Canadian Tire National Figure Skating Championships Preview

The venue for this year’s Canadian Tire National Figure Skating Championships is a familiar sight for many of the competitors. This is the sixth consecutive season that the Hershey Centre in Mississauga, Ont., has hosted a major skating event. From 2007 to 2010, the Skate Canada Challenge was held at the Hershey Centre, and in 2011, it hosted Skate Canada International. No team on the roster has competed at all five of those events, but quite a few skaters have spent a fair amount of time in Mississauga. Located near Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, the area has plenty of lodging, rental cars, and dining options. It may lack the mild temperatures and picturesque waterfront of Victoria, B.C. (the 2011 host), and the maritime cuisine of Moncton, N.B. (the 2012 host), but Mississauga is certainly a capable and convenient host for this year’s national championship.

Senior competitors will be vying, as usual, for ISU championship assignments and spots on the national team. Three teams will go to each of the Four Continents and World Championships (not necessarily the same teams will go to both) and five teams will earn places on the 2013-2014 National Team.

Once again, 2010 Olympic champions and two-time world champions Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir are expected to win the Canadian title. It would take disaster, or more likely, withdrawal for them to miss the chance to stand on top of the podium for the fifth time. The pressure, then, is not for them to defeat the other teams, but to present their programs in top form. Virtue & Moir recently lost to their primary rivals, Meryl Davis & Charlie White, at the Grand Prix Final, settling for silver. Their Carmen free dance has garnered a great deal of attention for the way it combines (controversial) modern dance with exceptional ice dance technique, but they have yet to reach all level 4s and rake in a bunch of 10s. Virtue & Moir still have room to grow with their short dance, and a re-tooling of the program since the GPF has made them more confident they have the right vehicle for another World title. These Canadian Championships present a perfect opportunity for them to compete in front of an appreciative home audience before they head into the ISU championships.

Since Kaitlyn Weaver & Andrew Poje were forced to withdraw when Weaver broke her fibula in a December training accident, the battle for medals is a bit more interesting than expected. Weaver & Poje hope to be back in time for the World Championships, and if they are healthy, they should have no trouble receiving the assignment. However, they will most likely not be ready for the Four Continents Championships, which opens up another spot for the competition in February. Furthermore, the national team consists of the top five teams at Canadians, which creates an opportunity for a team that probably would have been sixth if Weaver & Poje had been able to compete this week. Canada was in a similar situation in 2011, when Virtue & Moir missed the Canadian Championships. They were added to the national team later, making a total of six teams, and I expect that the same will be done for Weaver & Poje.

12LPIDC-SrFDB-5365-PO-RR 595The battle for silver and the last guaranteed World Championships assignment may have some drama. Piper Gilles & Paul Poirier, the 2012 Canadian bronze medalists, are the favourites in their second season together, but they should have competition from some of the other teams. Gilles & Poirier won the U.S. International Classic in September, and then finished fourth and sixth at their Grand Prix assignments, reaching a high score of 146.90 at the September event. Their acrobatic style emphasizes their lifts and they are an engaging team, but their weaknesses so far this season have been their precision and unison, particularly in the short dance.

Alexandra Paul & Mitchell Islam were second at the U.S. International Classic, only about three points behind Gilles & Poirier, and nearly even with them in the short dance. They have more time together on their side, but after a disappointing 2011-12 season, they missed the Grand Prix this year and have not competed internationally since September’s Nebelhorn Trophy, where they were fifth. Paul & Islam moved to the Detroit area this year to train with ice dance’s latest “it” coaches, Pasquale Camerlengo and Anjelika Krylova. They have recovered from last season’s injuries and are looking much stronger, but their weakness is still probably their power. They provide an excellent contrast to Gilles & Poirier’s style, and it will be exciting to see how the judges compare two very different teams. Perhaps most telling is their 61.27-point short dance at Skate Canada Challenge last month. Unfortunately, Islam fell ill the day of the free dance and they were not able to complete the competition, but topping 60 points in the short was quite a statement. If they do that again this week, they will certainly be in the hunt for the silver medal, even with having to skate in the short dance from the first group.

Also on the upswing are Nicole Orford & Thomas Williams. They competed on the senior level at the Canadian Championships last year, but this is their first season of senior international competition. Their first Grand Prix event resulted in an eighth-place finish, but they rallied to fourth two weeks later at NHK Trophy. Although they finished just off of the national team last year, Orford & Williams were within two points of fourth-place finishers and World team members Kharis Ralph & Asher Hill. Although they still lack the finish of some of the other senior teams, Orford & Williams are strong competitors with plenty of momentum. They should win over the crowd with their boot-stompin’ country short dance, so if they fare as well with the judges, they could be right in the medal hunt heading into the free dance.

Kharis Ralph & Asher Hill were fourth at the Canadian Championships last year and earned the chance to compete at the World Championships, where they finished 13th. This year, they have not quite recaptured the same spark, but they have had a lot of time to work on their programs since their Grand Prix assignment to Skate Canada. The duo has an energetic, crowd-pleasing program that uses the Gigi overture and Offenbach’s “Can-Can,” so if they have addressed the technical issues that held them back internationally, they, too, could also be in podium position for the free dance.

Those five teams will most likely be the top five, earning national team placements. This year has the smallest roster since 2000, with only nine teams competing at the senior level. The remaining four teams are not as likely to contend for medals, but have their own goals for the season.

Andréanne Poulin & Marc-André Servant, last year’s Canadian junior champions, have won two bronze medals on the Junior Grand Prix (JGP) this year. They could be named to the World Junior Championship team and will need to skate their best in Mississauga to make their case.

