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by Melanie Hoyt

This weekend, the Windsor Family Credit Union Centre will host Skate Canada International for the first time. The arena has hosted skating shows several times since it opened in late 2008, but this will be its first major figure skating competition. Canada’s own Olympic champions, Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir, will headline a roster of eight teams from six countries. Four of the teams (representing four different countries) have ties to the Detroit area, which is just northwest of Windsor, across the Detroit River. Virtue & Moir and Madison Hubbell & Zachary Donohue (USA) train primarily in the Detroit suburbs of Canton and Bloomfield Hills, respectively, while Anna Cappellini & Luca Lanotte (ITA) and Ekaterina Riazanova & Ilia Tkachenko (RUS) have both used Novi as a secondary training location this year.

Virtue & Moir were scheduled to begin their season a few weeks ago at Finlandia Trophy, but withdrew several days before the competition, citing a slight injury to Moir’s neck. Assuming that he has recovered and that the injury was indeed minor, Virtue & Moir should not have any trouble securing their fourth Skate Canada title. The Olympic champions train just 40 miles west of the WFCU Centre with coach and choreographer Marina Zoueva. Skating fans around the world will be anxious to finally see Virtue & Moir’s programs, including their free dance to one of skating’s most iconic classics, Carmen.

A second team with a Carmen free dance, Italians Anna Cappellini & Luca Lanotte (pictured, above), should be in the running for the silver medal, offering a chance to compare Carmens from rival coaches. Cappellini & Lanotte have spent time working with Igor Shpilband this year, and he choreographed Carmen for them. It was met with mixed reviews from fans at Finlandia Trophy, but the judges seemed to like it, giving Cappellini & Lanotte the free dance win for a second-place finish overall.

Like the Italians, the Russian team of Ekaterina Riazanova & Ilia Tkachenko have also spent time working with Shpilband this summer at his new rink in Novi, Mich. Riazanova & Tkachenko lost some ground domestically last year, falling a spot to third at the Russian National Championships, but they showed technical improvements at test skates, and could be a medal threat in Windsor. This will be their first international competition of the season.

Canada’s Piper Gilles & Paul Poirier could make a second maple leaf rise at the end of the rink on Saturday night. The team is coming off a victory at their first international competition together, the U.S. International Classic in mid-September. With innovative choreography, their free dance will certainly make an impact on the audience. Their highlights are impressive and do a lot to camouflage their main weakness, which is simply that they lack the precision and unison of some of the longer partnerships in the field.

For the first time since their split, Zachary Donohue will be competing against Gilles, one of his former partners. Donohue is in his second season with Madison Hubbell. Hubbell & Donohue recently won the bronze medal at Finlandia Trophy, finishing about eight points behind Cappellini & Lanotte. Hubbell & Donohue chose a flamenco for their free dance this season, so precision and unison will be key for them. If they skate well, they could top 90 points in their free dance again, but if they are not on top of their game, any mistakes will really stand out in this risky rhythm.

With two international medals already this season, Julia Zlobina & Alexei Sitnikov are coming into Skate Canada with a lot of momentum. They won the gold medal at Ice Star and the silver medal at Nebelhorn Trophy. The team is back on the Grand Prix for the first time since they began representing Azerbaijan. Their last Grand Prix appearance was at 2007 NHK Trophy for Russia. Their Balkan free dance should get the crowd going if they bring plenty of energy to it.

Kharis Ralph & Asher Hill are the third team representing Canada. They began their international season at Nebelhorn Trophy, where they finished seventh. Their short dance to music from Gigi and the traditional Can-Can is a lot of fun, but their free dance to “Barcelona” fell a little flat in Germany. After a few weeks to address some of the issues, Ralph & Hill have a great chance to recapture some magic with a stronger outing in front of a home crowd.

Pernelle Carron & Lloyd Jones of France are also looking to recapture some magic after a disappointing end to last season. Failing to qualify for the free dance at the 2012 World Championships, Carron & Jones decided to make a major change. They moved from Aston, Penn., where they were working with Natalia Linichuk and Gennadi Karponosov, to Jones’ home country of England, where they now work with Marika Humphreys-Baranova and Vitaly Baranov. They are the first Grand Prix-level team for the Baranovs.

Skate Canada International has a condensed two-day schedule this year, with all short programs on Friday and all free programs on Saturday.