The rain fell in torrents on Kitchener, Ont., and two hours away in Orillia, Ont., too, on May 7. A soggy Sunday for the ages.
It was a time for final curtain calls, all on the same day: one a visitation for songbird Gordon Lightfoot, who died May 1 at age 84, and the other a bow to 56-year-old Canadian skating icon, Kurt Browning, at a mid-way stop on his farewell Stars on Ice tour.
The two bumped happily into each other on their separate roads several years ago, when Browning skated to a Lightfoot tune at one of his 1,000 Stars On Ice shows over 30 years of showing off his lively schtick. Lightfoot was in the audience when Browning did the routine at a television taping in Hamilton, Ont. Talk about pressure.
Browning ended up at a Lightfoot concert after that and spent four minutes with the singer-songwriter. Browning found himself staring at Lightfoot, and he unabashedly told him so. “But it’s not because you are Gordon Lightfoot,” he told the minstrel. “It’s because literally, I feel like I’m with my father.”
Lightfoot, who had six children of his own, replied: I love that. That makes me happy.”
Give father Dewey Browning – who died at age in 2008 at age 86 – a longer hairstyle and you’d be looking at Gordon Lightfoot, said the skating son. Dewey was a cowboy, an outfitter who rode the Alberta foothills, the western version of a Lightfoot that understood pussywillows, cat-tails, railways, sunken freighters and rainy day people. Lightfoot was the master of song, son Browning the master of the blades.
“I thought, yes, you are Gordon Lightfoot, but it’s like I’m hanging out with my dad,” Browning thought. “He was like my father. The cadence [of his voice], his humour…I didn’t realize it until I was in his presence. It was very nice.”
Browning felt very lucky. Lightfoot also gave him a shout-out – and had a conversation with him – while on stage during his concert. Who gets to experience that, ever? “A shout-out from Gordon Lightfoot,” Browning thought.
But he added, you think of 30 years of doing this touring gig across Canada, and “that’s one of the zillions of experiences, with special fan interaction,” he said.
There was also special fan interaction at The Aud, as they now call the old arena in Kitchener, Ont., on Sunday night on the sixth of a dozen stops on the Canadian tour. The old place, sticky floors aside, was packed. And noisy. They blessed Browning with their cheers at every emotional number and the only other skater who got similar high-decibel ovations was Elvis Stojko, his old nemesis and junior at age 51.
The two kick it up again during a charming duet, with shades of Brian Orser, and Casablanca (Browning’s routine from the great Hamilton showdown in 1993) and Stojko’s Bruce Lee martial arts routine, although in 1993, he skated to “Far and Away.” At that event, 17,000 flooded the arena. The noise was deafening. With their feet in a hotel tub earlier on tour, Browning and Stojko reminisced.
“That was a big one,” Stojko said. “There was an Elvis Presley impersonator with a white jumpsuit running up and down [the aisles]. Someone would scream: “Kurt,” then someone would scream: “Elvis!” It was back and forth. It was mayhem.”
Browning won that round, but another year, when Stojko defeated Browning at a national championship, in Edmonton, he received hate faxes at the rink. “It was shocking,” Stojko said. “People were very passionate. They said: ‘You took this away from Kurt!’” And vice versa. Arguments would take place in dining rooms close to the rink.
Browning admits that in those days, they didn’t exactly text each other back and forth every day. Stojko recalls there was tension as they competed against each other – but that was good, they pushed each other – but they left it all on the ice.
Browning remembers going roller blading with Stojko in Thunder Bay, Ont., at an event when “he was a kid and I was sort of the bigger bull in the pasture.” At an Olympics, they joined forces to try to find Eric Lindros. They got a camera, looked everywhere, on buses, under benches. “We had a good day,” Browning said. “From the beginning, we were like kids who respected each other.”
When Stojko heard that this was Browning’s retirement tour, it hit him, hard. “For sure,” he said. When he skates numbers on the tour with Browning, he definitely feels the loss coming. “I go wow. I’ll be the last one of that generation still skating,” he said. “That kind of brings things to reality. “
He was asked at an autograph signing earlier on the tour if he was staying on, and yes, he is. “I didn’t announce my retirement,” Stojko said. “I’m still skating. I plan on doing next year.”
Nobody knows how long Stojko will stay around. He’s youthful, and fit, spending his time racing cars on an endurance circuit and teaching acting. He doesn’t seem to age. It’s years of spending time in a cold rink, he jokes. But really, he says the secret is to do only the things he likes to do, and none of the things he doesn’t like to do.
The retirement idea isn’t new to Browning. He says it really started in 2014. In 2015, he choreographed a show, slickly introducing a group number that was a version of his legendary Brick House number. “There were many elements of goodbyeness in that show,” he said. “I didn’t announce it, and then I came back.”
Then in 2018, he said the Stars On ice crew was the “best figure skating team known to figure skating.” Browning told himself just to step back quietly and let them soar, and he didn’t do the tour that year. He sat with a beer in his hand in the stands with Stojko’s father sitting behind him, and just about spilled it all when he saw Stojko land a triple Lutz in the show.
