What a difference a year makes.
At this time last season, critics were hammering Skate Canada for not producing a single world figure skating champion since Elvis Stojko won the men's event 11 years ago in Lausanne, Switzerland.
In fact, Canada only earned three medals during the trio of world championships staged prior to the competition in Goteborg, Sweden, last March. With the 2010 Vancouver Olympics less than two years away, many feared the Canadian team would fall flat on its collective behind when the Games finally arrived.
But the results of the 2008 worlds have squashed the panic, turning trepidation into optimism. Jeffrey Buttle upended 2007 world title holder Brian Joubert of France to win the men's crown, while ice dancing sensations Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir captured silver.
The pairs tandem of Jessica Dubé and Bryce Davison also took home a bronze for good measure, and Canadians also witnessed the emergence of Patrick Chan, who is the new face of the men's team now that Buttle has retired.
As the Grand Prix season sets to open Friday (CBCSports.ca, 6 p.m. ET) in Everett, Wash., CBC figure skating analyst Tracy Wilson spoke to CBCSports.ca, touching on Skate Canada's turnaround, Buttle's sudden retirement, and the program's renewed commitment to podium results.
CBCSports.ca: Canada won three medals in four disciplines at the world championships in Sweden last season. Where does this team rank with the best skaters in the world today?
Wilson: I believe we had the best showing, so what it did was it cemented the fact that Canadians are a player on the world stage again. The Canadian skating team is now one of the strongest in the world.
CBCSports.ca: Last season we were discussing what Canada needed to do to get back to prominence. Twelve months later, the Canadian team competes as one of the top nations in the world? How did this happen?
Wilson: I believe that one of the reasons for the success of the Canadian team truly is the new group at Skate Canada [led by CEO William Thompson]. What has happened is they've built a sense of team. They've also been able to find ways to effectively support not only the top skaters, but the junior skaters. They've been working at getting the skaters competition ready. Some of the other things they've done are monitoring the skaters earlier in the season, setting up workshops and simulations where they bring the skaters together to train while getting input from technical specialist, judges and former Canadian world champions. This allows them to pull all the experts in figure skating together and get the information right in the hands of the skaters and their coaches.
CBCSports.ca: Jeffrey Buttle struggled through the first part of last season with his consistency, but rebounded to capture his first career world title. Did his outstanding performance surprise you?
Wilson: It didn't surprise me from the standpoint that I know what he's capable of doing. The surprise was that he was able to do it, not just once, but twice with his short and long programs, and that it happened at a world championships. He was able to perform his personal best during the height of all that pressure. I also think people overlooked him during the season and sometimes that works to relieve some of the pressure. Even Brian Joubert made a tactical error in terms of who he thought could beat him. He overlooked what Jeff could do.
CBCSports.ca: After his stunning victory, Jeff decided to retire in the fall, which caught some off guard. How did you view his decision to call it a career?
Wilson: His thinking after worlds was that he really accomplished what he wanted to with his skating. So what would motivate him to keep going? I believe it was a conversation with his mother [Lesley] that helped him. She advised him to give it some time because she didn't want him to have regrets. So he trained fiercely all summer and into the fall. What was so interesting was he, and his coach David Wilson, felt there were the best programs he's ever done. He was training hard, injury-free, and he had great material. When he decided not to keep going it was a total shock. But that's the type of integrity Jeff Buttle has. He's won an Olympic medal [bronze in Torino]. He's experienced that moment and a world title. In order for him to do his best, he can't have any questions. When you have questions, you're not going to do your best.
CBCSports.ca: Patrick Chan emerged last season by winning the Canadian title. Do you think he's ready to take the mantle from Jeff?
Wilson: There is no question he's ready. I watched him at the training camp that Skate Canada held in Vancouver last month in preparation for the season. In watching him go through his long program in the mornings on a cold empty rink, he brought me to my feet. He is the real McCoy. He's brilliant in what he's capable of doing and as good as he already is, he remains a student of the sport. I think that combination is going to take him a long way.
CBCSports.ca: On the ladies side, which Canadians do you expect to step up this season?
Wilson: Joannie Rochette is looking very strong. Like Patrick, I saw her in September and she's ahead of schedule. She's has a terrific new short and long program, and is very athletic and powerful. But this year she has a softness and a grace to her skating even more than in past seasons.
CBCSports.ca: The ladies have been struggling over the last several years. Where do you see the progress of Rochette this year and heading to the Vancouver Winter Games?
Wilson: There is no question that Joannie has a real chance at winning a medal. In my opinion, she's not an outsider but a contender. This is a very important year for her because that will set her up for the Olympic year. She's always been a Top 5 skater and that's where the international community will view her. I think now she can take that next step into being a contender. But it's important this Grand Prix season that she starts off strong and earns a spot in the Grand Prix final. If she has a good season there's a definite possibility that she'll medal at the world championships.
CBCSports.ca: The ice dance team of Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue won a silver medal at the worlds. Many view the Canadians as the next big think in figure skating. Is this the year they can break through and win a world title?
Wilson: Yes. They're as good as any team on the world scene. There are good teams out there so it's definitely not going to be easy. What's important in ice dance is the quality of the program and for teams to have that vehicle that's going to grab the audiences, judges and bring out their personalities. The vehicle is more important in the ice dance than any other disciplines. This Grand Prix season is going to be important for them to see if they have the goods or if they have to go back to the drawing board. But they have the potential to change the sport of ice dance. Every now and then you have certain athletes that comes along and change the sport. They have that potential. They have the talent to take on any style and the versatility to interpret any form of dance.
CBCSports.ca: Jessica Dubé and Bryce Davison took a big step last year by winning a world bronze. From watching them last year, and Jessica overcoming the gruesome facial laceration in 2007, how far have they come?
Wilson: They skated beautifully last season and they were very consistent, which allowed them to win a world medal. This year they've added another tick to their arsenal and that's the triple twist. What they did in past seasons was to do a double and try to do it really well for extra points. But if they are to challenge for the top spot this year, they have to have the triple twist. It's not going to be easy. There's probably six or seven teams that are right up there, so they absolutely had to get better and add more difficulty in their program and that's what they've done. But winning a world medal will give them great confidence moving forward. They are definitely performing at a different level.
CBCSports.ca: As a whole, do you think Canada is in good shape for Vancouver and is the training camp that Skate Canada set up in September helping?
Wilson: It really is. This training camp will be an advantage for Canadian skaters if Skate Canada continues to hold it. I think for the Canadians, the Olympics are already here. It's in your face and people are already talking about it. The skaters may say that 'well we have another season,' but they're feeling it.