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World Class Sports Tourism - in London's Budweiser Gardens

© by Mike Keenan

Budweiser Gardens, exterior night shot, photo by Budweiser Gardens

London, Ontario punches above its weight to borrow a boxing cliché. In the 2005 Memorial Cup staged here, I watched London's Knights , OHL champs, defeat the Quebec MJHL champs, Sidney Crosby 's Rimouski Oceanic . In 2011, London hosted the Tim Hortons Brier here, the Canadian men's national curling championship, and last year, I sat here amidst a sold-out crowd during a rousing performance by Supertramp , the 1969 British rock band. Now, I'm at the World Figure Skating Championships !

Canadians Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, photo by Skate Canada, Stephan Potopnyk   Gracie Gold of the United States   Kiss Concert, photo by Budweiser Gardens   Knights win 2012 OHL Championship, photo by Budweiser Gardens    Toller Cranston exhibit at Museum London

     London attracts world class tourism opportunities in large part because they have invested in a downtown arena that accommodates large crowds for sport and culture - 9,100 for hockey and 10,500 for concerts. Formerly the John Labatt Centre, it has been re-branded "Budweiser Gardens" for there is big money in naming rights - $6.4 million for a 10-year deal.
     Multi-coloured international flags adorn the rafters. The ice glistens under the bright lights. I perceive hundreds if not thousands of frozen imprints from skate blades, trapped underneath, remnants of signatures carved during practice and performance, a collective unconscious that links the skaters.
     And what a glorious past I review in the "Light Up London Skate Canada" program that lists all of our world champions. Donald Jackson in 1962, followed by Donald McPherson in 1963, Brian Orser in 1987, Kurt Browning four times (89-91 and 93), Elvis Stojko thrice (1994-95 and 97) with his quads, Jeffrey Buttle in 2008, and finally Patrick Chan , another three-time world champ from 2011-13. There are three women - Barbara Ann Scott (1947-48), Petra Burka (1965) and Karen Magnussen in 1973.
     In Pairs, another six world champs - Frances Dafoe & Norris Bowden (1954-55), Barbara Wagner & Robert Paul like Browning, four-time champs (1957-60), Maria & Otto Jelinek (1962), Barbara Underhill and Paul Martini (1984), Isabelle Brasseur & Lloyd Eisler (1993) and Jamie Salé & David Pelletier (2001). And in Ice Dance, there's Shae-Lynn Bourne & Victor Kratz (2003) and Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir (2010, 2012). The latter I watch tonight.

2013 World Champion Patrick Chan   2013 World Championships-Dance Free-Virtue & Moir033 2photo by Skate Canada, Stephan Potopnyk   2013 World Championships-Dance Short-Virtue & Moir012photo by Skate Canada, Stephan Potopnyk   Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White, photo by Skate Canada, Stephan Potopnyk

     Around me, fans are wrapped in the Canadian flag, red and white scarves and parkas. Virtue-Moir supporters sport yellow t-shirts with the word "BELIEVE" emblazoned on the back in big, bold, black letters. There are many U.S. flags as well, the two ladies behind me from Georgia and South Carolina.
     This is London's crowning achievement, boasting sufficient hospitality infrastructure to be selected to host the International Skating Union's 2013 World Championships. Budweiser Gardens is packed tonight with those eager to watch the heated rivalry between Canadians Virtue & Moir and Americans Davis & White in the Ice Dance Program. Both teams are evenly matched, but London is home for the Canadians, Virtue from London and Moir from Ilderton, close by.
     There are 29 teams primarily from Europe, Russia and the former USSR, but also teams from Turkey and Japan. Byelorussians Viktoria Kavaliova and Yurii Bieliaiev score poorly, but when the announcer explains that their skates were lost in transit, forcing them to compete in borrowed gear, the crowd loudly cheers their courage. In fact, the appreciative crowd warmly applauds all of the skaters, alert to hand-clap whenever the music dictates and often letting out collective "oohs" to accompany mistakes. Twice when scores are perceived too low, a collective "boo" resounds in the air.
     There are six groups of five skaters with fresh ice thanks to the Zamboni after every two rounds. The big guns skate late which allows me time to explore the Gardens. I discover that former great, Toller Cranston , is on hand with his idiosyncratic art work selling well and a display exhibited at Museum London, just across the street.
     Ice dance is characterized by grace, fluidity, rhythm, coordination and interpretative costumes and music designed and choreographed to best illustrate the skaters' artistry. During the course of the evening, I'm amazed at how many European teams have chosen cowboy music for their routines. Do they think southwestern Ontario equates with Calgary and its Stampede?
     Despite a fine start, young Nagy from Hungary catches an edge and slips beside his dance partner, reminding me what I hate most about figure skating - on the slippery surface, anything can happen, especially a sudden fall, and disaster perpetually lurks mere milliseconds away with a slight lack of focus ruining months and years of hard work. As world champion Patrick Chan points out, in figure skating there is no second half or third period, and for short dance, it;s over in less than 3 minutes, most pairs ending at about 2.45.
     Ice dancers do not jump, so there are no acrobatic quads, axels, Lutz;s and salchows. Instead, they weave, curl, zigzag and glide up and down, often straying too close to the boards at surprising speed. The warm-ups themselves are dangerous with five teams, ten skaters all vying for space.
     Alas, tonight the Americans finish slightly ahead for gold and the Canadians settle for silver, but that might soon change at Sochi in Russia's Winter Olympics next year when we send our largest team. Suffice to say that overall, Canadian figure skating is in good shape, and London, Ontario, thanks to their arena, intends to compete for more world class events here as well.
     The exterior brick Budweiser facade serves up a light show called "The Tree of Light" after the competition, neatly incorporating a replica facade of the old 19th century Talbot Inn, once located here. In addition to the standard end stage configuration for large concerts, the Gardens can be set up to accommodate touring Broadway shows, smaller concerts in its theatre mode or basketball, rodeos and "monster truck" shows.
     Budweiser Gardens is owned by the London Civic Centre Corporation, an example of a public-private partnership. The Corporation is owned in turn by multiple parties, including The City of London , EllisDon , and Global Spectrum , the Philadelphia-based company that also manages the centre, and operates more than 40 other arenas, stadiums and convention centres.
     London abounds with ample hotel rooms and exciting eateries. Check the resources below.

Photo Credits
Skate Canada, Stephan Potopnyk
Budweiser Gardens
Mike Keenan

Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review. Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. His work is found in QMI published dailies such as the Toronto Sun, Ottawa Sun, Vancouver Sun, London Free Press, Calgary Sun, Winnipeg Sun and Edmonton Sun.
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