Toller Cranston, figure skating innovator, dead at 65

Toller Cranston, one of figure skating's greatest artistic innovators, has died in Mexico at the age of 65.

Revolutionary skater, analyst won Olympic bronze in 1976

It is somehow fitting that of all days, Toller Cranston would die on the same day that a new Canadian men’s champion is going to be crowned.

Cranston passed away at his home in Mexico from an apparent heart attack, a Skate Canada spokesperson said Saturday. He won the bronze medal at the 1974 world championships in Munich and at the 1976 Innsbruck Olympics.

Cranston was a champion and more importantly a legend. International Skating Union vice president David Dore considered Cranston a "living legend."

"I was shocked by [Cranston's death] based on the fact that he was one of the few living legends in any sport. He was the perfect living legend," said Dore. "His legacy will be that he gave the sport a stamp that exists to this day. Even though he was always going uphill, he never lost his focus. The sport won. We all won."

"He was one of a kind," said Brian Orser, a former Canadian and world champion, Olympic silver medallist and now in-demand coach. "Nobody will ever be like him. And such a great contribution to figure skating but me, personally, (it was) just his sense of humour and his outlook on life and (his) free spirit ... (he was) somewhat of a rebel. Always spoke his mind, wasn't always so accurate but he spoke his mind."

In the media room we all looked at each other in shock when we first heard the news via Jeanne Beker’s Twitter account:

His artistry was considered to be one of the driving forces behind the move from strictly stiff athleticism to more expressive men’s skating. I believe that without Toller Cranston, there would not have been the generations that followed which included Patrick Chan.

Toller admired Chan’s skating and that he was glad not to have had to compete against him.

"I'm on another planet watching Patrick Chan with binoculars and applauding along with the rest of the world," Cranston said from his Mexican hideaway in 2012.

Cranston, who was born in Hamilton and grew up in Kirkland Lake, Ont., and Montreal, never won an Olympic or world title but his dramatic showmanship had a profound impact on figure skating.

The legend won national titles from 1971 to '76 and placed second at the 1971 North American championships in Peterborough, Ont. He won Skate Canada International events in 1973 and '75. He finished fourth at the 1975 world championships in Colorado Springs, and was fourth again a year later in Gothenburg, Sweden.

Cranston was 26 when he reached the Olympic podium at the 1976 Winter Games. He was later inducted into the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame, Canada's Sports Hall of Fame, and was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1977.

Toller remembered

I knew Toller. I remember him well from when I was a skater. He was older than I and maybe the most uninhibited person I have ever met. With all that freedom though, this was still a person whose vulnerabilities and sensitivity could make him challenging.

1964 Olympic bronze medallist and 1965 World champion Petra Burka was in the coaches’ room at the Cricket Club when she heard the news by email. It was her mother, Ellen Burka, who coached both of them.

1964 Olympic silver pair medallist Debbi Wilkes remembered Toller this way: “I think in many ways, Toller represented everything we admired in an artistic sport. He was brave, uncompromising and determined to take the sport where it had never been before. He had no patience or tolerance for people who couldn’t see the sport’s potential.”

1962 World champion Donald Jackson was in the stands watching skating at the national championships when I caught up to him: “He changed skating because he was willing to push the boundaries out and he didn’t give up; and that’s what changed skating all over the world. It’s a big loss,” said Jackson.

Truth be told, we all have our memories of Toller – mine was trying to chase him down for an interview for my book. He blew me off the first time and then I phoned him to see if I could catch him. We had the most magical conversation that went on for a couple of hours as I frantically took down notes. We connected.

The next time we spoke was in a podcast at Worlds in 2013

Artist. Skater. Visionary. Genius. There is only ever one ‘Toller’ in a generation.

With files from The Canadian Press