The onetime king of Canadian figure skating witnessed the future of men’s skating in his homeland at the 2019 Championships, and he liked what he saw.
With a new quadrennial underway, the question is out there: Who will be the next Orser, Browning, Stojko or Chan? Stojko, who was the athlete ambassador at the Championships, believes he may well have seen the answer in Saint John, New Brunswick. Rising talents caught his eye, one of which could indeed be the “next one.”
Stephen Gogolev, 14, the silver medalist in the men’s event and Conrad Orzel, 18, in particular, are seen by many as the top up-and-comers. “It’s always tough after the top people move on,” said Stojko. “You’ve got big shoes to fill in Patrick … but after watching the top six guys here, I’d say (the future) is good.
“Gogolev is a phenom. He’s the future of men’s skating, for sure. His jumps are quite big for his size, which is good. But the thing is, when he gets power, that’s going to change the timing. The distance and height of the jump and the timing of the rotation will change. Hopefully, he’s going to be able to keep his jumps through that, and he doesn’t grow too much too fast.
“Conrad is finding his groove. He’s learning to have confidence in himself. He’s such a good kid. I like his personality and he’s so talented. I’ve watched him land a quad Lutz in practice and it was impressive. It’s all there for him.
“And you’ve got Nam (Nguyen), who’s worked himself back, which is extremely difficult after losing everything and the will to skate. He’s got the talent and he’s got the quads, which is great.”
The proliferation of quads in the sport today also pleases Stojko, who made history as the first skater to land quad-double and quad-triple combinations in competition. The four-revolution jump became his calling card, perhaps more than any other skater in his time. Nobody did more to “push the envelope” technically, as he liked to say.
“It’s the way it grows in any sport. It has to and if you try to stop it, it’s ridiculous,” said Stojko. “I attribute that (growth) to the technology of skates getting lighter, blades changing, and also the technology of kids being able to see it young. With YouTube, you can just go online and watch others.
“When I was 7 or 8 years old, I didn’t see anything. I watched a little bit of skating on TV and then just figured it out in my head. But these kids, they can watch anything, anywhere — for them a quad is a normal thing. If kids see something, they go do it, so with that going on, things are going to accelerate faster. That’s why, in this generation, all of a sudden you see this upswing happening.”
If by now you are thinking Stojko is completely enamored with the direction the sport is headed … well, think again. He has never been a fan of the current judging system, which came to life in the years after the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic scandal. And Stojko’s disdain for the system is still very much alive today.
“The system ends up making everybody look the same to me. I look at them all doing the same stuff from beginning to end … there’s very few out there that stand out,” Stojko explained. “There’s a few that have a very specific style, and they’re able to stand out. But, generally speaking, it just homogenizes everything.
“They (the ISU) widened the Grade of Execution, but they’re going to constantly be changing that. With the long program, they’ve shortened it and taken one jump out, and it’s hard now. The programs, from beginning to end, seem very, very cluttered. There’s no moment, except maybe at the beginning and at the very end, that you can connect with the audience. That’s what’s really difficult.”
The word “audience” gets to the heart of Stojko’s biggest gripe with the current system. In his mind, it was not designed to be fan friendly, and it sucked out a large part of the magic that made people flock to arenas to watch figure skating — the “perfect” 6.0 score being the most magical of all.
Stojko believes that is what made people come to watch skating. “It had its niche because controversy was part of it. Then they tried to make it more like gymnastics. “The reason 6.0 had magic is because it involved the audience. The audience became part of the competition because they understood it. I’ve talked about this since the very beginning — honestly, they don’t cater to the audience now. The 6.0 system did — fans understood what it meant. If you don’t have an audience, if no one comes no matter how great the skating is … there’s no point.
“The judges have to realize that people attacking the judges was part of the competition. That’s what made it fun and exciting. It had subjectivity, it had something that no other sport had and that’s what made it unique. And by taking out that part of it, making it complicated and then trying to quantify it to make it so exact — you can’t; you never will — they lost the controversy.”
While figure skating will always appeal to its core audience and “they’re going to love it no matter what because they like to watch skating,” Stojko believes the current system has chased away fans on the fringe of the sport who no longer feel connected to it in quite the same way.
