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Sports Orser and Wilson help spark Cricket Club revival

The sun is streaming gently through a wall of glass-block windows at the Toronto Cricket Skating and Curling Club, where all eyes are on the elite international figure skaters carving soft circles into the ice.

The skaters have brought new life to the venerable old sports club in a stylish area of Toronto. The Cricket's skating club, lifeless and in the doldrums a few years ago, is bustling with new energy and life these days, thanks to a couple of Canadian skating icons, Brian Orser and Tracy Wilson, hired as skating consultants two years ago.

With Orser and Wilson at the helm, the club has gone quickly from absence to abundance, more quickly than anyone imagined. Last summer, skating sessions were overflowing, and it stirred life in the rest of the club.

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So busy has the club become that it has stopped taking on new members and has set up a wait list this year. "I've been here 18 years and that has never happened,'' said skating co-ordinator Diane Crites. "We just can't accommodate everybody who wants to come here.''

She also said numbers have doubled even in the past year for its junior skating programs, jumping to about 115 skaters from 60 last year.

Last summer there were skaters from Japan, Germany, United States, Mexico, and new faces from Korea, an emerging skating country. The previous summer, much-vaunted world champions Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo of China skated at the Cricket Club, too, putting their matchless elegance on view.

The current world bronze medalist, Kim Yu-Na, an exquisite 16-year-old from Korea with a fawn-like face and a fierce competitive instinct, has chosen the Cricket as her new home this year and Orser as her full-time coach. She's already becoming an established skater, with an eye on the Vancouver Olympics, but last summer, she skated alongside Ruslan Mahmud, a 13-year-old from Israel, who has traded the cry of Katoucha rockets for the art of the blade at the Cricket Club.

Mahmud's home in Metulla is only about 200 metres from the Lebanon border, so close he can recognize the faces of the Hezbollah militants. At the Cricket Club, he is out of harm's way. He's hoping for a sponsor to come back. Not only has the Cricket Club become a meeting place for the world's best, it's become a haven and a safe place for skaters.

The Cricket Club lies on six acres in residential north Toronto and up until last year, offered the only cricket pitch in Canada approved to host international matches. It also sports seven squash courts, a 25-metre pool, verdant greens for lawn bowling, 13 tennis courts, a curling rink, and facilities for physiotherapy and fine dining.

Toronto has always been a major figure skating centre in Canada, famous for its elaborate skating shows, spectacular enough to attract the likes of Sonja Henie. And the Cricket Club in particular has been a bustling centre for elite skaters, beginning with Montgomery Wilson, a nine-time Canadian champion who won an Olympic silver medal in 1932.

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Its heyday was in the 1940s to the 1970s, when world and Olympic champions waltzed through the club and gave the world skating stars like Francis Dafoe and Norris Bowden, Barbara Wagner and Bob Paul, Petra Burka, Toller Cranston and Donald Jackson. But the skating club took a hit about five years ago, when officials sought a new vision - catering to the elite skater - and dismissed a couple of Hall of Fame coaches. One of them, Ellen Burka, 81, had sent skaters to 25 world championships and seven Olympics, and produced 28 Canadian champions. The spirit slipped away from the skating portion of the club.

Orser and Wilson were hired initially as consultants for three months in 2006 to help set up programs and find a head coach. But when they saw the talent and synergy that existed among coaches that were already there, they ditched the idea, a departure from most clubs. Instead, they hired choreographer David Wilson, who has been making a name for himself as a first-rate choreographer of Canadian programs, as well as some top Japanese skaters.

David Wilson has single-handedly brought scores of top skaters to the Cricket Club's doors, at least to have their programs designed. These skaters serve as inspiration to member skaters. The Cricket Club welcomes them all.

Last year, Wilson designed the programs for all four Canadian senior champions: Olympic bronze medalist Jeffrey Buttle, two-time world ice-dancing silver medalists Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon, Joannie Rochette, fifth at the Turin Olympics, and charismatic pair skaters Jessica Dubé and Bryce Davison. He's also choreographed programs for Japanese star Nobunari Oda, and rejigged a routine for U.S. skater Sasha Cohen.

