Jeffrey Buttle favoured at skating nationals
Olympic bronze medallist Jeff Buttle could have a fight on his hands at this week's Canadian figure skating championships in Vancouver.
Not many upsets are expected at the competition, but the men's singles event will likely be one of the closest as Buttle tries to retain the title he's won the last three years.
Buttle, 25, of Smooth Rock Falls, Ont., will face a challenge from Toronto's Patrick Chan, the 17-year-old who qualified for this year's Grand Prix Final in Turin, where he finished fifth.
Chan said his strong showing in Turin has him confident he can finish in the top two at the nationals, which begin Wednesday.
That would earn him a spot on the team heading to the world championships in Goteborg, Sweden, in March.
"It was one of the best programs I have done," said Chan, who was fifth at last year's nationals and Canadian junior champion in 2005.
"It was a great confidence boost for nationals."
The Canadian championships, which run through Sunday and will be televised by CBC Sports, will attract about 150 skaters to the Pacific Coliseum.
It is the same venue that will host figure skating at the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Winter Games.
Defending women's champion Joannie Rochette of Île Dupas, Que., said the more chances a skater gets to compete at the Olympic venue, the better.
"Every time we get to perform there, we can imagine the Olympic rings, feel the atmosphere," said Rochette, 22, who has been on the podium at the nationals six times since 2002 and won the title the last three years.
"I see it as great preparation. Of course, it is going to be a whole different atmosphere when we are at the Games, but it is good to get familiar with the rink."
Buttle lacks big jumps
Buttle, who announced last week he'll retire from competitive figure skating after the 2010 Olympics, won the silver medal at the world championships in 2005, but slipped to sixth last year in Tokyo.
His lack of big jumps has left him struggling on the international stage, and he didn't earn enough points to qualify for the GP Final.
He has been preparing to defend his national title at his training base in Lake Arrowhead, Calif.
"I feel really good about my preparations," said Buttle. "I definitely feel as if I'm in my prime."
Also in the men's mix will be Christopher Mabee of Tillsonburg, Ont., who finished second last year, and Kevin Reynolds of North Vancouver, B.C., the 17-year-old who has shown potential, but hasn't managed to put together a whole program when it counted.
Chan said the final will be a tight battle.
"We will just see if all of us do a clean performance," he said. "If we all do a clean performance, then it is really in the hands of the judges.
"I just have to think about going out there and doing my job. I just want to skate my best and give the crowd the best skate I can."
For the first time in 11 years, Emanuel Sandhu will not be competing.
The three-time national champion informed Skate Canada last week that he wouldn't be entering the contest.
Meanwhile, Rochette has seen her results slip recently.
She finished fifth at the 2006 Torino Olympics, but tumbled to 11th in Tokyo and didn't qualify for the GP Final this season.
Rochette still favoured
Rochette is still favoured to repeat as women's singles champion, but will be challenged by Mira Leung, 18, of Vancouver, and Lesley Hawker, 26, of Barrie, Ont.
"You don't see yourself as the favourite," said Rochette. "You see the others coming up, [and] that puts pressure on you.
"The way I see it, I need to skate really good to keep the title. I want to keep my title so bad — that is what motivates me."
Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of London, Ont., are expected to win the ice dance crown since five-time champions Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon decided to take the year off.
Virtue and Moir were sixth at last year's worlds and fourth at the GP Final.
"We're really focused on our jobs and want to produce great performances for the fans in Vancouver," said Moir.
In pairs, Jessica Dubé and Bryce Davison of Varennes, Que., come to Vancouver confident they can defend the title they won last year.
They also are looking forward to improving on their seventh-place finish at the worlds.
"We're not the kids that are just happy to be there anymore," said Davison. "We cannot just be happy competing with the best.
"We want to be among the best and compete with them and win against them, eventually. We see now we are among the best, and we can beat the best."
Craig Buntin of Kelowna, B.C., will compete with new partner Meagan Duhamel in pairs.
Buntin hooked up with Duhamel after his long-time partner Valérie Marcoux of Gatineau, Que., retired in April.
Together, they won three national championships and were second last year.
Besides crowning the Canadian champions, this week's competition will determine who will represent Canada at the worlds, the Four Continents and the world juniors.