“The reason you have a sport that can reach further than just your core fans is you have other tiers,” he said. “Before, skating had that. There was controversy. They had different characters in the sport, all different types of personalities. There was so much of that involved, and that’s what created the magic. By putting in the points system and trying to make it absolute with all this stuff … they cut off that magic line between the audience and the actual sport itself.
“I tell you, they shot themselves in the foot by making it more complicated. The simplest answer is always the best.”
Stojko said he has spent time trying to learn all the various ins and outs of the current system but feels bored by it all. He has no interest in coaching, and the new scoring system is a large part of that mindset.
“When you’ve got to do course after course after course just to be a coach … I’ve spent so much time trying to figure it out, and I don’t understand it all,” he said. “At the beginning, I studied it for a while and then I said, ‘I don’t have time for all of this.’ That’s why I don’t want to be a coach.
Instead, give him an ice rink full of eager youngsters at a seminar — budding talents he can inspire to success with encouraging words, or by lending a hand to adjust a skater’s jump technique. That is where his interest in developing the future generation lies. “I help kids training for competition, and get them mentally prepped. I work on their technique. But the rest of this stuff … I don’t care. Working with the kids, it’s been great,” Stojko said.
He also finds himself back on the ice at the Richmond Training Centre in Richmond Hill, Ontario, (his old stomping grounds) and at other rinks in the Toronto area, where he makes himself available to help an aspiring skater with the technical or mental aspects of the sport.
After spending nine years living in Mexico, Stojko returned to Canada in 2014. He and his wife, Gladys Orozco — whom he met in Mexico — live east of Toronto with their three rescue dogs. The return home has also helped with his burgeoning acting career. “I really enjoyed living in Mexico, but I was being pulled back for the acting and other stuff. I needed to be more accessible,” he explained.
Fortunately for Stojko, his Mexican-born wife has taken kindly to the harsh Canadian winters. “She loves the snow, she really does — and I’m lucky that she does. Sometimes, when it’s really cold, it’s tough, but she just throws on a jacket and it’s fine. And when she wants to, we go back to Mexico.”
Though he is now 46 years old, Stojko is hardly slowing down. He estimates he did about 130 skating shows last year, spread among small club events, Stars On Ice, the “Thank You Canada Tour,” and a series of 65 “Christmas Town” shows at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Virginia. “My wife and I do Christmas shows in the park there,” he said. “That was a four-year contract we had. They’re smaller shows, half an hour each, but I’m on the ice for 22 minutes.”
Stojko knows there will come a day when his body will not allow him to be so active on the ice. But he is already hard at work transitioning into his next full-time career. He caught the acting bug in a major way and has gained status in the actors’ guild (ACTRA), which is opening doors for many new projects.
Canadian fans of the detective series “Murdoch Mysteries” — which airs on Canada’s CBC network on Monday nights — may have noticed Stojko’s guest appearance in the Jan. 28 episode. “I’ve been auditioning for a lot of different parts for Netflix, and I shot a small part in a movie at the end of January,” he said. “I’ve got my ACTRA status now, which makes it a lot easier to get parts. I’ve got some other stuff coming out that we’ll announce later — some theatre stuff.
“I just love the process, the skill of acting. I love creating and developing characters and I love performing, either in front of a camera or on the stage…it’s a way to express parts of myself. It’s fantastic. That’s what I want to switch over to completely when why body doesn’t allow me to skate anymore. I’m very lucky that I can still do it.”
As part of his duties as athlete ambassador in Saint John, Stojko hosted a skating seminar with fellow Canadians Kaetlyn Osmond and Elladj Baldé. He also took pleasure in awarding medals to a new generation of champions. That led to one particularly nostalgic moment for Stojko. “Handing out the medals to the novices and juniors was really cool,” he said. “I was handing out the junior boys’ medals and Joanne McLeod was the coach of the top two boys. She smiled at me about that because when I won junior she was my coach and choreographer. We were in Orillia at the time, and Joanne was working with me there.
“Now I’m handing out medals to her boys, which was really cool. She came over and gave me a hug and said, ‘talk about full circle.’ And I said, ‘I know, Victoria in 1988!’ So that was really nice.”