A Modern Family

After splitting up on and off the ice, Olympic gold medallists Jamie Sal and David Pelletier have formed a new kind of partnership

Photography Curtis Trent

On a Wednesday, Jamie Sal is just about to head into a Pilates class. Her hair is haphazardly tied in a ponytail and she walks toward me with the same energy that once graced the ice during the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. Later, she says, she’ll pick up Jesse, her seven-year-old son whose father is David Pelletier, her on-ice partner from those same Olympics.

Sal and Pelletier were once a celebrity couple, a figure skating duo that Canadians loved to love. Her energy complemented his steadfast focus.

It was a fairy tale pairing that culminated with the skaters claiming Olympic gold after a judging scandal initially landed them in second place. Their performance to “Love Story” was so flawless that, upon seeing the lower-than-expected scores, even one of the announcers stammered: “How did that happen?”

But it was their divorce in 2010 that had the public asking that same question. After their split, Sal and Pelletier continued to skate together professionally until they retired in 2012. Nowadays, the romance might be gone, but the respect remains. A new partnership has formed, one based around their son. Three years later, Sal and Pelletier both live in the same neighbourhood in Edmonton, where they raise their son together.

Sal is married to former NHL player and current Rogers Sportsnet hockey broadcaster Craig Simpson – who spent most of his playing career scoring goals for the Edmonton Oilers – and they also have a two-year-old daughter, Samantha. Meanwhile, Pelletier is now teaching skating skills to hockey players ranging in age from young children – including his own son – all the way up to those hoping to go into the NHL through the Oilers’ farm team in Oklahoma City. Pelletier often spends time with Sal and Simpson, and even occasionally babysits their little girl.

“We joke a little bit. We say we’re the modern family,” says Pelletier. “I have so much respect for both of them. So it’s our reality. It’s our family and we make it so it’s enjoyable for everyone. And that’s the choice we made. Because, in the end, it’s a choice.”

Choice is important for Pelletier because, growing up, he didn’t have a lot of it. Pelletier was raised in a tiny Quebec town where a rink was a “30-second walk” from his backyard. But his mom insisted that, if he wanted to play hockey, he also had to take figure-skating lessons. “Through the ears of a kid, the music was disdainful to listen to. To use the language of a seven-year-old, the outfits were dumb. You know, skating a figure eight for an hour in silence? That’s like being sentenced to community work,” Pelletier says.

But his attitude changed when he began pairs skating, which involved a whole new set of challenges that he started to enjoy. And when he was paired with Sal, that’s when things really fell into place. “This is when I really started to love figure skating,” Pelletier says.

For Sal, her love for figure skating was never in question. Her mom gave her a choice between figure skating and gymnastics when she turned seven. She was excelling at both, but her mom knew she’d only be able to pursue one. “I immediately said, ‘I want to skate,'” she says. “My mom said, ‘Take your time to choose.’ But I didn’t need to.” Sal excelled as a young skater, but during her teenage years, she started to struggle with injuries and a lack of motivation. A coach told her she should just quit and try something else. But she persevered, winning competitions at times, failing at others, until she was finally paired with Pelletier.

It was an electric pairing from the start. “We had huge chemistry,” Sal says. “And yet, some days I wanted to kill him on the ice. We are very different in the way we handle stress. My way of getting through it is always to laugh it off, slough it off, and [say,] ‘Oh, it’ll be better tomorrow.’ But Dave will kick a garbage can, or kick the boards, or the ice; he’d get really angry.”

As soon as the relationship ended, the rumours started. Before they filed for divorce in 2010, Sal says they were privately separated for a year. During that time, Sal met Simpson on Battle of the Blades, a CBC TV show pairing hockey players with figure skaters. The pairs trained extensively for several weeks before performing in front of judges. The two won the competition with an exuberant routine set to the Black Eyed Peas song, “I Gotta Feeling.” But Sal was still hoping to work things out with Pelletier – who later went on to also win another season of the show – and even requested he help coach her and Simpson. “I had a great experience, and then came home to, ‘No, we’re done,'” she says. She formed a friendship with Simpson that later developed into a relationship, and she continued on as a judge for Battle of the Blades.

“I was struggling with the fact that some people saw me as a different kind of person. It was hard living in Edmonton and having people do this,” she says, cupping her hand over her mouth as though she is whispering a secret.

But now, the energy Sal carries with her is the same exuberance that once graced the ice – a genuine joy that colours most days. “I’m human, though,” she laughs. “Of course, I can get moody, tired, grouchy. But I feel like being angry or bitter takes work.”

Sal and Simpson are currently ambassadors for two different organizations. He is the owner and vice-president of sales and marketing of Simmer Fine Wine and Spirits, a liquor agency serving western Canada. And while she is the marketing manager for that business, she mostly promotes Glow Juicery, which is aligned with her passion for healthy living.

Sal and Pelletier raise their son without a set schedule. “Whenever he wants him for the afternoon or morning, we just work it out; we also text all the time to share funny stories. We’re buddies,” Sal says. “Dave and I have a unique situation. Most people think it’s kind of weird, but I think it has a lot to do with us being partners. We shared something nobody will ever experience. Craig kind of gets it because we skated together. But, with Dave, it was at such a deep level, so many years of it, with so many highs and lows.”

“I walk into their house almost like it’s my own,” Pelletier adds. “Though, of course, I respect their space as well.” Pelletier and Simpson – who has three other children with his former wife – are good friends who share a love of hockey. “They’ve spent many hours in our basement,” Sal says, “just having conversations about guy stuff. And that’s really cool.”

Three years after retiring, Sal says she’s still very happy with their choice to leave the ice. “I really knew that I’d made the right decision when I was going to all of Jesse’s activities, and I wasn’t missing anything, and I was putting him in sports and stuff, and having a great time,” she says. “I felt like I needed to find time to myself, to find out what Jamie is besides a skater.”

Life after figure skating for Pelletier means he can pursue the sport that was always on his mind: Hockey. And now he can share that passion with his own son. “I had a fantastic mom and dad, but figure skating wasn’t originally my choice. So I want to make sure that this generational thing stops here. And if someday, he says he wants to play the banjo, then that’s fine,” he says.

In the end, the story is like a modern take on a classic fairy tale. Sal and Pelletier may not have ended up together, but they are both living happily ever after.

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