Kurt Browning always jumps back in

Kurt Browning always jumps back in
Before a recent mid-morning practice at Toronto’s Granite Club, he explained how he found himself preparing for his 28th year with Stars on Ice, after deciding — a few times over — to move on.

“I thought when we did the 25th, that might be it. So, I threw myself a party,” he says.

That year, the legend of figure skating — a four-time world champion before leaving competition in 1994 — directed the show, and incorporated nods to his most popular programs. It had the air of a farewell, minus a formal announcement.

That was by design. Browning, 52, says he’ll never proclaim a tour as his last. It’s too easy to be lured back.

“Lots of skaters retire. Then there they are, four or five years later, still doing shows,” he says.

Sure enough, Stars on Ice producers called and convinced him to return as a guest for just five cities in 2016. His reluctance to get in shape again for the same in 2017 prompted a better solution: do the whole tour. With Elvis Stojko on the bill, he couldn’t say no.

“Elvis and I rehashed all the stuff we’ve ever done together competitively. And we had some really nice bonding talks,” he says.

Before he could even reconsider for 2019, however, his body almost made the decision for him. He was injured last fall playing hockey, when he bent over to reach for the puck and another player hit him head-on.

“I couldn’t move my arm for about 10 or 15 seconds. I had nerve damage down my back. I compressed my spine. I had trouble already in my upper thoracic, and that’s right where the weak spot in my back was,” he said.

He couldn’t even control his left arm enough to fully bring it into his body when he jumped.

“I did a double (Salchow), and took a really bad fall because I couldn’t pull in. Tried a single Axel and almost fell on that,” he says.

Then his longtime collaborator, choreographer Sandra Bezic, called. Would he do two shows in Spain, with his friend (and two-time world champion) Javier Fernandez?

Accepting the invitation gave him a deadline to get in shape for the December shows. He wasn’t fully recovered in time, but he got his double Axel back — “sort of” — and tossed in a backflip.

Those two shows got the attention of Stars on Ice producer Byron Allen, who asked him back yet again.

“Without the show in Spain, he wouldn’t have called me. He just would’ve filled the spot. I would’ve gone to the show this year, and never known that he was wishing I’d come back,” he says.

On the Granite Club ice, Browning is back to his old self. His longevity in skating is almost unheard of. While the younger generations of top Canadian skaters have come and gone from Stars on Ice, he’s remained a fan favourite.

“Some of us are just crazy lifers,” he says, but he’s unsure who else could similarly become synonymous with the tour.

“I think Patrick (Chan) has that opportunity. (Stars on Ice director) Jeff Buttle certainly has a love affair with skating but he’s injured right now, and what will that injury do moving forward? Joannie Rochette would have been loved for a long, long, long, long, long time. But she had a brain, and wanted to go flex that muscle,” he says. (Rochette now studies medicine at McGill University.)

This year, Browning leverages both his silly and serious sides. He’s revisiting the challenge of building a broad, comedic piece, which in the past has resulted in some of his best-received performances.

“I’m taking advantage of coming back one more time to try to go back to that literal clown place. Which is highly intimidating and horrifying. But really rewarding when you can get there,” he says.

There will at least one moment of introspection out there: He’ll also skate to Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind.”

“It’s just to bring emotions up to the surface,” he says, noting that he’s wanted to skate to Lightfoot’s music for years.

Just don’t try reading Browning’s mind when it comes to his future with Stars on Ice, because even he doesn’t know. Besides, if he does stop touring — again — he’ll only be a phone call away.

“If Jeff Buttle calls after three years and goes, ‘I need an evil wizard and a host, will you come back?’ Damn rights.”
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