All Chan needs is a cape

BILL LANKHOF -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:11 AM ET

He is projected as the next superman of Canadian figure skating, but these days he's just as concerned about getting home so he can squeeze in some video games, getting his B-plus average up, or finding a game of pickup shinny.

"He's a normal 16-year-old guy, goes to school, and ... it's not like it has gone to his head," Ellen Burka says. "He's like everyone, laughing, having fun. The nicest guy and such a natural talent it's incredible. I've seen many skaters in my life but he's the most natural skater I've ever seen. I've watched him since he was eight years old. It's amazing. Canada can be very proud to have such a future champion."

The Canadian figure skating fraternity believes his name will be the next link in folklore that features Toller Cranston, Kurt Browning, Brian Orser, Elvis Stojko ... and Patrick Chan.

Chan knows people are talking about him. "It's such a big honour to be mentioned with them; that people believe I can be as good or better someday than them," he says. "There's not a lot of people who get a chance to be so successful in a sport that they have to work so hard for. There's so many, so many kids who work hours and hours and who never have the same success as I do. I feel really grateful. It just motivates me to work harder and be successful."

Talented. And humble, too. Give this kid a hockey stick and a birth certificate that reads "Kingston" and Don Cherry would be planting a big one on his forehead.

In an interview published earlier this year Browning suggested that at a comparative age Chan has eclipsed them all. The best ever?

Burka, one of Chan's coaches along with Don Laws, who guided 1984 Olympic champion Scott Hamilton, won't go that far but doesn't hesitate to call Chan "the future" of Canadian figure skating. "Absolutely," she says, "we have other good skaters too but he has the full package. The right body, the right look, the right style, you know, nice personality. When you get a mix like that it is very rare."

Burka should know quality when it skates by. The matriarch of Canadian figure skating is 86, has been coaching for more than 60 years and has taken skaters to 24 world championships and seven Olympics. "He's a totally natural jumper, he has tremendous strength and he's a good spinner which sometimes doesn't go together. And he has beautiful, natural edges and that makes his footwork beautiful. He has a good choreographer, Lori Nichol, who has put together lovely programs for him. He's just a sound all-around skater," she says, "one of the best I've ever seen."

That is high praise, considering her pupils have ran the gamut from the ultra-flamboyant Cranston to the machismo world of Stojko.

And now there is Chan, a whirling dervish ice urchin, whose parents Lewis and Karen put him on the ice when he was six years old in Ottawa.

Chan says he wanted "to play hockey like any other Canadian kid." His mother had other ideas. "She said okay but told me I had to learn the basics first and put me into figure skating." He never did get back to hockey. He began to show an aptitude for figure skating. When the family moved to Toronto, where his father works as a lawyer for the government, he came under the tutelage of legendary coach Osborne Colson and Burka at the Granite Club.

Slowly, inextricably, figure skating began to take over his life until now, as he chats on a cellphone on the way home from his Grade 12 class at the full-French Ecole Secondaire Etienne Brule in north Toronto, it has become the focus of his existence. "I started winning little competitions bit by bit and we figured maybe I had a gift in skating."

It is a gift, Burka says, that is unique from any other Canadian champion before him. "He's definitely not Stojko. I taught Stojko for five years, too. Patrick is extremely strong but he's very musical, he plays piano which helps a lot when I work with him on presentation. I can explain to him the music and how to skate into music and he understands what that means. He's not Toller, either, because Toller was flamboyant, he was really over the top, but I helped make him that way because it suited his personality. Patrick is somewhere in between ... a natural boy. He's just Patrick."

What that means, the world will have to wait and see.

SPORTS A FAMILY AFFAIR

Chan's family always has had a love of sports. Both parents were born in Hong Kong. Karen came to Ottawa to study and Lewis arrived in Montreal at age four. They met at a table tennis tournament. The family is involved in skiing, tennis, martial arts and dance. Patrick recalls his father taking the family to watch Browning at ice shows. He was a good skier but it was figure skating that went from being part of his life, to being his life. "At first, learning, when I did the circles and all that boring stuff I was also into tennis and tae kwon do and it was only later when I started winning and doing better that I let go of the other sports. I started skiing less to avoid injury. But I had a lot of balance; I always had something else to go to when I got bored with skating."

It insulated him from the burnout that consumes many young athletes, because there have been moments when he wondered if it was all worth it.

