Buttle no second-banana

Jeffrey Buttle, who won gold at the world figure skating championships, shows off his medal after...

Jeffrey Buttle, who won gold at the world figure skating championships, shows off his medal after arriving in Toronto on Monday. SUN MEDIA/Ernest Doroszuk

JOE WARMINGTON -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 11:55 AM ET

Canada's newest golden boy walked off the airplane at Pearson International yesterday into the crush of a massive media scrum only reserved for a world champion.

And to think only a couple of months ago, the Canadian figure skating fraternity was trying to send him a message there was a new kid in town and that he might want to start thinking about hanging them up.

I guess he showed them -- and that it's not always easy for an old champ to hand over that title.

On the way into the event in Sweden, Buttle was barely a footnote and certainly not on anybody's potential medal list. Today, soft spoken and humble, Jeffrey Buttle is everybody's hometown hero.

The northern town of Smooth Rock Falls, where he was born, is claiming him. Kapuskasing and Sudbury, where he once skated, are awfully proud too. There were celebrations in Orillia where he trained. Barrie, where his parents live, is thrilled -- as is Toronto, where he owns a home.

Heck, you win the World Figure Skating championships as the 25-year-old did on Saturday then every town, city or village is yours. Canada can share him equally.

"On those days at 5 a.m. heading to the rink, I would have liked to have shared him," jokes his mom Lesley, who gave him a giant bear hug as he walked into the arrival's terminal. "But the thing is, it really wasn't hard because he was doing something he loved and something we all loved."

AIRPORT GREETING

Standing in the airport with her husband Peter, daughter Meghan and her fiance Josh Williams, it was not lost on her the kind of accomplishment this was. She admitted, she didn't really think it would ever happen. But now the name Buttle is right up there with greats like Browning, Stojko and Jackson.

This is Jeffrey Buttle's reality in 2008.

"Surreal," is the word he used to describe it. "Overwhelming."

He was even signing autographs and posing for pictures from his new legion of fans, as you will see if you check out my video on torontosun.com.

"I asked my dad if I could come down here and welcome him home," said Breanna Ferguson of Port Perry.

The media frenzy was wild -- and Buttle and his family had a laugh that if he'd come home with the silver medal, no one would have been there. They know because this has happened before.

But he won the gold medal and in Canada, specifically in figure skating or hockey, there is not much bigger achievement internationally.

AMZING DIFFERENCE

For Buttle, it's amazing the difference a year can make.

"A year ago, he couldn't walk," said his mom. "He had a fracture in his spine."

The pain he endured was unbearable. He battled back. But there was more adversity.

In fact, two months ago almost to the day, the Canadian figure skating society seemed ready to move on from Jeffrey Buttle, by handing his crown to a younger upstart in Patrick Chan.

Not so fast.

While the Barrie resident, who won a bronze medal in Turin in 2006 was not in their plans to be in a position to be World Champion, it was not in his plans to be second fiddle to anybody. Every champion has a story to tell. But Jeffrey Buttle's is a Canadian sports gem and could, one day, be a movie of the week. "I was a little bit ticked off," he admitted yesterday. "Absolutely."

When the judges decided to move to the future and place 17-year-old Chan ahead of him, he didn't complain. He didn't mope, sulk or whine. He just went back to work.

There was only one way to respond. To go to the world championship in Sweden as the alternate competitor and win. And that's exactly what he did.

That he had that kind of fire in his belly didn't surprise his mom, who designs and makes figure skating costumes, including the one Buttle was wearing during his golden performance.

She saw his competitiveness and commitment from when he was barely able to talk. "He was not even two when he first skated," she said. "He loved it. He wouldn't come off the ice."

It's almost a metaphor for 23 years later because that's exactly what transpired here. He was not going to let anybody take away his title without some sort of response.

And that's what makes a champion. "It's good to see the younger generation coming up but I still want to win," laughs Buttle. "It did help me train harder for the world championships."

All that hard work paid off as they played O Canada with Buttle on the podium wearing gold.

It was a lesson in perseverance and a message to anybody who thought Buttle was done.

The one thing everybody found out about Jeffrey Buttle is there is no quit in him. And now his eyes are set on a new goal, that being a second world title next year and then a shot at the gold in Vancouver in 2010.

Once again, Buttle sent a not-so-subtle message. He will be a factor at those games. "I guess you are the man to beat," one reporter said to him yesterday.

"Yeah," said Buttle with a giant but shy smile. "I guess I am."

Words reserved for only someone who can call himself world champion.


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