‘I love this town’: Hamilton bids farewell to Kurt Browning after 30 Stars on Ice tours

By: Steve Milton, Hamilton Spectator

9,000 Fans Bid an Emotional Farewell to Canadian Skating Star

Kurt Browning, who reads an audience like a road map, knows exactly what’s going on in every arena during his Stars on Ice farewell tour.

“Like a song, you can take people back to when they were younger and when life was different,” says the quintessential entertainer. “It’s time travel for them.”

More than three decades worth of time travel. Generations of skating fans have grown up, and old, with Kurt Browning in Stars as a touchstone of Our Times. Most of them are repeat attenders, deeply familiar with his prolific program palette. This is his final go-round as a Stars cast member, a cultural constant that ends with his retirement next month from the history-making tour.

“I sense people honouring Kurt, I can feel the energy from the audience,” Elvis Stojko said at FirstOntario Centre a couple of hours before he and Browning yanked the crowd to its feet — flash floods of teary standing ovations followed every Browning appearance — with a uniquely creative duet featuring more on-mic story-telling than actual skating.

Almost every night of this touching travelogue, Browning waves goodbye to a city with which he has a relationship connected to a variety of memories. Halifax, where the tour kicked off, and where Browning won the 1990 world championship; skating towns like Ottawa and Kitchener; six cities in the Western Canada that are so meaningful to the son of a cowboy. Friday night in Toronto where he lives, and Hamilton, Stars’ oldest continuous tour stop, and where he won a professional skating title, filmed many of his own TV specials, skated to Gordon Lightfoot music with the late legend in the audience, and edged Stojko in the 1993 Canadian Championship regarded as the greatest head-to-head men’s final in domestic history.

“Every night I throw the dice and see what happens,” he told The Spectator. “A couple of nights I’ve been so distracted I could barely skate. In Toronto I was crying quite hard in the tunnel onto the ice. That won’t happen every time. But this one is really intense for me because I’ve bonded with Hamilton.”

At the end of the show, which was filmed for a Christmas TV special, Browning told the audience of 9,000 “I love this town” and also pointed to the spot on the ice where Stojko (in late 1997) landed the first quadruple-triple jump combination in skating history, and reminisced about their 1993 duel at then-Copps Coliseum.

Many dedicated fans are saying this is one of the best, if not the best, Stars on Ice they’ve ever witnessed. The music and choreography are diverse and evocative, three-time world champion Patrick Chan came out of retirement for it, and the cast has more international flavour.

But at the root it’s about Browning, the four-time world champion who changed skating’s trajectory with the first quadruple jump and became an even better professional performer, shattering the long-perceived boundaries of what a human could portray on skates.

Browning diverts that attention, citing a variety of contributing factors to the tour’s favourable reception, including a collective sense of relief from pandemic restrictions, but he protesteth too much. Big crowds are showing up primarily to praise Caesar.

Appropriately, their final glimpse of Browning is not on his own — that is in the penultimate number, a brilliant retrospective solo collage of 30 years of Stars, answering the Who classic, “Who Are You?” — but as part of a team number, surrounded by the cast, with Browning dressed all in purple, the colour of royalty.

Figure skating has always been a sport of dualities, and Stars’ is found in the equally-important individual performances and collaborative acts.

In the first-act finale, he touched every cast member in a way meant to demonstrate the relationship he had with each of them. The long hug with Stojko, who was carted off the ice on a stretcher during the 2017 Hamilton show, has driven the fans bonkers in every venue; the final hug is an embrace with his wife, Alissa Czisny, the Grand Prix Final champion who performs in the show and choreographed a solo for her husband. For those few precious moments, the curtain between on-ice and off-ice dropped.

His last solo is so Browning it hurts. Loaded with little Kurt-isms from his Stars career, the creative pauses and countermovements, the outrageous and rapid edge control, still-youthful exuberance married to middle-aged contemplativeness, and the late backflip ... at nearly 57 years of age.

During their duet, Browning wore an “I Love Elvis” T-shirt and Stojko wore “I love Kurt” and each imitated the other’s skating style. It was the kind of quick-witted act which can not be imitated.

“People sense that it is the end of an era,” Stojko told The Spec. “And I understand that.”