2015.10.16 - Beverley Smith - Hanyu mania at Autumn Classic

This is a story I wrote for Icenetwork on Yuzuru Hanyu’s opening competition of the season at Autumn Classic in Barrie, Ont., Canada:


The presence of Yuzuru Hanyu at the humble Autumn Classic in Barrie, Ont., a small city north of Toronto, was a game-changer for some this past week.

No longer listed as part of the Challenger Series, the Autumn Classic takes place in a national training centre with five or six rows of viewing seats. Even last year when it was part of the Challenger Series, it carried a no-frills budget.

But once the Sochi Olympics men’s champion from Japan signed up to open his season and unleash a new free skate for the first time here, and Skate Canada got wind of an army of Japanese fans booking flights to Canada, it sent a media staff, set up tables beside the ice surface and found a mixed zone in a (rare) quiet corner.

When the Japanese federation heard that a flurry of Japanese fans had booked flights to get to Barrie, it sent its own little force to protect Hanyu: two strong looking men who followed him everywhere and allowed only seven minutes for post-event scrums. For the fans, it was a rare opportunity to get as close and personal as possible with Hanyu in a small venue.

Barrie never saw anything like it. The fans arrived in droves on practice day on Tuesday, and lined up all the way down a ramp to buy tickets, half an hour before the place opened at 6:30 a.m. Seats weren’t assigned, so they claimed their spots, laying sweaters and scarves and bags on the seats in the Allandale Recreation Centre arena.

The first night, puzzled janitors removed the sweaters and various seat-holders and placed them all in the lost-and-found department.

Aghast, the fans resorted afterwards to camping out at the front entrance overnight, with sleeping bags. Skate Canada staff tried many times to comfort them, saying they could sleep in a hotel bed and return early the next morning to get their seats. The fans didn’t budge, despite temperatures that hovered a few degrees above freezing.

Skate Canada live-streamed the event, so that when fans in Japan – who hadn’t made the trip – saw it, they texted their friends, asking them to buy programs for them. The Japanese snapped up multiples of the program, despite only three pages devoted to the Autumn Classic. The rest detailed an Oktoberfest regional competition taking place this week.

When Hanyu made his first appearance for a practice on Tuesday, the video cameras and smart phones came out and followed his every move. A group of Japanese media – some familiar faces – made the trip as well. Jet-lagged, they could be found in a backroom arena corner at times, nodding off on benches en masse.

And what a show they got.

Hanyu  won the event with a total of 277.19 points, 36.09 points ahead of Canadian champion Nam Nguyen, who had a powerful short program, but a troubled long. Sean Rabbitt, a 25-year-old competing at his first international competition, took the bronze medal and was in tears at the thought of his mother, Helene, in a wheelchair, making the trip to see him. In his first practice, he was in the same group as Hanyu.

Hanyu won the short program with 93.14 points, after stumbling out of his quad toe loop. He’s using his exquisite routine by Jeff Buttle from his troubled last season, because, said coach Brian Orser, “it had never had a home run with him.

“I’d hate to retire it,” Orser said. “It’s such a beautiful piece.” Hanyu has the world record of 101.45 for a  short program, set at the Sochi Olympics, but Orser thinks Hanyu could score 105 with this routine.

But everybody had been waiting to see Hanyu’s new long program. And they weren’t disappointed.

Orser said Hanyu showed up this spring in Toronto and immediately brought a whole body of music from the popular 2001 Japanese movie “Onmyoji”, about powers of the light and dark fighting an epic battle. This is only the second time that Hanyu has suggested music. Last season, he went to “Phantom of the Opera.”

In the movie, legendary Japanese actor Mansai Nomura plays the role of the Onmyoji, a kind of Yin-Yang Master. But what mattered most to Hanyu about Nomura was his long involvement in Kyogen farcical theatre, an art form dating from the Middle Ages. The entire Nomura family has popularized Kyogen around the world.

Nomura’s father, Mansaku, is considered a “Living National Treasure” of Japan for his work in Kyogen. So was his grandfather, Manzo Nomura VI. He, too, is a “Living National Treasure.”

