'Champion Blades' Gears Up For Success

The Chicago Tribune

MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota - The decor looks as if Cirque Du Soleil had set up shop on Wall Street. On the desk, contracts and expense reports are mixed in with sequin-encrusted fabric samples and cracked CD cases. Diplomas liberally decorate the walls, along with baseball pennants and posters of panda bears. It's the office of Kenji Tokuda, a Japanese-born U.S. businessman who, in the last decade, has reinvented himself as a showman of Barnum and Bailey proportions.

Formerly the owner and president of a talent agency, Tokuda represented numerous athletes, in particular several high-profile figure skaters. Through them, he developed a love for the sport, and in 1995 he sold his business to begin a national skating tour.

"My partner thought I was a lunatic," Tokuda recalls with a smile. "Of course, he wasn't complaining, since it gave him the chance to take over the agency."

Since its debut season, which brought the performances of eight figure skaters to a grand total of twelve cities, the Champion Blades tour has steadily grown each year. Now hosting twenty skaters--including the reigning Olympic and world medalists--for an itinerary of sixty cities, the company is preparing for its most successful tour yet. Their plans include a Canadian tour leg, and an ambitious schedule of special events.

It's not a wonder Tokuda is a busy man.

"It's a lot of work," Tokuda acknowledges, "but it's also a lot of fun. The skaters are amazing. I rely on them to help make this tour the best it can be, and they never fail in their energy and ideas. They're really the reason my staff and I love our jobs so much. They're a joy to work with."

This year, Champion Blades it taking a novel approach to the tour's premiere. They're staging a competition--with a twist.

"We're having fans tell us what songs they'd like to see the skaters turn into a program," says Tokuda. "The skaters will be able to choose one of the suggestions and skate to it. And from the suggestions that are chosen, we're going to draw several names of fans and give them a VIP trip to the show."

From the Champion Blades Fan Challenge, the skaters will begin their marathon cross-country journey, working their way from west coast to east coast, then traversing across Canada. Finally the skaters will fly from Vancouver to Hawaii for a finale in Honolulu.

Along the way, the tour will make two more special presentations.

"I felt it was important for us to pay our respects to the lives lost on September 11th," says Tokuda. "Not just for the American skaters, but for everyone."

In both Washington DC and New York City, the cast of Champion Blades will perform a special show as a tribute to the terrorist attacks of September 11th. American skaters, Tokuda says, have been welcomed to give performances celebrating their country, but he adds the tribute is not just about America.

"Figure skating is a very powerful tool for unity. With skaters from so many countries training and performing together, there are friendships that cross all national borders. It's important for us to show that to the world."

100% of the proceeds from the tribute shows will be donated to charity.

Noted for his "fan-friendly" approach to managing the show, Tokuda also states there are plans for autograph signings and various other promotional events throughout the tour. "We've made several arrangements with sponsors already. There should be several public appearances that the skaters will find just as much fun as the fans."

The Champion Blades 2002 Olympic Tour begins in San Diego on April 27th, with the Champion Blades Fan Challenge.