Scott Hamilton watches his circle of friends skate circles around him, and he smiles. It's been 13 years since he founded Stars on Ice, and even though the names keep changing, the enjoyment remains the same.
"I have the best job in the world," Hamilton says, "and every night we're on the ice reminds me of that."
There were a lot of nights this season, with the tour visiting 62 cities and ending last Saturday in Portland, Maine. The tour went through a major upheaval this year, which meant big adjustments for the entire cast.
Gone were longtime co-stars Paul Wylie, Kurt Browning, Katarina Witt, and Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean. Added were Olympic champions Tara Lipinski and Ilia Kulik; three-time U.S. pairs champs Jenni Meno and Todd Sand; China's Lu Chen, a two-time Olympic silver medalist; and England's Steven Cousins.
"There will always be a void with those who leave, you are looking at what was," says the 41-year-old Hamilton, still the most popular man in skating, 15 years after winning his Olympic title. "But in order to grow and look ahead, you need to concentrate on what will be. ...
"I miss the friendships and day-to-day skating experiences, but we're developing new relationships."
It shows on the ice, where the cast's veterans appear to have blended their talents with those of the newcomers.
"I have a blast," the 16-year-old Lipinski says. "I look forward the most to touring because it's a high every night. It's like when you are competing, the same rush you get without the nerves."
The most difficult change will come next season. Hamilton will be back, but Roz Sumners won't. His contemporary from the Sarajevo Olympics, where she won a silver medal behind Witt, Sumners has been with the tour since its beginning.
"She's never missed a show," says Hamilton, who missed more than a month of the 1997 tour while being treated for testicular cancer. "She's kept her skating up, has the strongest work ethic. How many women would be able to skate at that level for that long?"
"Roz takes a great deal of pride in her skating and is very tied up with the tour. She has been a good leader in many respects."
So has Hamilton. As a TV commentator, his appraisals of competitive performances usually are fair and accurate. As a key figure in the sport, he isn't afraid to stir up controversy.
Hamilton still fears skating is being hurt by overexposure, with so many made-for-TV competitions and bogus events designed to promote the sponsors more than the skaters. He worries that younger performers will see their skating suffer as the schedule keeps expanding.
One thing he doesn't worry about is the future of Stars on Ice. He believes the new blood in the cast ensures the tour's success.
"When you join this tour, you find that everyone is so dedicated to keeping it at the level it has been for so long," Meno says. "That kind of drives you to come up with new things in your skating to make sure that Stars on Ice will be a great show for years and years to come."
Lipinski and Kulik are, of course, the main attractions. Hamilton, who also turned pro right after winning Olympic gold, recognizes the pressures they face.
"From where we started at the beginning of the year, she has come a light year to now, as far as confidence level and comfort with the group," he says of the youngest world and Olympic skating champion. "At first, I think Tara was a little intimidated or a little overwhelmed. ... Even though she is a champion, she did not have a lot of experience. She had to apply herself, not for the skating, but for fitting in as the youngest ever on our tour.
"Now she is confident and comfortable and she understands what she was able to bring to the tour, her bubbly enthusiasm and work ethic. Sometimes you look at her and see a 35-year-old woman, and then you see a kid."
As for Kulik, critics have said he isn't doing enough with his talents. Others believe he's a one-shot wonder, because his only major international victory came at the Nagano Olympics.
In any event, the 21-year-old Russian star has become the No. 2 male skater in the cast behind Hamilton, a spot held so ably for years by Wylie or Browning.
"Ilia has great potential," Hamilton says. "He has shown tons of ability and that he is so naturally talented. It's a little tougher on the guys coming into the tour with the great expectations of being an Olympic champion with all the jumps and technical skills.
Hamilton isn't competing anymore, but he'll be on the ice for a while. Unlike Sumners, he has no retirement plans.
"I need to rest my body, settle out and get it back to where it was before the cancer," he says. "But there isn't anything I would rather do. It's not even something I'm considering right now."