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Running back to Saskatoon

Posted: Wednesday, January 21, 2009 | 05:06 PM

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I’ve got the perfect cure for the dog days of winter.

It’s simple, head out to Saskatoon when it’s 30 below.

OK, you might say give your head a shake, but the way I see it, temperature is a relative thing and inconsequential when you’re confronted with people who have passion for excelling in the frozen season.

So it was that I was privileged to watch the Canadian figure skating championships unfold in the place the band The Tragically Hip, refers to as “The Paris of the Prairie,” in their hit song Wheat Kings. A city that boasts a bitter, cold reading on every thermometer and a wind that comes whipping across the plain threatening to cut you to the quick.

Outside the Credit Union Centre, formerly and perhaps more romantically known as Saskatchewan Place, there is a bronze, life-size statue depicting “Mr. Hockey.”

Gordie Howe was born not far from here in Floral, Sask., and became the prairie monarch who dominated our national obsession for decades. Compared to the modern gladiators of the game he looks small and almost without padding in his Detroit Red Wings uniform. But there is so much strength evident in his sloping shoulders as well as his notorious elbows. There is a smoldering fire in his eyes.

Inside the building, the fans are legion and they afford standing ovations for most of the competitors. Not just for Joannie Rochette, the accomplished Canadian champion, but for all of the others as well.

Saskatchewan has produced few iconic names in figure skating, still the crowd is substantial in size and they rave about the duo of Paige Lawrence and Rudy Swiegers who have emerged from the tiny Wawota Figure Skating Club, five hours to the southeast of here. Lawrence and Swiegers are making an impact on the Canadian pairs scene in spite of the fact they are still juniors.

A reverence for the “world class” stars is palpable and every time Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the world championship silver medallists in the ice dance, venture to the main stage, the fans go wild. At the end of their rendition of a Pink Floyd number in the final program that secures their second-consecutive national title, the knowledgeable and faithful followers are enraptured - on their feet to cheer their idols while peppering the ice with flowers and stuffed toys.

On the morning of the last day of the championships, temperatures rise to just below freezing and Saskatoon flourishes in the sunlight. The South Saskatchewan River never completely gels because the waters flow swiftly.

On the near side of the shore and on the far side of the majestic Bessborough Hotel, there lies a natural skating surface where hockey sticks are forbidden. It’s called Meewasin Skating Rink and Readers Digest proclaims it has been voted, “the best skating rink anywhere.”

I put on my blades and take a spin with a crowd of others - little kids and adults - some who are experts, most who are not. There is laughter from underneath the balaclavas and some folks sit warming their hands by the small bonfire at a corner of the rink.

It is exhilarating to be there.

Then I walk up 20th to the corner of 2nd and get in my rented pickup truck. I drive right past Folk’s Finer Furs and Folk’s Curling Corner, owned by the family of the last man representing Saskatchewan to win the Canadian men’s curling championship - the Brier. Rick Folk was victorious in 1980, nearly 30 years ago. The very mention of his name still creates a stir in Saskatoon.

Just before checking in to work on that final day, I discover the Clarence Downey outdoor speed skating oval, in the shadow of the Gordie Howe Bowl where the Saskatoon Hilltops play their football games in the hot prairie summers. It is open for public skating. I make 10 trips around the glass-like surface, which is protected from the prevailing breezes by a stand of friendly pine tress.

This is where the Olympic fable of two-time gold medallist Catriona Le May Doan was born. On this occasion, a bevy of young aspirants are braving the elements, some taking the first tentative strides in pursuit of her legacy.

To race on that oval, underneath the warmth of the sun’s rays on a gusty day, I begin to understand what it must have taken to come from this challenging place to conquer the world.

Finally, I go to the indoor stadium to watch the next great Canadian figure skater work his magic. Patrick Chan lives in Toronto and trains in Orlando, Fla. But in this Canadian city of winter he serves notice he can melt the prairie ice with the heat of his talent.

It is a near perfect ending to a sojourn in the severity of the season.

It is an interlude spent on blades that will have me running … no skating … back to Saskatoon.

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