VANCOUVER, BC

When the 2008 BMO Canadian Figure Skating Championships kick off in Vancouver on Wednesday, January 16, a new era will begin. For the first time since the BMO Skate Canada Eastern and Western Challenge events were instituted in the 2001 season, skaters on the senior level had to qualify for a specific number of spots at the Canadian Championships.

For senior ice dancers, the magic number was fifteen. Three groups of five teams each are allowed to compete in Vancouver, which helps CBC organize its television broadcasting schedule and means that the final flight of teams gets a fresh sheet of ice.

The start order for the Yankee Polka has been set for weeks. The skaters who received “byes” through the Senior Challenge for their participation in certain international events will skate last, in reverse order of their results from the 2007 Canadian Championships. The 11 remaining teams skate in reverse order of their results from the 2008 Senior Challenge. Teams are competing for three medals, for three berths to the 2008 World Championships, and for five spots on the national team.

Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir are the clear favorites. As long as they skate in all three events, they should have no trouble winning their first national title. Although their performances at last month’s Grand Prix Final, where they earned fourth place, were not without errors, they still have a lot of momentum from the first half of this season. The 2007 Canadian silver medalists should feel very comfortable in front of a home crowd, where they are in a class of their own.

Last year’s surprise bronze medalists, Kaitlyn Weaver & Andrew Poje, are second on the ranking system that Skate Canada used to slot its skaters for the compulsory dance, although the third-ranked team, Allie Hann-McCurdy & Michael Coreno, beat them at 2007 HomeSense Skate Canada International. Weaver & Poje made a sudden coaching change last month, leaving Poje’s longtime coach, Paul MacIntosh, to work with Weaver’s former coach, Mathew Gates, and ten-time Canadian champion Shae-Lynn Bourne. The unique arrangement requires quite a bit of travel, from students and coaches alike, but Weaver & Poje have indicated that they felt the change was necessary for their continued growth as a team. It will be interesting to see if the new training environments have already begun to make an impact.

Although Hann-McCurdy & Coreno finished five places behind Weaver & Poje at this event last year, a flurry of break-ups meant that the Vancouver-based team had the opportunity to qualify for the coveted third spot at Skate Canada this season. A fourth-place finish at Nebelhorn Trophy in September earned Hann-McCurdy & Coreno the right to compete at Skate Canada, where they also finished a surprising fourth. Their charming original dance to traditional Canadian folk music will be sure to delight the audience, but will they be able to maintain their ranking from Skate Canada and finish ahead of Weaver & Poje? The battle for silver could certainly be between these two teams, and it will likely come down to the free dance.

Some believe that a challenge for the podium could come from Vanessa Crone & Paul Poirier, last year’s Canadian champions on the junior level. This event will be their first senior competition. Because they qualified for the Junior Grand Prix Final, Crone & Poirier received a bye from what would have been their first senior event, the Senior Challenge. Although the junior free dance only allows seven elements–instead of eight for a senior free dance–all of Crone & Poirier’s junior international scores from this season have been higher than the marks set by both Weaver & Poje and Hann-McCurdy & Coreno at senior international events. Inflation in the components mark at the junior level probably accounts for this discrepancy, but it remains clear that Crone & Poirier are on the upswing.

After a shaky start at their debut at 2007 Central Ontario Summer Skate, Siobhan Karam & Kevin O’Keefe established themselves as contenders for the national team, and possibly even for the podium, by winning the 2008 Senior Challenge last month. An unusual mistake on a spin may have cost them a medal at their international event in September, the Ondrej Nepela Memorial, but their programs at the Senior Challenge were very close to clean. Karam was the 2005 Canadian champion on the junior level with Josh McGrath, who retired after their sixth place finish last year. O’Keefe, an American, was 14 th with Lindsay Evans at the 2006 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. This will be his first Canadian Championships.

In a tight battle that won them the free dance, but not the overall title, Mylène Girard & Liam Dougherty, another new team, finished second to Karam & O’Keefe at the Senior Challenge. Their dramatic dances and impressive lifts turned heads at the Challenge event, but as the Canadian Championships draw nearer, some of the hype that surrounded them after their first event, the 2007 Québec Provincial Championships, seems to have faded. Still, they are certainly in the mix. Girard placed fifth with Bradley Yaeger at the 2006 Canadian Championships, but they split just before last year’s event. Dougherty finished seventh last year with Terra Findlay.

Lauren Senft & Augie Hill, yet another new team this year, finished a fairly close third at the Senior Challenge. Hill, an American, is not able to secure a release from U.S. Figure Skating until next season, so they were unable to represent Canada internationally this year. They are a dynamic team that skates with a lot of energy, and since Senft is from Vancouver, they will be able to draw on the support of a true home crowd. Senft finished fourth at this event last year with Leif Gislason, but they ended their partnership shortly thereafter, following a sixth place finish at the 2007 Four Continents Championships. Hill did not compete last season, but finished fifth at the 2006 U.S. Championships on the junior level with Kimmerly Lauten.

Mylène Lamoreux & Michael Mee are one of the few senior teams that survived last year’s deluge of break-ups. After placing ninth at the 2007 Canadian Championships, Lamoreux & Mee earned an international assignment and finished sixth at the Ondrej Nepela Memorial. At the Senior Challenge, they smashed their personal best and beat their score from Nepela by over 20 points to finish fourth. They have shown a lot of improvement this year, and look well-suited to the senior ranks.

Next in the Canadian ranking system are three more new teams – Bethany Puttkemery & Kevin Gallagher, Andrea Chong & Guillaume Gfeller, and Christina Bourgeois & Jonathan Pelletier, who finished fifth, sixth, and seventh, respectively, at the Senior Challenge. Although Puttkemery & Gallagher and Chong & Gfeller both presented strong efforts in the free dance, they struggled in the early phases of the competition. Bourgeois & Pelletier had the opposite type of showing at the Senior Challenge; they were in fifth place before the free dance, but seventh place free dance dropped them in the standings.

Skating as juniors last year, Lisa Johnson & Joseph Scott captured seventh place, a standing ovation, and an invitation to perform in the Parade of Champions in front of Scott’s hometown crowd. Moving up to seniors this season, they were eighth at the Senior Challenge.

Rounding out the rest of the field at this year’s Canadian Championships are three teams from the emerging dance program in Alberta . Megan Wilson & Garett Goodman were 15 th at this event last year and are the veterans from their section. This will be their fourth national competition. Claire Tannett & Wendell McGrath are in their third year as a team, but they have made quite a big jump this year, skipping the junior level entirely. They were eighth on the novice level last year. New partners Rebecca Fowler & Michael Olson placed 11 th at the Senior Challenge and did not originally qualify to skate in Vancouver . However, the withdrawal of Joanna Lenko & Mitchell Islam allowed the first alternates to step in. Fowler & Olson were officially added to the roster on Jan. 11.

Lenko & Islam, last year’s junior silver medalists, withdrew on Jan. 11 with no official reason given. Lenko’s illness last month forced the due to skip the Junior Grand Prix Final. They have been replaced by Rebecca Fowler & Michael Olson.