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Men's field will be tough this season

Canadian Press


(CP) - With the top 10 all returning, and Elvis Stojko and Alexei Yagudin jumping back in after a year away, the men's division on the Grand Prix circuit will be more competitive than ever next season.

The absence of U.S. stars Michelle Kwan and Sarah Hughes on International Skating Union entry lists for the six scheduled meets creates uncertainty in the women's division.

The top pairs all return, and Olympic co-champions Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze didn't follow through on their suggestion they'd reappear after a year away. Their names are absent.

Ice dance has been thrown wide open with the retirement of world champions Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kratz and the absence on the entry lists of runners-up Irina Lobacheva and Ilia Averbukh.

The series kicks off with Skate America in Reading, Pa., Oct. 22-26 followed by MasterCard Skate Canada International in Mississauga, Ont., Oct. 30-Nov. 2.

The third meet is scheduled for Beijing, Nov. 5-9, but a final decision in August will determine if it will go ahead depending on the status of the SARS problem in China at that time.

Paris, Nov. 14-16, Moscow, Nov. 19-23, and Asahikawa, Japan, Nov. 26-30, follow.

Top point-getters advance to the Grand Prix Final in Colorado Springs, Colo., Dec. 12-14.

Stojko, 31, the 1994, 1995 and 1997 world champion, is busy practising in Richmond Hill, Ont., and he insists age won't impede his comeback.

Stojko, Emanuel Sandhu of Richmond Hill and Jeff Buttle of Sudbury, Ont., have entered the Mississauga event. Stojko and Sandhu, Canada's best in men's singles at the 2003 world championships in Washington where he finished eighth, also are pencilled in for Beijing, Fedor Andreev of Ottawa for Paris, Ben Ferreira of Edmonton for Moscow and Buttle and Ferreira for Japan.

Yagudin is hoping surgery on a bothersome hip will solve the problem and enable him to recapture the world title. Fellow Russian Evgeni Plushenko will try to keep the crown. They'll go head to head in Paris. Canadian fans will see Plushenko in Mississauga.

Add Japanese skater Takeshi Honda, Americans Tim Goebel and Michael Weiss and China's Chengjiang Li and it's a formidable series lineup.

Kwan, the five-time women's champion, and Olympic champion Hughes could not decide by the May 1 deadline what they wanted to do regarding the Grand Prix. Kwan was on tour and undecided on her future. Hughes was trying to figure out if university is where she'd rather be. Either of the top Americans could be parachuted in at a later date. As of Friday, they had not advised their U.S. association about any retirement plans.

In the meantime, Sasha Cohen will carry the American flag into competition, and top Russians Irina Slutskaya, Elena Sokolova and Viktoria Volchkova all return, as does Japanese star Fumie Suguri.

Annie Bellemare of St-Eustache, Que., and Michelle Currie of Edmonton start out at Skate America.

Jennifer Robinson of Windsor, Ont., a Canadian-best ninth in Washington, will be joined the next week in Mississauga by Bellemare and Joannie Rochette of Ile-Dupas, Que.

Robinson also will compete in Beijing if that meet goes ahead. Rochette has a second assignment, in Moscow, and Currie gets the nod for Japan.

In pairs, Quebecers Anabelle Langlois and Patrice Archetto, fifth in the world, are seeded for the Mississauga, Paris and Japanese meets.

Elizabeth Putnam and Sean Wirtz got Reading and Mississauga, and Valerie Marcoux and Craig Buntin got Mississauga and Moscow. Both pairs train in Toronto.

The decision by Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze had to have been a relief to world champions Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao of China. But there are three or four other Russian pairs who will challenge for the top.

The abdication of Bourne of Chatham, Ont., and Kraatz of Vancouver and the absence of Lobacheva and Averbukh in ice dance leaves the Bulgarian couple Albena Denkova and Maxim Staviyski as the top-ranked ice dancers, with Russians Tatiana Navka and Roman Kostomarov close behind. Both couples will be showing their new stuff in Mississauga.

Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon, the Montrealers who rise to No. 1 in Canada with Bourne and Kraatz gone, will make their season debut in Mississauga, too. They also got the Paris assignment.

Four couples will represent Canada on the circuit. Montreal-based Melissa Piperno and Liam Dougherty go to Reading and Moscow. Quebecers Josee Piche and Pascal Denis got Mississauga and Beijing, and Megan Wing and Aaron Lowe of Vancouver will compete in Mississauga and Japan.

The Canadian championships will be in Edmonton, Jan. 5-11, the Four Continents meet in Hamilton, Jan. 19-25, and the world championships in Dortmund, Germany, March 22-28.