Markham, ON – In one corner of the Angus Glen Community Centre Arena was Brian Orser, perhaps one of the most-sought coaches on the planet these days.
Just down the ice was Orser’s coach from his competitive days: Doug Leigh. Twenty-five sets of young eyes were transfixed on them at various times during the three-day development camp for Canada’s future rising stars.
Skate Canada started the development camp four years ago to target skaters that are potential candidates for the Junior Grand Prix circuit (no senior skaters here). Orser, Leigh, Tracy Wilson, Anne Schelter, Lee Barkell, Joanne McLeod and Yuka Sato all directed skaters aged 12 to 17, teaching them basic skating skills and edges, transitions, jumps, spins, all the goodies they’ll need in years to come.
It seems to be working. Skate Canada high performance director Michael Slipchuk says four of the girls who attended early camps have already been to a world championship, even an Olympics. Nam Nguyen and Roman Sadovsky were in that first group. Now both have moved into the top echelon of senior skaters in Canada, with Nguyen breaking the speed limit to be fifth at the world (senior) championships in March.
“It just shows us that we are targeting the right level of athlete,” Slipchuk said. “We want to have a better idea of our talent pool coming up. And it gives us a chance to see them in a training setting.”
It’s also a development camp for coaches, to hear and watch and see and take the torches that have been passed by others.
So there was Leigh, a coach for more than 40 years, the creator of Olympic silver medalists and world champions Orser and Elvis Stojko at the mighty Mariposa Skating School in Barrie, Ont. Leigh was carrying a torch, too, for he’d been coaches for a couple of years by coach-to-the-stars Sheldon Galbraith. “Everybody… has fingerprints on the person you become,” Leigh said.
On ice, Leigh was part teacher, part entertainer. He kept talking about “threads and strands” – the minute details that make the difference between success and landing on one’s butt. It was about control and balance, the placing of the free foot just so. He talked to girls about doing triple Axels. It’s clearly here. “Let’s get the party going,” he said. ”We’re not sitting on the park bench.” If you master these details, he proffered, “you will go to first class. If not, you’ll go to the cargo bin.” The result will be like an insurance policy.
His subjects grinned. “He’s so funny,” said Rachel Pettit, a 16-year-old from Whitehorse, Yukon, who is Canada’s reigning novice women’s champion, set to become a junior this season. She’s heard the points he made before, but “the way he explains it is so different, that you just think of it a whole new way,” she said. “He has a very cool way of teaching.”
Stephane Yvars, now head coach at the Boucherville Centre Elite, decided to train with Leigh as a competitive skater, but in 1993, he already had a long-term plan in mind: to learn about coaching skaters, too, from the best. “He’s really generous,” Yvars said. “He’s the most generous person I know. He gives everything,”
When Yvars was a skater himself, he had landed a triple Axel only once (at age 16) before injuries took over. He knew he needed one when he returned. “We spent a month on the back edge,” Yvars said. “He’s so patient.” Yvars arrived in April. By the end of May, he was doing triple Axels. “He’s a great mentor,” Yvars added. Every year now, he invites Leigh to give seminars at his club.
So out there on ice, Leigh was now working as a colleague alongside Orser. What is it like for him to watch Orser ascend to international coaching heights? “He asked me if he was allowed to call me grandfather,” Leigh said.
“He was a world champion, and he’s got an Olympic and world champion,” Leigh said. “It’s really cool. It’s the person that is left after you’ve done that chapter. And you watch them go onto the next chapter. And they are great coaches and they can step up and take on the world and doing a good job.”
Orser said he’s taken much of what he learned from Leigh as a coach to what he does now, although he’s evolved with the times. “Skating has changed and technique has changed,” he said.
The takeoff and flights of jumps are now different than in Orser’s day. “We used to say we’d climb up into the jumps,” Orser said. “We’d swing that free leg through, whether it was an Axel or a Salchow or even a toe loop. You’d bring that free leg and you’d climb like you were climbing a stair.”
Now the feet stay together more. Skaters get into the rotation sooner. “You’re still climbing, but you’re not climbing like you are stepping on a stair,” Orser said. “”If you are talking about quads, this is imperative. You have to start teaching it this way now. “
The beauty of Dartfish showed that Orser was one of the only people who could do the big step up into a triple Axel and still get 3 ½ rotations completed while he was a skater. He does not teach Axels the way he learned them.
Other things he learned from Leigh have been vital to his success as a coach. “He was the hardest working person in the rink, who was always the first one there and the last one to leave,” he said. “He stepped on every session on time and with lots of energy.
“And you can still see that in him, that fantastic energy, but that’s what you need to have in a centre, when you try to create a community of skating. You have to do it with enthusiasm and energy and excitement and everybody feeds off that.”
Over the past two years, Leigh has stepped back from the boards at the Mariposa Skating School that he founded and works now as more of a general manager. But he’s always willing to pass on what he knows and he finds the development camp “wonderful.”
“Coaches are the leaders of the next generation,” he said. “This is team building. It’s great to be a part of it. It’s fun watching everybody develop.”
2015 Skate Canada Development Camp Participants
Justine Brasseur, 14, Brossard, Que.
Edrian Celestino, 17, Dollard-des-Ormeaux, Que.
Antony Cheng, 17, Richmond Hill, Ont.
McKenna Colthorp, 14, Fort St. James, B.C.
Marjorie Comtois, 15, St-Hubert, Que.
Kim Decelles, 16, Quebec City, Que.
Cailey England, 17, Quesnel, B.C.
Gabriel Farand, 14, St-Antoine-Sur-Richelieu, Que.
Ajsha Gorman, 14, Kelowna, B.C.
Brian Le, 15, Delta, B.C.
Grace Lin, 14, Dollard-des-Ormeaux, Que.
Nicolas Nadeau, 17, Boisbriand, Que.
Conrad Orzel, 14, Woodbridge, Ont.
Rachel Pettitt, 16, Whitehorse, Y.T.
Joseph Phan, 13, Gatineau, Que.
Alicia Pineault, 15, Varennes, Que.
Triena Robinson, 15, Fort St. John, B.C.
Alison Schumacher, 12, Tecumseh, Ont.
Gabriel St-Jean, 15, Grand-Mère, Que.
Sarah Tamura, 14, Burnaby, B.C.
Amanda Tobin, 14, Burlington, Ont.
Bruce Waddell, 13, Toronto, Ont.
Semi Won, 13, Barrie, Ont.
Matthew Wright, 14, Waterloo, Ont.
Megan Yim, 13, Vancouver, B.C.