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Could Hanyu headline a new pro tour in the future?

by Jack Gallagher

A thought crossed my mind recently.

With Yuzuru Hanyu undecided on his athletic future at this point, could he be a part of a new skating endeavor that would be successful?

What do I have in mind?

A new professional skating tour, primarily centered in Asia, that the two-time Olympic gold medalist would headline and compete in along with other retired skaters. Hanyu’s contemporaries like Patrick Chan, Javier Fernandez and other prominent names could participate as well.

Hypothetically add in the likes of Mao Asada, Miki Ando, Akiko Suzuki and more skaters from their era, and the prospect becomes even more interesting.

What I envision is a singles circuit that would be held from April-July, after the regular ISU season has ended, with 3-4 events. Two would be based in Japan, one in China, and another maybe in Hawaii. Places that fans from Japan and Asia could easily access.

I think it is fairly clear now that any initiative Hanyu’s name is attached to in this region is going to be a big success. The Sendai native is a lot more than a great star now, he has become a global celebrity with a golden touch, and skating is booming in this part of the world like never before.

Just imagine for a moment, contacting Japanese TV networks and companies and saying, “Yuzu is starting his own pro skating tour and wants to know if you would be interested in being involved?”

Think the response might be positive?

Ice Time’s take is that the line to sign up would be out the door.

With Hanyu being just 23, it is hard for Ice Time to envision him just walking away from ISU competitions now. I believe he will skate on to Beijing 2022 and try to equal the record of Sweden’s Gillis Grafstrom with three consecutive (1920, 1924, 1928) Olympic golds.

If Hanyu does carry on to the next Winter Games in China, he would be 27 at the time. I don’t think age is the issue with Yuzu, he strikes me as the kind of person who just loves to compete. I just can’t see him being satisfied skating only in shows.

Even four years from now, I believe Hanyu will still relish the chance to be part of competitive events. Any great athlete who is now retired, be it Michael Jordan, Pele, Wayne Gretzky or Sadaharu Oh, will tell you that the best times of their lives were when they were in the heat of battle.

This is when they made their reputations, forged lifelong friendships, and built up a brand they profit from to this day. It has often been said that athletes actually die twice — once when their careers are over and again at the end of their lives.

Ice Time reached out recently to Emi Watanabe, Japan’s first female world medalist, who 38 years ago competed in the World Professional Figure Skating Championships in the United States that was organized by Dick Button and televised on ABC, for her thoughts on the prospects for a new pro tour.

The event Watanabe participated in was a team one, held in Landover, Maryland, that did not have individual scoring. The Tokyo native was on the Blue team that included the likes of Robin Cousins, Linda Fratianne, Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner. The opposing Red team had huge names such as Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill and Toller Cranston on its roster.

“Thirty-eight years ago when the professional championship was held, great stars like Peggy Fleming skated and the fans were just looking at the beauty of her artistic performance, which was awesome,” Watanabe recalled. “I was honored to skate with the legends.”

Watanabe then addressed how skating has changed in the past four decades.

“Fans now are used to seeing the great jumps and spins and more athletic performances,” she noted. “If there is going to a pro circuit they should divide the type of competition. The younger skaters and those who have just retired will of course be jumping and spinning, but the legends still have a lot to offer although not as aggressively. The big names will of course sell tickets.”

Watanabe said she believes that more focus on artistry would be appealing.

“The singles competition might work if it is not another Grand Prix type competition,” Watanabe stated. “It should be free skating doing what they do best and is appealing to the judges.”

I spoke with Button on the telephone Monday night to get his take on the possibility of Hanyu fronting a pro tour in the future.

“Yuzuru Hanyu must be a multimillionaire by now,” Button commented. “I’m sure he will continue to skate on and make money. But I don’t know if he will have the motivation to be a part of competitions.”

Button organized a professional championship back in 1973 that was held in Tokyo. His series resumed in 1980 in Maryland and continued until the early 2000s, when skating popularity in U.S. begin to decline.

Button said a lot has changed since 1973.

“You have to remember that was the amateur era, when skaters were lucky to get a $25 gift certificate for skating,” Button said.

I asked Button what was the catalyst for the event 45 years ago in Japan.

“Janet Lynn (the bronze medalist at the 1972 Sapporo Olympics),” Button stated. “She was very popular in Japan and they wanted to see her skate again. We held it at Yoyogi Stadium and Japanese TV broadcast it.”

