Big Ben and the battle with his own blades
Learning how to skate like a pro — with a little help from Kurt Browning
Spinning on centre ice with Kurt Browning, we go round and round until I feel like I’ll puke. I’ve never skated before, and I don’t know anything about figure skating or hockey, but Browning is teaching me lightning-fast stops and cool arabesques, and I feel I’m about to leave my lunch on the ice.
“Easy there, partner, you look a bit green,” says Browning, holding my head and lower back gingerly as if I were a finicky newborn he was trying to make fall asleep. We’re holding each other in south Etobicoke on the set of Battle of the Blades and Browning is leaping and striding and turning, moving like a trapeze artist and kicking up ice in the air.
I love Browning, a 45-year-old four-time World Champion and four-time Canadian Champion, and I’m glad Battle of the Blades gets more than a million viewers each Sunday night. But I want to learn how to play hockey. I want to go out Tuesday nights with the National Post hockey team and knock out reporters from the Globe.
Instead, I feel like I’m watching some kind of ice dance version of Cirque du Soleil. Browning, however, tells me to chill out and be patient. He says you need to skate before you can check.
Left to right: Kaplan laces up; Browning prepares our columnist for liftoff; the two talk shop (OK, mostly hockey)
“Watch out for gravity, it’s everywhere,” Browning tells me as we break from our centre ice spinning and begin sliding around the perimeter of the rink. My balance is shaky, and I’m glad Browning is leading. It’s almost like we’re dancing, except I’m slipping all over the place, and he moves like Ben Vereen.
“Lead with your hips, keep your head up and fall forward rather than leading with your skate,” Browning says.
Hockey in Canada is just one of those things, like the Tragically Hip, camping and Tim Hortons, that I just don’t understand. Who cares what Don Cherry thinks? Why did Vancouver riot? And though I respect Sidney Crosby and think it’s great that Winnipeg has a new team, I just don’t get why it forms such a core part of Toronto’s existence. “We grow up with it, we inherit it, we watch it on television Saturday nights with our dad,” says Browning, who excelled at hockey until the age of 16, when, he says, something horrible happened: the other kids also learned how to skate.
“Hockey was real easy for me when no one could catch me, but once everyone else could more or less hold their own, it was time for me to move on,” says Browning, who doesn’t stop moving while we’re on the ice and brings to mind Michael Jackson. In a way, my failure to skate has caused a riff between my wife and me. When I first moved to Canada from New York — moving in with her parents in an Etobicoke basement (and she’s got a beef with me?) — Julie greeted me with a pair of ice skates. They were beautiful and flashy and looked like moon boots that had been genetically altered by a stylish killer.
However, much to her consternation, I only wore them once. I just have never been a skater. Even though I grew up with the Rangers and Islanders, I only ever really cared about the Jets and the Knicks. In Toronto, where people are mad about skating and the Maple Leafs, even though they keep stinking, I can’t see the allure.
“Give it time,” says Browning, and while he and I keep skating — and he keeps disappearing and reappearing from odd angles as if he were a leprechaun getting beamed up like on Star Trek to different spots on the rink — I check out Bryan Berard rehearsing for Battle of the Blades. Berard’s a hockey player. He’s tough. He won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie and played with the Leafs for two years after almost losing his eye from a high stick. Dude’s got big arms and bigger leg muscles, and he’s sweating through his shirt as he tosses his partner, Marie-France Dubreuil, in the air.
“Everyone watches their feet when they’re starting, but look at Berard: he never takes his eye off Marie,” says Browning, who, married to the National Ballet’s Sonia Rodriguez, knows a thing or two about chemistry. I keep watching Berard, dreaming of being an enforcer, while Browning and I work on flexing our ankles and using our body weight to help turn toward an imaginary net.
I’m trying to picture myself as the next Gretzky, but really all I can see is the penalty box of my imagination where I’m dreaming I’ll be sitting down soon, preferably with something with olives to drink.
“Look at my size. The only reason I was ever able to play hockey was because, let’s see, how long have I been skating? Oh yeah, all my life,” Browning says with a laugh.
I tell him that I’m thinking about joining the National Post hockey team, that I want to beat the Globe and the Star and make my new daughter impressed with her dad.
“Keep your head up,” he tells me. “So you don’t get killed.”
Although I’m pretty sure I haven’t become a great ice hockey player my first time out on the rink, I am receiving my first lesson from Kurt Browning.
And, somehow, I also manage to not lose my sandwich along the way.