Over the years, Canada has produced more men’s figure skating stars than any other country in the world. As each champion drifts off to the professional ranks, there’s always someone lurking in the shadows, ready to salchow into the spotlight.
With Elvis Stojko’s retirement after the Olympics last February, Canada’s brightest hope may well be a 20-year-old man who already has a top 10 finish at the World Championships and the 2002 Four Continents Championship to his name. Even more remarkable, he’s also a chemical engineering student at U of T, juggling international competition and triple axels with midterms and textbooks.
Welcome Canada’s newest skating star, Jeffrey Buttle.
“I really think that each year, it’s a starting-over sort of thing,” Buttle said, musing on the new skating season before taking the ice as a cast member of the Sk8 With Elvis tour at the Air Canada Centre on November 11. “You still have to get used to it. You can’t simply improve upon or get comfortable with the feeling you had the year before…The more I can get in front of an audience, the more comfortable I can feel.”
After exploding onto the world scene last season with medals at two international competitions (a bronze at the Canadian Championships, and an eighth-place finish in his debut appearance at the World Championships) the start of the new competitive year has not gone quite so smoothly for the kid many skating insiders are dubbing The Next One. At Skate Canada, his first major competition of the season, Buttle struggled with his jumps and finished seventh in a weak field.
Buttle grins self-deprecatingly when reminded of his poor result. “The circumstances leading up to Skate Canada weren’t ideal. I had a sprained ankle, but I was training as best I could… I guess the only thing to take from that that’s really positive is the fact that through discomfort, I was able to put the quad in both programs, and I think to take that experience to the next competition is definitely a positive thing.”
“The quad” Buttle so casually refers to is the quadruple toe loop, the jump that has become a benchmark in men’s figure skating. It is also a skill that Buttle has yet to land in competition, and he is willing to sacrifice early-season results to gain consistency with the jump in front of the judges.
“The quad is absolutely necessary to be in the top five in the world,” he said. “I’m putting a definite amount of pressure on myself to get the quad in the program at competitions… Sometimes you have to take a step back to take a step forward.”
Speaking of the judges, what about the corruption that has been swirling around the sport since the Salé-Pelletier scandal at the Salt Lake City Olympics? Buttle has nothing but praise for a new cumulative marking system being tested to replace the age-old system, which seems to have run amok.
“I think in the end it will be an ideal system, because it’s taking away a lot of the subjectivity,” he said. “Not all of it completely—I think that a certain amount of subjectivity is important, just like it is in many sports—but it’s basically taking out the possibility of manipulation.”
Buttle’s articulate answers are rare in figure skating, where interviews are often peppered with coached stock answers about doing one’s best and loving what one does. This skater does love the sport—“I’m not going to quit skating until I don’t enjoy it anymore” is his credo—but he also has a life away from the rink. Much of it takes place right here at U of T.
“It is very hectic, but I feel that it sort of keeps me grounded,” he said when asked about balancing school and skating. “I think that the fact that I’m sticking with school is going to help me in the end.”
So why did he choose U of T?
“Actually, they were very accommodating in terms of being a part-time student, very supportive of skating, and always very accepting about missing class and whatnot.” For a second, the skater seems out of answers, and then flashes the grin that’s made skating fans across the country fall in love with him. “And because it’s very well-known!”
Perhaps soon, the nation will be saying the same about him.