Legendary skating writer Phil Hersh thinks a pro tour in Asia could succeed, but not in the U.S.

“Keeping all the events in Asia (maybe Manila, too) could likely guarantee some box-office success, but no media on this side of the Pacific will care,” Hersh commented.

Ice Time (@sportsjapan) currently has an online poll going on whether a pro tour led by Hanyu could be successful. With more the 900 votes submitted, 89 percent of the respondents have said “yes.”

Big move for Honda

The news last week that former world junior champion Marin Honda will soon be moving to Southern California to train with renowned coach Rafael Arutunian is encouraging.

The former prodigy, who has been coached for years by Mie Hamada, struggled through her first senior season, appearing almost disinterested at times. Honda finished fifth at both of her GP assignments (Skate Canada, Cup of China), and seventh at nationals, missing out on the Pyeongchang Olympics and the world championships.

It wasn’t just the results that were a cause for concern. Hamada made reference during the GP season to the fact that Honda didn’t like to train. That was a real red flag.

The truth is that some athletes need to be stroked and others need to have a fire lit under them. It has been my contention for quite a while that Honda is in the latter category.

When you are only 16, but have continually been told how beautiful and great you are, you can begin to see how motivation could become a problem. Just watching the past few seasons, I could see how Kaori Sakamoto had the fire of a champion, but Honda was quite fragile.

I admire Honda for this move. It is exactly what she needs. The Kyoto native clearly has the ability, but she needs the drive. Arutunian, the coach of world champion Nathan Chen, will instill that in her.

The Armenian mentor is a serious person, who has been known to get rid of skaters who don’t meet his standards. Honda needs discipline, and that she will get from Arutunian.

Arutunian is not one to mince words. He was recently interviewed by Russia’s sportsdaily.ru website about Chen’s problems in Pyeongchang before the singles free skate.

In the interview, translated into English and posted on the FS Gossips website (fs-gossips.com), Arutunian explained exactly what happened in Pyeongchang. He was asked, “In Russia, most coaches are dictators, and in America — partners of figure skaters . . .”

“The partnership between coach and athlete is much more complicated,” Arutunian replied. “The lapses that happened to Chen at the Olympics is a consequence of such a relationship. In fact, he spontaneously decided to do in the short program those elements that led to mistakes. I had a completely different plan, but Nathan insisted on his and flew to the 17th place in the short program. I gave the opportunity to make a mistake at the main competition of the season, but now Chen listens carefully to my recommendations.”

Moving to another country and a new culture will present challenges for the Honda, but if she wants to become an all-time great like Hanyu or Yuna Kim, she must do it. Both Hanyu and Kim left the comfort of their home countries to move to frigid Toronto to train under Brian Orser, and look at the results.

I keep thinking back to video of Nikolai Morozov shouting at Miki Ando early in their partnership and her breaking down in tears. Ando showed her mettle by taking the criticism and flourishing, winning two world titles in the process.

Ice Time asked another coach, who requested anonymity, what he thought of Honda’s move to Arutunian.

“I think at some point in a skater’s career they are reaching for something that is going to spark them,” the coach stated. “This is not unusual. I think it is a sign that she knows she needs to make a change. She is such a good skater, but she also makes mistakes.”

The coach believes relocating to a new country and dealing with a new language will be tough for Honda.

“That cultural change will be difficult. How do you dialogue in the lessons and how do you get inspired by words,” the coach said. “That will be a bit of a challenge in the beginning.”

The coach then provided his impressions of Arutunian.

“He is a real technician. Kind of like a Christy Krall (who coached Chan to his first two world championships),” the coach remarked. “He focuses on detailed technique and he has tremendous passion for the sport.

“He has had some great successes, and sometimes kids don’t perform to their ability with him, but he has been popular for many years and successful,” the coach added.

The coach feels that the move is a worthwhile one for Honda.

“I think for Marin it’s not a huge gamble,” the coach commented. “Rafael is good at what he does. Whether she connects culturally is another thing. There will be a honeymoon period, where things will be great, then how long it will take to settle in, time will tell.”

Ice Time feels for Hamada, who has lost one of her prize pupils, but skating is a tough business. Skaters leave coaches all the time. Sometimes coaches dump skaters. That’s just the way it is.

With Satoko Miyahara, Yuna Shiraiwa and Rika Kihira remaining in her stable, Hamada will still have her hands full.