Donald Jackson comes from Oshawa, Ont., and captured the first world championship won by a Canadian man in Prague, Czechoslovakia, in 1962. He came from way behind to beat the local star Karol Divin – a seemingly impossible task because Jackson needed to be perfect in his final performance to capture the title.
Jackson was just that in front of more than 20,000 fans in an arena with no boards. His victory came the year after the entire United States figure skating team had been killed in a plane crash while heading to Europe.
“We were skating for the free world,” Jackson recalled his victory. “Dick Button, the American Olympic champion came up to me after and said that was the greatest performance he had ever seen! It made me very proud.”
Brian Orser of Midland-Penetang, on the shores of Georgian Bay, Ont., was the world champion in 1987 the same year that another local kid named Russ Howard won the global title in curling. “They had a parade for both of us,” Orser laughed. “My luck was such that I never quite had the day to myself.”
He was referring to his epic battle with Brian Boitano at the 1988 Calgary Olympics – perhaps the finest hour of men’s figure skating. The story goes that they were evenly matched but Boitano won the gold medal by the slimmest of margins to deny Orser a purely Canadian moment in the “home” Games.
“I wouldn’t change a thing,” Orser said to the crowd. “He made me a better skater and I think I made him a better skater. More than that, we delivered a moment our sport will not soon forget.”
The most recently minted world champion in the group was Jeffrey Buttle of Sudbury. His home is a hard rock town but he is an athlete imbued with sublime grace and style. To Buttle it is the substance of performance that matters most.
An Olympic bronze medallist in 2006 at the Torino Olympics, Buttle won his world crown in Sweden two years later. He did it without a quad jump when most agreed it couldn’t be done. Then again, Buttle’s final skate was flawlessly joyous in its expression and execution. Not long after it was over, he retired from international competition with the Vancouver 2010 Olympics less than two years away.
“My heart wasn’t in it,” Buttle offered. “I love to perform. In a competitive season I got to do that maybe six times a year. Now as a professional, I can do it as often as I want. That’s what makes me happiest.”
Brian Orser and Donald Jackson are members of Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame and Jeffrey Buttle is a sure bet to enter the hallowed place soon. I mention this because the other day I met with a group of people who are envisioning what the new permanent home of the Hall of Fame in Calgary will look like.
The construction contract belongs to a Canadian company but some of the key architects and conceptual minds behind the project are American. As we talked about what sport means to Canadians, I couldn’t resist telling them the stories of these three figure skating champions.
The architects and graphic designers got it completely. And we delved into more folklore about Northern Dancer, Barbara Ann Scott, Terry Fox, the 1972 Summit Series and Daniel Igali … the list goes on.
In the end, we agreed the need to celebrate a huge country where people come from small places to achieve memorable things. The Americans who listened understood that in Canada our sporting heroes are revered not because of statistics or the amount of hardware they’ve won.
Our remarkable figures of sport all have a compelling story to tell which in one way or another reflects an inclusive country.
There’s something about Canada and sport.
Our impressive victories are few enough that everyone gets to share in the experience. That’s what will make Canada’s new Sports Hall of Fame truly remarkable. It will be full of real people who have become legends to us all.
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