final in Tokyo, where he finished second behind world champion Stephane Lambiel of Switzerland.

Even if it meant having to build in a new footwork sequence himself, because choreographer David Wilson wasn't available to upgrade the Samson and Delilah program he last used in the 2003-04 season.

"I really wish that my gut would have spoken a little sooner," he said in a conference call with reporters last week. "But better now than the week of the Olympics. I certainly don't want to go to the Olympics feeling full of doubt.

"I don't feel like I'm going back to something that's weaker, but that I'm going back to something that is more comfortable.

That would fit right into the mindset that Wilson, his longtime choreographer, has gotten used to seeing over the years. And admiring, he's quick to add.

"Jeff does not want to be like everyone else," said Wilson. "He does not want to take the safer road or the sure road. He wants to do things that really turn his crank."

Last year, an aboriginal-themed program did it for him. This season, he had fully bought into his original free program -- a tribute to pianist Glenn Gould -- until switching gears last week.

It's a true collaborative effort between the two, with Buttle's gut often telling him exactly what feels right.

"Creatively, the choices we've made have been out of sheer, instinctual, I want to skate to this," said Wilson. "I wouldn't be able to convince any other skater to go in the directions he's chosen to go."

Wilson and others rave about his intelligence and discipline -- Buttle hopes to resume studying chemical engineering at the University of Toronto in the fall.

"Everything Jeff manages to accomplish, he deserves more than anyone," said Wilson. "He puts everything into his skating."

Four-time world champion Kurt Browning had a first-hand look at Buttle in the spring, when he joined the Canadian Stars on Ice tour. He saw a young man who seemed truly comfortable in his shoes.

"I thought Jeff was a really intelligent kid, capable of standing in front of a microphone and getting a story across, while still being comfortable and humorous," Browning said of Buttle, one of several Visa-sponsored Olympic athletes he is currently involved with in a mentoring program.

Buttle is frequently asked about the quad, the four-revolution jump that likely holds the key to his Olympic medal hopes. He won the silver without one at the 2005 Moscow worlds, but knows he might not be so fortunate in Turin. For the record, the quad is in this week's free program. Even though he hasn't landed one in competition since 2003.

"It's just a matter of having the confidence to do it again," he said.

That confidence has grown over the past two seasons, since Buttle began splitting his training time between Barrie's Mariposa School of Skating (where Lee Barkell remains his main coach) and Lake Arrowhead, Calif. Buttle credits the work he's done with Rafael Arutunian in California with making him a stronger skater and person.

"It's good to nurture an athlete, but at other times good to give them a kick in the butt," said Buttle, who has come a long way since we last saw him on Civic Centre ice, finishing 10th among the senior men. Buttle is now the guy who'll drive confidently to Ottawa later today in his brand new BMW 325Ci (silver, naturally). And with gumption to talk about an upgrade sometime soon.

"This year, I hope to buy a gold car," he said.

Bet on him not shying away from the challenge.

He's come too far to stop now.

THE FACTS

- Event: Senior men

- When to watch: Qualifying -- Tuesday, 2:30 p.m.; Short program -- Friday, 3 p.m. Free program -- Saturday, 5:45 p.m.

- TV: Friday -- 7-10 p.m., TSN; Saturday -- 7-9 p.m., CTV

- Defending champion: Jeffrey Buttle, Smooth Rock Falls.

- Olympic/world team berths: Three

- Capital content: Tyler Cochrane, Kingston; Michael Elias, Minto; Brennan Martin, Minto; Bradley Price, Nepean

OUR MEDAL PICKS

- Gold -- Jeffrey Buttle, Smooth Rock Falls. Silver medal at Grand Prix final showed he's tracking nicely toward Turin. Consistency makes the difference, though a successful quad would surely make the task a little easier.

- Silver -- Emanuel Sandhu, Richmond Hill. Immense talent makes him a real threat to climb back to the top step of the podium. If this is one of his 'on' weeks, don't be shocked to see the title change hands.

- Bronze -- Shawn Sawyer, Edmundston, N.B. Former Minto competitor rediscovered his game last season and continued to move forward in the fall. His artistic flair is an extra edge alongside solid technical package.

- Watch out for: Ben Ferreira, Edmonton. Wily veteran making taking one last shot at making his Olympic dream come true. Strong result at Cup of China showed he's got the goods to make it happen.

rob.brodie@ott.sunpub.com


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