It’s still an hour before showtime, but behind the scenes at the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland, Maine, on April 7, there’s already plenty of drama. Not only will tonight conclude the 65-city American tour for Kristi Yamaguchi, Tara Lipinski and the other members of Target Stars on Ice, it will also mark the last time skating hero Scott Hamilton, 42, will perform in the U.S. with the troupe he cofounded 15 years ago. Right now a knot of castmates surrounds the 1984 Olympic gold medalist and four-time world champion as Yamaguchi, one of his closest friends, thrusts a package toward him. “You’ll always be in the hearts of all the Stars on Ice skaters,” she says, wiping away tears as she hands him what proves to be a gold Rolex. Hamilton says, “I was just trying to make this a normal show.” Replies Yamaguchi: “You can’t. It’s not.”
From the moment the skaters burst onto the ice before the sellout crowd of 7,400 to the strains of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On,” the crowd is euphoric. Cheers greet every move by Hamilton, whose courageous fight against testicular cancer four years ago—he took only a five-month hiatus from skating—further enhanced the image of scrappy underdog first established back in 1980, when the 5’3″ skater carried the U.S. flag in opening ceremonies at the Lake Placid Winter Olympics. After he lands each triple jump during his final solo number, to “My Way,” the arena erupts. When it’s over, the crowd gives him a standing ovation. “He shares his feelings, his emotions and humor on the ice,” says Hamilton’s friend Katarina Witt. “That is his life, to be in front of an audience and entertain.”
Toward the end of the show there is a surprise waiting for Hamilton—more than two dozen former castmates, including Olympic medalists Witt, Paul Wylie, Christopher Dean and a visibly pregnant Ekaterina Gordeeva. As their presence registers, Hamilton, who helped create Stars on Ice just a few months after the now-defunct Ice Capades declined to renew his contract on the grounds that male skaters didn’t sell tickets, embraces each one tightly. “I hate to interrupt this lovefest,” skater Kurt Browning jokingly tells the audience, before pronouncing Hamilton “skate god for life” and beginning an hour-long series of heartfelt tributes from his friends.
As someone in the crowd shouts, “One more year,” Hamilton takes the microphone. “It’s just pure, blind, unadulterated love I’m feeling. If I don’t live another day, I’m so blessed on every level,” he says. “One more year!” calls out another spectator. “All right, I’ll come back,” says Hamilton, who quickly adds, “Just kidding.”
Off the ice, Hamilton explains that after 17 years on the road as a professional skater, during which time he logged more than 1,000 shows in venues from Milwaukee to Moscow, he decided it was time to give up touring. “If I hadn’t gotten cancer, I probably would have stopped years ago,” he admits. But, once diagnosed, he “didn’t want the illness to own me at any level.”
Now that he’ll be unpacking his bags, Hamilton hopes to put down roots, probably in the Los Angeles area, where he has a three-bedroom hilltop home. The skater, whose decade-long relationship with Karen Plage ended a few years ago, says he is also looking forward to starting a family. “When I go that route,” says Hamilton, who recently began dating a woman whose identity he is keeping confidential for now, “it’s going to be Ma and Pa Kettle at the ranch with 2.5 [kids] and a Great Dane.” But make no mistake, “I’m not retiring,” he says. “I still have a lot of things left on my list that I want to do.” Among them: to develop another arena show combining live music and skating and to create a Broadway production incorporating ice skating. This uncharted future “is going to be weird, hard, different,” he admits. But Hamilton is nonetheless looking forward to it. “Everything,” he says, “is possible.”
Sharon Cotliar in Portland