And earlier this year, Hanyu met Mansai, now a 49-year-old actor and mentor. The meeting was engineered by Akiko Ebisawa of Nippon Television – who was at Autumn Classic this week.

Ebisawa filmed the meeting between Nomura and Hanyu, comparing their art and the movement they use. Hanyu appeared overcome at meeting Nomura. “He is a huge fan,” Ebisawa said. “[Hanyu] was very nervous.”

The first move in Hanyu’s free is a move used by Nomura in a kyogen stance. In the new routine, Hanyu places two black-gloved fingers in front of his lips, then swings his other arm over his head. When Nomura performs the movement, he’s wearing traditional Japanese medieval costume, with long, boxy sleeves. Nomura and Hanyu decide that he has to adapt this costume and movement to suit a figure skating routine. For the first time at Autumn Classic, the world saw Hanyu’s version: a soft ivory gold, belted tunic,with slight bell sleeves, more streamlined for figure skating.

The Nippon film also shows Hanyu and Nomura comparing their mediums.
They both agree that one must learn the basics before one can practice their art. There are similarities. Kyogen has set forms, like karate.

And to translate all of that onto the ice? Nomura found a way. On the film he shows how Kyogen artists jump three times (for example) and land with increasingly emphatic thuds on stage.  Because that is not possible in skating, Nomura shows him that he can draw attention to a movement by swinging an arm aloft first. You cannot just copy Kyogen, Nomura says. “You must think what the movement means – which gesture would be most effective.”

Many of Hanyu’s arm movements flash at the sound of a drum. How to do the ending, with that final bang of a drum? Hanyu stands at centre ice, and snaps both arms out and up. It’s extremely effective.

He got a standing ovation.

The reaction? Buttle, who trained at Barrie for years, watched from the sidelines. His jaw  dropped.

Three-time world champion Elvis Stojko, known for his own martial arts routine, stopped in at Allandale on the way home from a movie shoot. He’s glad he stayed to watch, he said.

Hanyu’s routine was wonderfully understated, Stojko said. “It’s not overly dramatic,” he said. “There is a certain humble quality to it that I like. The style of the program and the music builds. It’s not in your face. I hate it when it’s overly done. It’s just nice and clean skating. It speaks for itself. “

“And he’s filled out so his body is a little stronger,” Stojko said. “There is a maturity to his skating. He’s not as flingy as he was before. Now he’s more controlled with his movements.”

Hanyu wasn’t perfect, but for this time of the year, astonishing. He landed a tightly rotated quad Salchow, but then put a hand down on a quad toe loop that followed. He fell on his second quad toe loop in the second half of his routine. He turned out of a triple Axel, one of his favourite jumps. He regretted those mistakes, he said later in Japanese.

His spin combinations were crisp and ever changing and imaginative. His Ina Bauer was beyond compare, leaning far back into the motion. Shae-Lynn Bourne choreographed this routine and there’s even a remembrance of her: Hanyu “hydroblades” – a move that Bourne and partner Victor Kraatz used to do by gliding low to the ice on their blades. When Hanyu finished, he bent over, hands on his thighs.

Orser said he hasn’t reached full steam yet. His cardio isn’t 100 per cent. He’s still working on the right footwork into quads.

Perhaps the secret to Hanyu this season is that he’s spent a lot of time in Toronto with Orser. Last year was harried and unpredictable, Orser said. He injured himself at Cup of China and skated with a bandage on his head. He had surgery to correct an abdominal growth and lost time because of that, too. Many events were in Asia, so there was little reason to complicate things by flying back and forth between continents.

This season, he started at the Autumn Classic, about an hour away from his training centre in Toronto. And his next start will be at Skate Canada in Lethbridge, which keeps him in Canada. After that he’ll have three weeks in Toronto to train for his next Grand Prix.

“It’s really nice to have him around,” Orser said.

Hanyu admits that it’s allowed him something he did not have last year. And it seems, Hanyu’s power is only beginning to rise.