Kurt Browning was making his always busy way from one event to the other earlier this week when he was asked why Canada is always so deep and competitive in ice dance.
Simple answer: "We’re good skaters."
That goes for two of the three other disciplines as well, save for ladies singles, currently in a bit of a down spot.
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"We are a skating nation," says the four-time world men’s champion and current CBC commentator, who recognizes that things have never been as competitive globally as they are now.
"The world is getting bigger, Korea and China are starting to be powers … they are figuring out the equation, learning from everyone else and figuring out how to train harder."
But Canada still does well, he says, because "we have coaches who know how to bring the best out of students."
Coming off a two-medal performance at the world championships in Moscow last spring, the Canadian team enters this season with now 28 months to go before the 2014 Winter Olympics. They are looking to hold on to what they have, and move a few more skaters into medal contention.
Here’s how Canada's skaters stack up in each of the four disciplines:
- 2010-2011 season: One world medal (gold, Patrick Chan)
- Retired: Shawn Sawyer (silver at nationals), Joey Russell (bronze at nationals, 24th at worlds)
- Returning: Chan, Kevin Reynolds, Elladj Balde, Liam Firus
With two more world championship seasons ahead before the real Olympic preparations begin, there does seem a chance that boredom or a sense of dreary repetition could set in for Patrick Chan, the defending global champ.
Browning thinks it can happen, but doesn’t see it in this case.
"[Patrick] wants to be Roger Federer [the tennis star]. He wants to really dominate the next four years, doesn’t want anybody else to win anything, and all power to him," he says.
"He’s got the feet, the brains and the charisma, and the turns in the air."
Chan, who has a new long program, introduced quad jumps to his routines last season and learned to hit them with consistency, leading to his win at worlds and the potential for a lot more.
Behind Chan, Sawyer and Russell have retired, moving Kevin Reynolds up into the No. 2 spot for now. Reynolds struggled at the nationals, finishing fourth, and was 20th at the worlds.
"Kevin has to decide if he’s going to be on the outside, or get inside and do it," says Browning. "He still seems like a small boy among men sometimes."
What’s needed is the confidence that comes from believing you belong, and that will enable him to become "a different presence on the ice."
Then there’s Andrei Rogozine, who won the junior worlds last season and already has some senior experience, having appeared at the 2011 nationals, where he was 13th.
"Andrei is really good," Browning says. "I’m still waiting for him to take to the ice in a consistent manner."
That’s something that will come with experience.
- 2010-2011 season: No world medals
- Retired: None (Joannie Rochette still undecided)
- Returning: Cynthia Phaneuf, Myriane Samson, Amelie Lacoste, Alexandra Najarro
A disappointing 2010-2011 season was made more so because it followed an Olympic year that was so bright.
Joannie Rochette won a bronze under difficult circumstances at the Games in Vancouver, and then Cynthia Phaneuf skated to a surprise, but well deserved, fifth place in the worlds.
But Rochette took last season off and still hasn’t said if she’s ever coming back, while Phaneuf struggled mightily at the 2011 worlds, finishing 13th. That placing hurt badly, as it means Canada will only send one singles skater to the global event next year.
Also back are Myriane Samson, who was second at the nationals, Amelie Lacoste, bronze at nationals and 16th at worlds, and young Alexandra Najarro (18 years old), fourth at Nats.
It’s a slim field, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be interesting, says PJ Kwong, the long-time figure skating coach, CBC commentator and now author.
"Cynthia Phaneuf has a renewed commitment to performing rather than to scores, and that’s going to stand her in good stead," says Kwong.
Finding as many points as possible rather than putting in a good overall performance has become pervasive around the world right now, she believes.
"[Women skaters] get so focused on jumps that when they don’t have the high risk elements [working] there’s not so much to connect the program together."
Browning believes this year it’s still the Cynthia Phaneuf show.
"It’s hers to lose [in Canada]," he says. "She’s super capable on the international level, she just fell off the pace a bit last year."
- 2010-2011 season: One world medal (silver, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir)
- Retired: None
- Returning: Virtue and Moir, Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje (5th at worlds), Alexandra Paul and Mitchell Islam (3rd at nationals), Kharis Ralph and Asher Hill (4th at nationals)
Now that Tessa Virtue is over the injury that kept the Olympic gold medalists out for much of last season, she and Moir will be back at the top of a deep Canadian pack.
The intrigue begins below the superb stars, starting with the splitting of Canada’s No. 2 team of Vanessa Crone and Paul Poirier, who won nationals in 2011 with Moir and Virtue out, but were a disappointing 10th at the worlds.
Poirier is now paired with Piper Gillis, an American skating for Canada, while Crone is looking for a new partner.
Weaver and Poje, who were an excellent fifth at the worlds in Moscow, finishing fourth in the free dance, will be expected to move into the second spot as a result.
"Kaitlin and Andrew are back with a vengeance," says Kwong, who points out the team had set top-5 in the world as their pre-season goal last year, and got it.
"They are prepared to take a creative risk this year with their new free dance program – it’s about love without being gooey. And I like the fact they are not resting on what they have done before – the razzle dazzle that was Moulin Rouge."
Browning loves Paul and Islam.
"They have an elegance to them that is, may I say, Virtue and Moir-esque," he says. "I hate to make that comparison but they are similar in that they are true dancers."
Kwong also looks to Ralph and Hill for something special this year because they have "rebranded" and are much more sophisticated, she says.
- 2010-2011 season: No world medals
- Retired: Mylene Brodeur and John Mattatall, Bryce Davison
- Returning: Kirsten Moore-Towers and Dylan Moscovitch (8th at worlds), Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford (7th at worlds), Paige Lawrence and Rudi Swiegers (3rd at nationals)
Kurt Browning remembers when he was skating in the late 1980s and early 1990s, every body wanted to be at the rink for the pairs final because it was so wide open.
Those were the days of Isabelle Brasseur and Lloyd Eisler, Christine Hough and Doug Ladret,, Cindy Landry and Lyndon Johnson.
Those times are back, as there are now four teams jockeying for position in a deep field.
Kirsten Moore-Towers and Dylan Moscovitch won the nationals going away but were beaten by a place at the worlds by Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford. Also in the mix are Paige Lawrence and Rudi Swiegers and a new pairing with a familiar old face.
Jessica Dube and Bryce Davison won three national titles and a world bronze together but a bad knee injury has sent Davison to the sidelines and into coaching. Dube has teamed with Sebastien Wolfe, who used to skate with Tara Hancherow as a junior.
"You just don’t know what’s going to happen," says Browning. "In pairs, it’s wide open, and who know how much these teams are going to improve."