Stars hitting the ice in Hamilton again

Source: Hamilton Spectator
Date: April 27, 2011
Author: Steve Milton
Scott Hamilton remembers the objective.

"I wanted to create something that was long-lasting and cool," the iconic Olympic and four-time world figure skating champion recalled yesterday.

"And I needed a job."

Mission accomplished, on all three counts.

It was 1986 and, after two years with him as the headliner, industry heavyweight Ice Capades had been sold and the new owners decided a man couldn't sell figure skating in the U.S. So Hamilton was out. It was a financial worry, but an artistic release.

"It's a big machine that's been around 50 years, so you're skating how they want you to skate," Hamilton recalls. "I wanted to get something where skaters could skate the way we wanted to skate. I wanted to create a place, find the best of who I can be on ice, which you can't do when someone else is running the show. And I wanted that for everyone else, too."

So Scott Hamilton's American Tour was born in late 1986, with modest ambition. Five college towns in the fall, a small handful of other cities in December.

And the only Canadian arena on the schedule was the brand-new Copps Coliseum.

The tour was quickly renamed Stars on Ice. So, although this year formally marks the 21st tour of the Canadian Stars on Ice brand, when Kurt Browning and Olympic champions Evan Lysacek, Jamie Sale and David Pelletier arrive here Saturday night, it will actually be the silver anniversary for Hamilton.

There were a couple of years near the beginning the show didn't come to Copps, but it's still one of the coliseum's longest-running consistent attractions, along with Disney on Ice, which has stopped in Hamilton annually since 1987.

Stars represented a philosophical break from traditional annual ice tours that dated to the late 1930s and, like Disney now, revolved around huge, heavily costumed production numbers with lavish sets, multiple shows in each stop and a less-than-demanding performance by the latest big name to graduate from the Olympic podium.

Hamilton's new venture was almost the opposite: one-night stands, no sets to speak of, minimal, but effective costuming, lots of higher-level skating by individuals, pairs and dance teams and a couple of group numbers. No Mickey Mouse hawking cheap wares at centre ice, no Sonia Henie drowning in thousands of feathers.

Hamilton's idea worked and Stars became a mainstay across North America and eventually Japan, although, like all skating outside of Asia since the French Judge scandal of 2002, it has been forced to seriously contract. When Hamilton retired from touring a decade ago, there were 60 cities on the U.S. tour. This year, there are 25. Champions on Ice, which competed against Stars, folded three years ago and nothing has risen to replace it.

"It was sad to see something so vibrant as Champions on Ice reach its end," Hamilton says. "Stars on Ice is the last man standing now.

"We were able to build a strong relationship with a dedicated fan base. I've met a lot of people who've been to every tour since it started. And I think that will continue as long as people on both sides honour it."

From the beginning, Hamilton wanted the hockey boards removed for Stars shows so there was no physical and symbolic barrier between performer and audience and he wanted ice-level seating to create intimacy and a sense of theatre. That makes the skating surface smaller than in competition, but nowhere near as cramped as in the set-dependent forerunners such as Capades and Ice Follies, which meant skaters could build up the speed for bigger and better tricks. And, with verbal urging, and by setting an example with his enthusiasm, professionalism and ability to create a sense of family, he struck a template for Stars that has continued long since his retirement from performing.

"Every performance meant something to me. I was building something, a tour, an audience, a following," he said. "I wanted people to do better the next year than the year before and become stars beyond their Olympic competitive years. I think Stars on Ice has been successful in creating that for so many stars.

"I'll always be tied to my Olympic and world championships; that's my resume. But, ultimately, my professional career was far more significant."

Hamilton left today for the world championships in Moscow, where he'll see Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, forced to miss this week's Stars leg when worlds were postponed, then shifted from Japan to Russia. He still helps Jeff Billings produce the show and concedes that "right now, we're at a little bit of a period of reconfiguration."

"But Stars in Canada should be great for a long time, with the number of great skaters you're producing. Look at the Canadian stars that have been out with us in that time: Brian Orser, Kurt Browning, Jeff Buttle, Jamie and Dave, Tessa and Scott, Joannie Rochette."

Sounds like he believes there'll be a Golden Anniversary here.

What: Sears Stars on Ice (Presented by Samsung)

Where: Copps Coliseum

When: Saturday, April 30. 7:30 p.m.

Who: Kurt Browning, Evan Lysacek, Jamie Sale and David Pelletier, Jeffrey Buttle, Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto, Sasha Cohen, Kyoko Ina, Shawn Sawyer.

How Much: $135.50 (floor), $35.50-$85.50 (lower bowl), $33.50 (upper bowl).