Toller Cranston calls himself estranged from the figure skating world, and on his sprawling property high in the lush mountains of central Mexico, surrounded by his sculptures and colourful paintings, he is indeed a world away from the ice rink.
Yet Cranston can't help but watch Patrick Chan.
“I'm on another planet watching Patrick Chan with binoculars and applauding along with the rest of the world,” Cranston said from his home in San Miguel de Allende.
Chan is the defending champion at the world figure skating championships this week in Nice, France, and he's looking to add to his legacy.
No skater has won back-to-back men's titles since Switzerland's Stephane Lambiel (2005 and ‘06), and no Canadian has won two in a row in any discipline since Elvis Stojko in 1994 and ‘95.
But Cranston said the 21-year-old from Toronto has already made his mark on the sport. And several generations of Canadian skating stars agree.
Cranston, Kurt Browning, Stojko, Brian Orser and Donald Jackson —all world champions — say Chan can do it all.
The five-foot-eight skater is the full package — impeccable skating skills, footwork and spins, big jumps, exquisite artistry and an ability to draw in the crowd.
How good is Chan?
“I almost don't want to watch him because it's too depressing. It's too good,” Cranston said.
“Patrick Chan has literally — with Kurt, Elvis, Brian, me — he's literally left us buried in the dust. There has never really been anything like him. What he is is the absolute quintessential mixture of artist and sportsman.
“I don't think I could watch him skate live, I'd commit suicide out of depression at how good he is,” Cranston added, erupting in loud laughter.
The 62-year-old Cranston, an Olympic and world bronze medallist, was known for his groundbreaking artistry. He's washed his hands of the sport, in part because of the new judging system that was implemented following the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics that he feels has killed the skating's popularity and stifled its creativity.
Chan, he believes, transcends the marking system.
“It's way beyond (scoring),” Cranston said. “Patrick Chan is and will become very important to the history of figure skating. He's just one of those extraordinary people with a bright future and is also an impeccable role model for the world.”
Chan went undefeated through 2011, claiming the world title last April in Moscow and setting three world scoring records in the process. He began 2012 in much the same manner, winning his fifth Canadian title and then the ISU Four Continents title.
Cranston believes the person Chan is off the ice is just as crucial to his success.
“He's as nice as apple pie,” Cranston said.
He's respectful of his coaches. And he's smart. Chan is fluent in three languages, plays piano, is proficient at several sports, and is a strong student. He recently spent a night at his home in Colorado Springs, Colo., building a computer from parts.
“In order to push the envelope in the sport, you have to have a brain,” said Cranston, who was a self-supporting artist at 16, is fluent in four languages, and has published nine books.
Orser, a two-time Olympic silver medallist, met Chan at the Toronto Cricket Club when the young skater “was a little pipsqueak,” and had a good feeling Chan would develop into a world-class skater.
“Just by his work ethic,” Orser said. “He just loves skating, so that was kind of shining through, and he had lots of energy.”
He sees himself in Chan's ability to draw the crowd in with his interpretation of the music.
“He likes to show the control of his edges and the different leaps and things that go with the music,” Orser said. “I wouldn't let a beat go by — if there was some kind of crescendo or something in the music, I had to do something. It didn't have to be a triple Axel, it could be some kind of a kick, or leap or accent on the music, and that's what Patrick does.
“He makes us listen to the music and appreciate the music.”
Chan emerged from a disappointing 2010 Olympic season that saw him finish fifth at the Vancouver Games to elevate his skating. The addition of the quad jump — the one element that had been missing from his programs — sent him soaring past his opponents.
Jackson said it's not his jumping, but everything else that sets him apart from his peers.
“It's the in-between, and that's what Patrick has,” said Jackson, whose gold-medal performance at the 1962 world championships is still considered one of the greatest in history. “He's head and shoulders over a lot of people because he worked on the basics. He's got the full package.
“And he connects with the audience, which is important. I think he loves what he's doing and it just shows.”
Browning, a four-time world champion, said it's difficult to describe what he admires most in Chan's skating — they're the subtle things more easily appreciated by his peers than the average fan.
“We did a little 30-second (segment) together in Korea last summer, and I was like ‘Slow down dude, you're leaving me!' He was like, ‘I am slowing down,“’ Browning said, with a laugh. “It was really interesting to be on the ice with him and just appreciate how he transfers energy into flow.
“For me, the quad, I can find on YouTube a couple of sweet quads (Browning did). And I know I did quad-triple combos and I did triple Axel-quad toe combo. . . I did lots of cool stuff. What I love the most about Patrick is the crazy transfer of energy that he can do. I just don't get it. It's amazing.”
Stojko, who's also not a fan of the scoring system that did away with the perfect 6.0 mark, calls Chan the “poster child” for the new system.
“He's doing what the system asks him to do,” said the three-time world champion and two-time Olympic silver medallist. “He's a fantastic skater, he's got great edges, he's got great skating ability, he has all that into one.”
Stojko slammed the judges and the scoring system at the Vancouver Olympics, writing in a column for Yahoo Sports that American Evan Lysacek didn't deserve gold and Chan didn't deserve to finish fifth, because neither had a quad jump in their program.
“After the Olympics, Patrick started doing the quads and that was awesome, it made it exciting because he added two quads,” said Stojko, whose strength was his huge jumps. “But now it needs to be pushed more, it has to go further.”
Few will argue that the sport doesn't enjoy the popularity it did in the days of Browning and Stojko. Chan would love nothing better than to personally grab the spotlight and turn it back on skating. A gold in Nice, he believes, will go a long way in helping.
“I want to bring more attention to the sport and hopefully, with winning another title, people will pay attention a bit more to how hard we skaters train and how difficult it is to become successful,” Chan said. “It's a big motivation for myself in order to change figure skating and put it back on the map.”
He faces a tough task. So far his success on the ice hasn't drawn significant interest from Canada's corporate community. McDonald's remains his only major endorsement deal.
He also doesn't have as many vehicles to promote the sport as Canada's skating stars once did. Cranston made a second career out of professional ice and stage shows — everything from performing at Radio City Music Hall to “Stars on Ice.” But there are few shows left, and they don't draw the crowds they once did.
“Patrick Chan at least right now does not have alternative vehicles to promote himself,” Cranston said. “We know him because of the competitions, we don't know him because he starred on Broadway.”
Browning said Chan's victory at the world championships last year in Moscow — an event that was postponed and then moved following the Japan earthquake and tsunami — went largely unrecognized.
“I'm really hoping that if Patrick can win the worlds, that somehow a little bit more light does shine his way,” Browning said.
“I think for a great guy who is a good friend of mine who can do things on the ice that I couldn't dream of, I hope that, one, he does get to win again and, two, that he just somehow in the news day, that he gets a little bit more attention.”