Then Browning got a phone call, and he was back in the lineup. Then COVID arrived and interrupted the tour. But he had developed a relationship with US skater Alissa Czisny in 2015, married her on Aug. 22 last year, and wanted to do a tour with her. And besides, it was Stars On Ice No. 30 for him, a nice round number.
“I’m not letting COVID take me, so I tried to stay in shape for that,” Browning said. The hardest part is not the shows themselves, but trying to stay in shape all year to be able to do them. He says he’ll stay in shape anyway, otherwise his back will bother him. His body is actually in good shape right now. He just wondered in the back of his mind if he could get to 30. And he has.
But age and circumstance does take its toll. Browning said he had a shaky start to the tour, and at one stop, stumbled around more than he would have liked.
Browning faced this: rehearsals on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, skate all day Friday, do a show, travel on Saturday to the next show. On the Sunday, his legs rebelled.
He stumbled. At one point, he was doing a quick change between numbers, walking on a rubber mat, no skate guards, but he caught his toe pick and “pile-drived my face into the floor, hurt both wrists, took the air out of my lungs,” he said. “I fell so hard.”
That fall just took it out of him. At one point in the show, Stojko caught him on ice. He tried to jump at the end of the show and fell a second time.
But then master coach Ravi Walia, texting him from afar, told him: “Another jump doesn’t change anything. Just bring the party.”
“If I’m worried about those things, then I’m not going to bring the party,” Browning reasoned. He got his priorities straight. The show in Moncton, N.B. was tops. “I’m trying to tell myself that it’s about 30 years, not three minutes that I’ve been doing this,” Browning said. “I also want to show people that I can still do it. And I was inspired mostly by the chance to skate with [Alissa.]”
Czisny has played a vital role in Browning’s solos. She choreographed an emotional number he does to “Please Forgive Me” by David Gray, a British musician who bobs his head to the music in contemporary folk-rock style. The joke, says Browning, is that it’s about “please forgive me for staying so long.” But they both chose the song because they both love it. There is no message.
Czisny choreographed it with the idea to give Browning lots of time to connect with the audience as he says goodbye. “It’s not about the skating,” he said. “It’s about allowing me to take the skating to the centre of the rink, then the side of the rink, and then another side. Just really get your face up and see people and remember what that feels like to be out there.”
This is one of his most emotional pieces. He does a spreadeagle all along one side of the rink and then the end boards, raising his arms to the audience.
His other routine is to “Who are You?” by The Who and it’s a masterpiece. Endlessly fascinating. He uses the music to do a collage of all his notable moves and steps from 60 different programs from his career. Brick House is in there, so is Casablanca (split jump and finger point), and that time that the clown jumps into the audience. Fans could sit down on a rainy day – like Sunday – get old videos and figure it out. He wears a t-shirt with those shows listed on it. It works. The program is about who he is.
Browning fronts an impressive cast: two recent world champions in pairs and dance (Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier, and Madison Chock and Evan Bates), world dance bronze medalists Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier who play a prominent role and bring John Denver back to life, but reprise their
Evita routine, too; Tiny Queen Satoko Miyahara (her beautiful “Ne Me Quitte Pas” routine is a must-see), world silver medalist from Belgium Loena Hendrickx delivers contemporary shapes and funk; a playful, slinky Madeline Schizas shines; a peerless Jason Brown, especially when he skates to Josh Groban’s “The Impossible Dream,” twice shares the ice with Patrick Chan, a match made in heaven, really, and an exquisite Czisny with white shirt billowing in her only solo.
And then there are two Canadian men from another generation, who have taken from those before them, like Stojko and Browning.
Chan, who has returned from several years of not skating at all, finds the tour “super emotional.” At dinner with wife Liz Putnam during the tour, he shed a tear, thinking of Browning’s impact on him. “There’s not many of them left,” Chan said. “I’ve been so grateful to have had Elvis and Kurt on televisions growing up my whole life, and influencing me and influencing the way I am on the ice and more importantly, influencing how I am off the ice. To be a good person.”
He says he regrets that he should have savoured and embraced the moments he’s had with them in years past, now that it’s coming to an end. “I should have hung around more and made a little bit of an effort to talk to [Kurt] and hear his stories,” he said. “We’re all getting older. Everything comes to an end.”
He is 32.
Keegan Messing finds himself in heavenly territory, getting to skate on the Stars On Ice tour alongside his two Canadian heroes. “Elvis Stojko got me into skating,” said Messing, who is only a year younger than Chan. “Browning taught me that footwork can be fun and fast and a joy to do.
“I remember watching Kurt when I was a kid, and seeing the love and the joy for the sport. And I just remember being at the rink the next day and trying to emulate what he did, and just trying to figure out how to do footwork like that.
“Just to be on the tour with these two legends is such an honour. Yes, it’s sad to see Kurt go, but at this point, we’ve got to be happy for what we had, and how much time we’ve had with him. The amount of inspiration he’s given to this sport is unparalleled.”
The Stars On Ice tour continues to Winnipeg on May 10; Saskatoon May 11; Edmonton May 13; Calgary, May 14; Victoria BC, May 15; and it ends in Vancouver May 18.