NEWS

Toller Cranston Dead At 65

01/24/2015 03:50 EST | Updated 03/26/2015 05:59 EDT
One of figure skating's brightest stars and most colourful characters is gone.

Toller Cranston, a larger-than-life star on and off the ice who helped revolutionize the sport, died at his home in Mexico from an apparent heart attack, a Skate Canada spokesperson said Saturday.

He was 65.

Cranston, a six-time Canadian senior men's champion who won bronze at the 1974 world championships and 1976 Olympics, was known for his dramatic showmanship on the ice. While he never won an Olympic or world title, his unique artistic vision forever changed the sport.

There was a moment of silence in his honour between the men's event and the ice dance Saturday night at the Canadian figure skating championships in Kingston, Ont.

In a sport that later became full of high-flyers replete with arsenals of quad jumps, Cranston was all about the artistry.

"He is his own work of art," the Globe and Mail wrote in 2003.

When he hung up his skates, Cranston kept on creating with a paintbrush.

"He was one of a kind," said Brian Orser, a former Canadian and world champion, Olympic silver medallist and now in-demand coach. "Nobody will ever be like him. And such a great contribution to figure skating but me, personally, (it was) just his sense of humour and his outlook on life and (his) free spirit ... (he was) somewhat of a rebel. Always spoke his mind, wasn't always so accurate but he spoke his mind."

A member of Canada's Sports Hall of Fame since 1977, Cranston was always one of a kind.

"A skater with a painter’s eye, his original artistry and dramatic showmanship on ice broke new ground in figure skating and thrilled audiences," said Skate Canada.

Cranston was born in Hamilton, grew up in Kirkland Lake, Ont., and Montreal before settling in Mexico once his skating days were done.

He was also an avid artist and his work was exhibited in galleries and museums around the world.

He lived a unique life, cycling in and out of the public eye after his skating career.

In his 2000 book "When Hell Freezes Over, Should I Bring My Skates?" Cranston wrote of knocking hockey star Wayne Gretzky off a bicycle, chasing jazz singer Nina Simone down a Montreal street trying to recover a fur coat, of his costume sticking to the ice on the Rideau Canal during an outdoor show in Ottawa, and much, much more.

"Within the skating world, I've been privileged to have had a textured and multifaceted career,'' he told The Canadian Press in an interview at the time.

"I'm not blowing my own horn. I'm just making a point. With all the other things that surround my skating career, what skater in Canada or in the world has done those things? Nobody."

"When Hell Freezes Over, Should I Bring My Skates?" was a sequel to his 1997 autobiography "Zero Tolerance."

Olympic pairs silver medallist Debbi Wilkes trained with Cranston in the later years of her career, when Cranston's career was just getting going.

"He was a crazy person, but absolutely mesmerizing, an artistic genius even then," she said.

Wilkes recalls one particular practice when the two were standing along the boards.

"He had tears in his eyes and he said 'Nobody understands, I have these ideas, things I want to do, but everybody just laughs at me,'" Wilkes said.

Cranston won national titles from 1971 to '76 and placed second at the 1971 North American championships in Peterborough, Ont. He won Skate Canada International events in 1973 and '75.

He finished fourth at the 1975 world championships in Colorado Springs, and was fourth again a year later in Goteborg, Sweden.

Cranston was 26 when he reached the Olympic podium at the 1976 Winter Games in Innsbruck.

He was inducted into the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame in 1976 and was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1977.

"Toller Cranston was a stellar athlete and a trailblazer for sport in our country," Marcel Aubut, the president of the Canadian Olympic Committee said in a statement. "His creative performances and artistry on the ice helped revitalize the world of figure skating, and his contributions helped inspire future generations of Canadian skaters.

"Toller was a passionate competitor and an icon to many in his sport. He will be truly missed and our thoughts are with his family and friends at this time."

In 1995, Cranston received a Special Olympic Order from the Canadian Olympic Committee. He was also an illustrator, author, designer, choreographer and sports commentator.

While Cranston had worked in the past with some skaters on their routines, later on in life he called himself estranged from the skating world. He washed his hands of the sport, in part because of the new judging system implemented following the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics that he believed had killed the skating's popularity and stifled its creativity.

But he had no shortage of opinions about the Canadian champions who followed him.

He called Elvis Stojko a "great competitor, one dimensional." He applauded Orser's combination of art and sport and liked the dramatic element Kurt Browning brought to the table.

And he marvelled at Patrick Chan.

"I'm on another planet watching Patrick Chan with binoculars and applauding along with the rest of the world," Cranston said from his Mexican hideaway in 2012.

"I don't think I could watch him skate live, I'd commit suicide out of depression at how good he is," Cranston added, erupting in loud laughter.

Chan met Cranston once when he was a young boy training at the Toronto Cricket Club with his late coach Osborne Colson.

"You could tell he was special," Chan said of Cranston. "He's a unique individual and he only said good things about me, and of course Mr. Colson raved about me to him.

"(Cranston) was always complimentary and optimistic about me, which was so nice."

Cranston did not shy away from confrontation, taking on the CBC after he was let go as a commentator. And his relationship with Canadian figure skating officials was stormy at times.

Cranston returned to the public eye briefly in 2010 when he was a guest judge on CBC TV's "Battle of the Blades." The judging panel eliminated defending champion Jamie Sale and former NHL star Theo Fleury.

Cranston found a home in Mexico's San Miguel de Allende, savouring its history, perfect weather and interesting inhabitants.

"The people are as international as any town can be: London, Paris, Rome, New York and San Miguel. I have seven neighbours — six come from different countries," he said in 2012.

"San Miguel seduced me," he added.

Wilkes last saw Cranston at the 2013 world championships in London, Ont.

"Nobody could enter a room or a rink the way he could. He loved being the centre of attention," she said.

Autopsy results were pending. There was no immediate word on funeral plans.

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