"I've had many burnout phases," Chan said. "One a year ago, and another maybe three years ago. There's times I wasn't sure. I was really, really frustrated over practice. I wasn't sure how I was going to do at the next competition. I was always thinking negative. But that was before. It's getting better. I've got a great coach now. I've been doing well in competition. So everything's good right now, touch wood."

His mornings are spent in school. His mother picks him up "just before two and I go skating for 21/2 hours. After that either it's work with a trainer in pilates, or yoga, depending on the day. Then, I go home and do homework."

There is a price to pay to be the next Browning or Orser.

"For every down moment, I've found there are up moments, too," Chan says, "I'm aware of the burnout factor." So he golfs on weekends and plays tennis. "It keeps me sane from skating. Even though they're sports, it's relaxing to me. I don't have to think about doing well, or doing crap."

Chan won national titles in pre-novice, novice and junior. But this, his second season in the senior ranks, has nudged him into the consciousness of the figure skating masses. There was a third-place finish at Skate America. Then on Nov. 16, he surprised everyone, including himself, by winning the Trophee Bompard in a Grand Prix event in Paris.

"It's come up on me very quickly," Chan said of a victory that qualifies him for the Grand Prix final this Dec. 13-16 in Turin. "Maybe I haven't realized it yet that people have expectations now. I'm going in balls to wall because there's nothing to lose. It's a unique experience because it's only my second year on the circuit so getting to the final is just a bonus. But I do feel I have to perform like the other top skaters because now I'm one of that bunch, I guess."

In Turin "that bunch" will include world champion Brian Joubert of France and, says Burka, "That's going to be really difficult (for Chan) because there he's up against the very top, top skaters in the world. It'll have all the world champions and runners-up and he's not going to win that one."

She laughs. "But he can be very thrilled that he made the finals, we all are."

For Chan, the victory in Paris was a defining moment. It meant that he has arrived. He had hoped to reach the world championships next March in Sweden. But to get there he would have to place in the top two at the nationals in January, which seemed unlikely facing such opposition as Jeff Buttle, Chris Mabee and Emanuel Sandhu. Not any more.

"Paris really helped my confidence. I competed against Chris there. Now I know I'm part of that group fighting for a top spot. Now I'm not the underdog anymore. It's a good feeling."

WORK IN PROGRESS

Until this season, Chan's best international performance was a second at the world juniors, an indication that while he has great potential, he remains a work in progress. It is only this season that he has managed to perfect his triple Axel and, says Burka, "because he's still young he needs to learn to have more personality on the ice, but we're working on his presentation right now because the other stuff he can do. It's a just a matter of growing up, of presenting himself and his program better."

If a consistent triple Axel separates the men from the boys, then a quad separates an Olympic champion from an ordinary champion, and it is just this year that Chan, after being tutored by skating's jumping king, Doug Leigh, has discovered he can fly. "I've got one triple in my program now and I'm working on putting in a second. It has been a surprise for me because I haven't missed one yet (in Grand Prix competition). I was sort of nervous in France. Going into the long I hadn't missed one and I was wondering when would be the breaking point but it hasn't happened yet. I hope it never happens, like Brian Orser. I know he rarely, rarely ever missed a triple Axel in his program. It would be awesome to repeat that."

This summer he plans to add a quad to a program that he hopes will take him to the Olympic Games in Vancouver. "He needs one or two quads but with his jumping ability I think he can do any quad," says Burka, "it's only a matter of one more rotation in the air and he's so strong it shouldn't be a problem."

And, if it is a problem? Chan's got that eventuality covered, too. When he completes Grade 12 next year, he intends to go to university.

"I won't skate my whole life. I've thought about a career in international business because of my multiculturalism and languages." He speaks English, French and intends to learn Mandarin and improve his Cantonese which, he says, "is rough around the edges."

Finally. Chan, and a rough edge. Now there's something the figure skating world doesn't see every day.

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THE CHAN FILE

Born: Dec. 31, 1990 in Ottawa

Height: 5-foot-6

Coaches: Don Laws, Ellen Burka

Choreographer: Lori Nichol

2007-08 highlights: Won Trophee Bompard and third at Skate America (Senior Grand Prix events).

2006-07 highlights: Second at world juniors, fifth at Canadians (senior).


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