Listen easy. You can hear Patrick Chan take a nonchalant breath. His time is his time now. Hallelujah.
The 27-year-old skater, a 10-time Canadian champion and three-time world champion if you want to work the abacus, is hot-stepping his way across the country on the Stars On Ice tour.
Toss that maddening abacus. The wild receptions he’s been getting on this tour may have as much to do the sort of Canadian guy he’s been all along: humble, candid, wildly talented, as with his Olympic team gold medal. He’s been kicking the tires of the competitive world so long, we barely know what to do without him. He’s just one member of that talented world-busting generation that will disappear into the willows, save for a tour or two.
His reward after the Olympic Games in Pyeongchang? Skipping the world championships in Milan – his tank had run dry indeed – and heading to his adopted home of Vancouver, where he enjoyed the city’s early spring and saw the cherry blossoms burst forth in March. Priceless.
Picture him having to come back to Ontario to launch an ice wine near St. Catharines during – ironically enough – an ice/wind/snow storm. Hoping to hold his retirement announcement in conjunction with that, he cancelled it on the Sunday of the storm and moved it to Toronto on Monday. But the drive back home to Toronto that normally takes an hour took him 2 ½.
“The roads were really bad,” he said. “I’ve never driven in conditions that bad. It was scary. I’m glad not a whole bunch of people went because I would have felt really bad if anything had happened.”
It was a reminder of how easy his decision was to move to Vancouver. “It kind of reaffirmed why I want to be out west,” he said.
Vancouver represents a new start and a new way of life to Chan, who has been a bit of a nomad. Born in Ottawa, he grew up in Toronto, trained in Florida, then in Colorado Springs, then Detroit. “It’s a different pace of life,” he said.
It was his refuge when he felt the wheels come off after a disappointing result at Skate Canada in Regina. He exited stage left and headed to that part of the world where his girlfriend Liz Putnam lives. Being in Vancouver made his journey to the Olympics less scary. “A big chunk of it, I would say a big solid 50 per cent of the other half was being really able to get away from the noise,” he said.
The noise? The Olympic year is noisier than all the rest. It was within him and without him. “I’m just that type of person that I fill up my garbage can with negative thoughts,” he said. “And then it overflows. “And you throw your hands up in the air and say:’ Forget it. I’m over it.’ You’re just so frustrated.”
He needed a calm, quiet place. There was a long, huge silence from Chan after he cancelled out a second Grand Prix event and disappeared from sight last fall. “Even my own teammates were calling me and saying: ‘Hey, how are you doing?
“For sure, they care about my actual well-being, but they also wanted to know, just like anybody else, if I was going to commit myself to the Games.”
It was a serious matter back then. Chan says he can now laugh about it.
The Olympics proved to be the end of his competitive career but the beginning of other things.
He reconnected with his parents. We’ve all seen the letter from his parents that he received in Pyeongchang, that he read on air. “Dear beloved son,” it began. “You have worked hard, persevered and represented Canada at your third Olympic Games. We are so proud of you as always.
“More important than Olympic medals and international victories, you have demonstrated your desire to learn and improve by dedicating countless hours to hone your craft. You have succeeded in instilling self-discipline and the will to excel.
“Throughout many challenging moments over the years, you have displayed calm and dignity and always maintained a sense of humour. You’ve grown up from a curious little boy to a kind and compassionate young man who cares about others and wants to make the world a better place. All this will carry you in good stead in the next chapter of your life. Take a moment to kick back and enjoy the moment in life. There is much to celebrate.”
This is when Chan reaches for the tissue. It was an emotional reach for all of them.
“I am an only child and skating has been such a big part of their life and my life and their financial security was sacrificed for the sport,” Chan said. “Luckily I came out on the top on the other side.”
But being an only child and an Asian came with a price, he said. His mother had been by his side every step throughout the crucial buildup to the pinnacle of his career. And then he cut her out completely by the time he turned 21 “as any adolescent would,” he said. “They all leave at some point. It was especially hard for my mom. My dad had to be there to support her. I don’t think my mom has ever resented me for it. But it was still tough.”
Karen Chan went on a European trip once, rather than follow her son. The silence between them lasted for years. Until Pyeongchang.
Every day in Pyeongchang, he actively tried to see them and spend time with them. He saw them watching him. Karen and Lewis Chan were smiling, cheering. “To see my mom cheering me on vocally is totally different,” he said. “In the past my mom was pretty stern and pretty quiet. To see them get completely emotionally involved was a real treat.”
The letter was a first step back. “The letter just encompassed the entire experience of my career. And our back and forth. Now we’re at a whole different place in our relationship.”
The Chans have recently bought a condo in Surrey, B.C. It’s tiny. Chan’s mother loves to hike, as he does. “She loves B.C. when it’s sunny,” he said. She still travels back and forth between Vancouver and Toronto, where she still has a wide circle of friends.
Chan the Olympic gold medalist lives with Putnam, who he has known since he was 11 or 12 years old. He knew her in passing. Putnam was a two-time national bronze medalist in pairs with Sean Wirtz in 2003 and 2004, and they earned a bronze medal at the 2006 Four Continents championships. They split in 2007 after Wirtz dealt with a series of injuries. They were known for their charming and charismatic routines. Putnam now works as a coach/choreographer in Vancouver, where she grew up, but she was also up for a unique adventure a few years ago: skating at 2,500 feet above sea level on a lake in the B.C. mountains, all created by filmmaker Brad Friesen.
Putnam and Chan had crossed paths when both were training at the Toronto Cricket Skating and Curling Club years ago. They hadn’t seen each other for about 10 years when a year ago, they crossed paths. Putnam speaks with a soft winsome lilt. Canada’s version of Carolina Kostner perhaps. They have a circle of mutual friends already. It all just made sense.
Since the Olympics, Chan has been preparing for show, but also darting about Vancouver trying to set up his life going forward. He’s been sitting in meetings with “gurus” in Vancouver, trying to set up a skating school, but also looking into a career in commercial real estate, either as a broker or developer. His mentors are telling him he’s young, he has lots of time to pursue this area. If he does, skating in shows won’t be an option. He’d have to be 100 per invested in it.
It’s a new concept to him, taking time, letting it roll. “I always feel, like being an athlete, you always want to be one step ahead,” Chan said. “I’m trying to do that, and I’m learning that real life doesn’t always work on that time schedule. It’s a much slower pace.”
He’s also looking forward to June, when he will set aside the skating world for a while. And then he’ll really get to enjoy Vancouver with Putnam. They plan a trip to an island near Vancouver – one of the first places Chan sought after the disasters of Skate Canada. In those dark days, he went to a yoga retreat there and spent a lot of time hiking.
He wants no distractions. His time will be his time. He hasn’t had time to sit and look over the ocean and go: “Oh my god. It’s over.”
“It’s not over, but it’s the end of a chapter,” Chan said. The moon can now stand still. Hallelujah.