In May of 2006, Kim showed up at the Cricket Club for three weeks to have David Wilson design her long program. But Kim decided to stay and signed up for summer school. Eventually, she persuaded Orser to become her full-time coach. Olympic bronze medalist Jeffrey Buttle, also slung his skate bag over his shoulder and joined the Cricket Club, too, last season. Both were votes of confidence in the rising old club.

The activity has spun off to other areas of the club too. Now members sit in a glassed-in lounge to watch the skaters train. The lounge used to sit empty. And the dining room, which overlooks the skating surface, is busy as well.

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Toronto skating parent Mary Theresa Houston skated at the club during the 1970s, but brought her children, the next generation to the Cricket Club five years ago. Now her 12-year-old daughter, Olivia, is a Cricket Club skater, and her two younger sisters take part in a recreational program. A brother is enrolled in a class for hockey players, called The Inside Edge, set up by Orser and Wilson.

"[Olivia]loves it here,'' Houston said. "There is a great energy.''

The Cricket Club has always been a magical place for Wilson, who grew up in small-town British Columbia. It was a hot summer evening about 25 years ago that Tracy Wilson recalls the first time she set foot on Cricket Club ice.

She had just teamed up with Maritimer Rob McCall to form an ice dancing team that would win an Olympic bronze medal. The skating session they had joined was packed with skaters, and one of them was Cranston.

"For me, Toller was the person I grew up idolizing and emulating and was totally inspired by him,'' Wilson recalled. "To be on the ice with him - I was such a nervous wreck. Sure enough, I was doing back crossovers one way and he was going the other way and I caught his blade. He went flying.''

Cranston apparently forgave her for that, but the Cricket Club became an inspiring place to Wilson - as it had been to many others. It had been the home of a multitude of Olympic and world champions, whose photos adorn a wall near the Cricket coffee shop.

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Because of her experiences at the club, Wilson formed a vision for the club's comeback and it has been wildly successful.

In general, she said, an elite skater's life can be rather solitary: away from home, it's all about training. But when she and McCall skated at the Cricket Club, its members became their family. They used to arrive early before their afternoon session and watch the "morning glories" or the adult skaters. When Wilson and McCall skated, the morning glories stayed and watched them.

"We became support for each other,'' she said. Some of the members who watched them were Judge Joe Kane, who had been a part of the local hockey scene, and his wife Janet. Joe, a music buff, had an enormous collection of albums in his basement that Wilson and McCall used to get the idea for their 1988 Olympic routines.

Wilson and Orser wanted to bring a sense of community to the skating section, in which no part was more important than the other. Elite skaters don't work at the expense of beginners. "You can learn from each other,'' Wilson said.

Although they'd never done it before, Orser and Wilson set the parameters for a summer school last year with stroking classes and Friday afternoon classes with special guests such as David Wilson or Olympic champion Ilia Kulik of Russia. They wondered if any skaters would show up. Perhaps if they were doing well, they figured they'd get eight to 12. On the first Monday morning, 29 skaters showed up.

Enrolment for summer school almost tripled, Orser said. Some of the students signed on as members.

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"We had a lot of families join and the kids are taking up skating," Orser said.

The club's assistant manager, Paul Cadieux said he never expected Orser and Wilson to actually go on ice and help with stroking classes and teach the adult classes, but they have. Wilson said they love it.

Although Wilson has helped breathe life into the club, it has also given her something, too.

"The other day I was skating with an adult class and we were really getting into it, the music was going and we were getting into edgework,'' she said. "It kind of took my breath away.

"I never thought I would feel that feeling about skating again.''

She thought it had ended when she was forced to stop her partnership with McCall who had become ill with AIDS during the early 1990s. "I thought I'd never be challenged by skating again,'' she said.

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Because of it, she had walked away from skating for five years. She didn't set foot on the ice, until her own children started to skate.

It has been a surprise for her. The Cricket Club comeback has been a surprise for everybody.

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