Entering into the Canadian Championships in Halifax, Nova Scotia from January 15 to 21, the picture looks similar to last year with few retirements and all reigning champions returning to defend their titles. Dig a little beneath the surface, however, and suddenly things look very different.
Jeff Buttle, Olympic bronze medalist, has spent the whole season to date sidelined by injury. Joannie Rochette, the great hope of Canadian ladies, has fiery new programs that could dramatically improve her world standing if she can keep her composure. Pair champions Valerie Marcoux and Craig Buntin have broken up off the ice and show some signs of cracking on the ice as well. And, finally, Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon were seventh in the world the last time they defended their Canadian title. This year, they are second in the world with a possible chance at gold at the upcoming World Championships.
Nothing has changed, and yet everything has changed as all four champions prepare to compete in Halifax.
The 2006 Olympics were agonizing for Dubreuil and Lauzon, as a terrible fall in the original dance forced their withdrawal from the competition. But agony quickly became ecstasy in Calgary, as the duo meteorically rose from seventh to second in the world, winning the free dance. The ecstasy has continued this season, with wins at Skate Canada and NHK and a silver medal at the Grand Prix Final (after winning the original dance). Dubreuil and Lauzon’s free dance, to Etta James’s At Last, continues in the same vein as last year’s Somewhere in Time. The French-Canadian duo have provided a new pace and elegance to ice dance, very distinctive from the frenetic pace and flailing limbs that have prevailed in recent years. Dubreuil and Lauzon will easily win their fifth Canadian title and prepare for a battle at Worlds.
Heirs apparent, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Ontario, showed signs of a meteoric rise with a silver medal at Skate Canada, but things came crashing back to reality – literally and figuratively – at Trophee Eric Bompard in Paris, where they finished fourth (and eighth in the original dance). Virtue and Moir, third at last year’s championships behind Megan Wing and Aaron Lowe (now retired), are heavily favored for the silver medal and a berth to first World Championships.
Chantal Lefebvre, a veteran who first competed at the World Championships in 1996, and her partner Russian-born Arseni Markov, are favored for the third and final berth. Lefebvre and Markov have faithfully competed since 2003 despite citizenship issues and are due to make a breakthrough at the world level at last. Their strongest challenge will come from Lauren Senft (daughter of world ice dance judge Jean Senft) and Leif Gislason, but also keep an eye on Siobhan Karam and Joshua McGrath, Allie Hann-McCurdy and Michael Coreno, and Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje.
Olympic bronze medalist (and defending Canadian Champion) Jeffrey Buttle’s status is very much unknown at this point. Though Buttle has declared his readiness for this event, his last major competition was the World Championships in Vancouver, ten long months ago. Buttle will debut two new programs, the short to Piazzolla’s Adios Nonino and the free to Armenian selections, in defense of his Canadian title. Traditionally a strong “Code of Points” skater, Buttle will need to deliver the jumps to stay at the top of the pack.
Former Canadian Champion Emanuel Sandhu is the most likely to overtake Buttle; however, Sandhu is also the most likely to implode and find himself off the world team entirely. Sandhu’s moments of brilliance have been fewer in the past two years, and his quadruple toe loop has been rare in appearance. Recent performances make one wonder if Sandhu’s time has come and gone. A well-rounded skater, Sandhu should have no problem gaining a berth to the World Championships, but will be predictably unpredictable as always.
Shawn Sawyer, who represented Canada in last year’s Olympics and World Championships, is the most likely third member of the world team. An artistic skater with flexibility and style reminiscent of Toller Cranston, Sawyer brings a unique perspective to any competition he enters. However, Sawyer’s bad habit of two-footing jumps could come back to hurt him in this very deep field. Christopher Mabee, Nicholas Young, Kevin Reynolds, Vaughn Chipeur, and Patrick Chan have all shown moments of brilliance and could challenge with a good skate.
It seemed that the 2006 Olympic free skate would be Joannie Rochette’s breakthrough. She finished fifth, but many (including the ISU Technical Committee, according to rumors) felt she could have finished as high as second. Worlds were in Canada, two ladies ahead of her at the Olympics had withdrawn, and everything was set for Rochette to ascend to the podium. Except things fell apart in the short program. And kept falling apart in the free skate to the tune of seventh place in a week field.
Rochette began the 2006-2007 season with a huge win at Skate Canada over the purportedly unbeatable Yu-Na Kim. But, once again, things fell apart at Trophee Eric Bompard. Winners of a Grand Prix event are normally a shoo-in for the final, but Rochette’s disappointing distant fourth-place finish knocked her to a familiar point – seventh in the standings, the odd woman out.
With new programs choreographed by Sandra Bezic and David Wilson, Rochette has a new look that could propel her to the world podium if she skates well. Though she will almost certainly walk away with her third consecutive Canadian title, Joannie Rochette has something to prove with her level of performance in Halifax.
Mira Leung of Vancouver, last year’s silver medalist, will be fighting to hang on to a world team spot after a tumultuous season where she split with coach Joanne McLeod and then later reconciled. Leung, a skater with both unorthodox technique and equally unorthodox style, is not particularly a fan favorite, but has gotten the job done in the past. She’ll need to get the job done convincingly to hang on to her spot on the world team this year.
Lesley Hawker of Barrie is last year’s bronze medalist. Another bronze medal will be no good for the twenty-five-year old as Canada has only two berths for the World Championships. Her free skate music includes Hymn to the Fallen. Hawker must make sure she is not among the fallen if she stands any chance of qualifying for the world team.
Former Canadian Champion Cynthia Phaneuf, out for more than a season due to a combination of injury and other interests, is the big wild card in the field. Phaneuf is an elegant skater who received international attention in 2004 with Grand Prix victories, but her technical and mental readiness is uncertain. Other wild cards include Meagan Duhamel, Amélie Lacoste, Amanda Billings, and Myriane Samson, all of whom have the ability, if not the consistency, to challenge for the podium.
Defending pair champions Valerie Marcoux and Craig Buntin are no longer a couple off the ice, but remain a couple on the ice. This year, this team has a new physical look as well as a new, more relaxed style in their free skate. Unfortunately for them, inconsistency has also been their style this season, with many missed side-by-side jumps and even some mistakes on what used to be rock-solid throw jumps. A good free skate at the Grand Prix Final may give them the confidence boost they need for Canadians, but by no means are they invincible.
Reigning silver medalists, Jessica Dube and Bryce Davison, withdrew from Grand Prix events citing injury. After making a breakthrough last year, with seventh at the World Championships and tenth at the Olympics, Dube and Davison will be looking for a strong showing at the Canadian Championships and a return trip to the World Championships. This year, thanks in part to their strong performance at Worlds last year, Canada has three berths in the pairs event.
This Canadian Championship will mark the last appearance of 31-year-old Jean-Sébastien Fecteau, a veteran of the senior pairs event for approximately a decade, and his partner of four years, Utako Wakamatsu. Fecteau and Wakamatsu, of Japanese citizenship, will be the sentimental favorites to earn a spot to the World Championships. For Wakamatsu, the World Championships in Tokyo will be her final opportunity to compete in her home country – as well as what will likely be her last-ever performance as a competitive pairs skater. The team must put aside the emotion of that moment and skate well and defend their spot on the podium.
Rising competitors Anabelle Langlois and Cody Hay and Elizabeth Putnam and Sean Wirtz had some encouraging Grand Prix performances and could play spoiler if one of the top teams fails to deliver.