Élisabeth Paradis & François-Xavier Ouellette (pictured) recently won Skate Canada Challenge, though only two teams completed the competition. They were sixth on the junior level last year, and have made big strides in their first senior season.

Mélissande Dumas & David Mackay Perry were second at Challenge and ninth at the 2012 Canadian Championships. Compared to last season, they have been skating with more consistency and scoring higher.

Larissa Van As & Troy Shindle missed several competitions due to injury and are looking forward to finishing their season on a high note.

A full roster of 15 teams will compete at the junior level, and with no byes this year, all 15 competed against each other at Challenge in December. However, this is a close competition and movement can be expected.

The frontrunners appear to be Madeline Edwards & ZhaoKai Pang, the recent Challenge champions and Canada’s highest finishers in the JGP standings. They won two JGP bronze medals this year and are the reigning Canadian junior silver medalists. As three-time Canadian champions already (juvenile in 2009, pre-novice in 2010, novice in 2011), they know what it takes to set themselves apart. Edwards & Pang’s score of 142.33 from Challenge is the highest score earned by a Canadian team since the short dance was introduced. Since they made a couple of small mistakes at Challenge, they even have the capability of scoring higher and if they skate clean, they have a great shot at staying in front of the field.

If anyone is going to catch them, though, it would probably be Mackenzie Bent & Garrett MacKeen, who won a JGP bronze medal of their own earlier this season and finished second to Edwards & Pang at Challenge. Bent & MacKeen set a season’s best score of 138.14 at Skate Canada Challenge, and like the champions, they also skated well, but do have room for a bit of improvement to their marks and will almost certainly be fighting Edwards & Pang for the title. Last year, they just barely missed the podium, finishing fourth, but this year, it appears that it will take more than a discrepancy of a few tenths for them to miss out on bringing home their first medal at the junior level.

At Challenge, Edwards & Pang and Bent & MacKeen were way out ahead of the field. About 12 points back, a cluster of four teams emerged. If the same four teams are fighting for a podium finish again this week, an exciting competition is in store.

Mariève Cyr & Benjamin Brisebois were not expected to be medal threats heading into Challenge, but at the end of the competition, they were wearing bronze medals after two excellent skates. Their precision and clean lines are highlighted in their free dance which includes a selection from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Cyr & Brisebois finished seventh at their JGP event this season.

Caelen Dalmer & Shane Firus continued their trend of strong short dances at Challenge and were sitting in third heading into the free dance, but missed timing on their final rotational lift dropped them to sixth. They are definitely in a place to fight for their first national medal, after coming close to one for the last three years. Their short dance suits them perfectly and if they top 50 points again, they will be in a great position going into the free dance. Dalmer & Firus were sixth at their JGP event in the fall.

Victoria Hasegawa & Connor Hasegawa were bronze medalists at the junior level in 2011, but have lost some momentum since then, placing fifth at last year’s national championships and finishing seventh at JGP Courchevel earlier this season. This year has been a season of change for them, as they have recently begun training in Michigan with Marina Zoueva and Oleg Epstein. The siblings finished fourth at Challenge, just a hair shy of the podium, and they will certainly be fighting to earn a few more points this week.

Another pair of siblings, Melinda Meng & Andrew Meng, are on an upswing. The Mengs were second at the 2012 Canadian Championships on the novice level after winning most of their competitions leading up to Canadians. This year, their success has transferred well to the junior level. They earned a JGP assignment, where they were sixth, and they picked up a fifth-place finish last month at Challenge.

At Challenge, a gap of about 12 points separated sixth-place finishers Dalmer & Firus from the rest of the field, so it would be quite a statement if another team broke into the top six. Several young teams are looking to make a statement, including the 2012 Canadian novice champions, Lauren Collins & Danny Seymour, and 2012 novice fourth-place finishers Katie Desveaux & Dmitre Razgulajevs. Desveaux & Razgulajevs were eighth at Challenge and Collins & Seymour were tenth. Both have had solid results this season.

Nicole Kuzmich & Jordan Hockley are the only other returning team from last year’s event. Kuzmich & Hockley had a rough time in the free dance at Challenge and wound up 11th, but they are definitely capable of improving upon last year’s 10th-place ranking.

The novice roster is also made up of 15 teams who competed against each other at Challenge in December. The results were also close at this level, and a good deal of movement is expected.

The novice scores this year have been led by Danielle Wu & Spencer Soo and Christina Carreira & Simon-Pierre Malette-Paquette. Wu & Soo won Challenge by a margin of about two-and-a-half points, but Carreira & Malette-Paquette took their earlier duel at the Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships in July. Wu & Soo tend to be stronger in compulsories, so it will not be a surprise if they are leading heading into the free dance. Both teams have strong free dances, so it may come down to which team has the cleaner performance.

Wu & Soo’s training partners, Alexa Linden & Tyler Miller, won the bronze medal at Challenge after just a few months of skating together. They were a few points behind the leaders, but won the medal on the strength of their free dance. With a bit more time to work on the compulsories, they may be able to come out a little stronger this week. They also train with Brianna Delmaestro & Graeme Gordon, another new team that was sixth at Challenge.

Jaimie Clarke & Matthew Webb, Catherine Daigle-Roy & Alexis St-Louis, and Ekaterina Fedyushchenko & Jean-Luc Jackson all competed at Canadians on the novice level last year and are returning to the event this year. Clarke & Webb and Daigle-Roy & St-Louis made a big leap and finished fourth and fifth at Challenge, respectively. Fedyuschenko & Jackson were only tenth at Challenge, but had stronger events earlier in the season and could easily place much higher this week.