LANDOVER -- This is the 12th time the world's top professional skaters have gathered here just before Christmas to show they have not lost so much as the width of a blade from the days when they competed against each other as amateurs.
It is the NutraSweet World Professional Figure Skating Championships, held last night at the Capital Centre.
And it has become a kind of college reunion -- only everyone is still in terrific shape. There are squeals and hugs and cat-pack kisses. There is catch-up and show-off and gentle barbs tossed across the ice in the practices that led up to last night's competition.
These are old friends. Friends as only the heights and depths of winning and losing to each other can make you friends.
One of those friends is Brian Orser, the Canadian champion who won the silver medal in the Calgary Olympics when he was just a tiny wobble less perfect than Brian Boitano.
The old friends hug Orser a little longer, a little more gently this year. Their voices are a little softer and full of empathy.
That's because Brian Orser's best friend is not here this year. Rob McCall died last month of complications of AIDS.
"Rob was just a very good friend," said Orser. "We grew u together in skating. Eight titles in Canada, eight world championships, two Olympic games. We toured together for two years."
McCall was the partner of Tracy Wilson, and together they won the bronze medal in ice dancing in the 1988 Olympics. And they won here in 1989 after finishing second the year before.
"It was always the three of us. Always palling around. Rob go sick a year and a half ago," said Orser.
And Orser was with him as he became sicker. They lived within blocks of each other in Toronto. Whenever Orser came in off the road, he tended to McCall, who had choreographed a number of the skating routines that have become a signature of Orser's originality.
"I had to go out of town," said Orser of McCall's last weeks. "He was really sick and so I said my goodbyes. But he stuck it out until I got back."
Orser said his final goodbye last night. Last week, he suddenly changed his music for one of two routines.
"I wasn't sure. But it is something I have to do. Something I want to do."
Orser will be skating a slow, sorrowful choreography to a song by Dr. John called "My Buddy."
F: The lyrics read, in part, "Your buddy is missing you."