There's always a window of opportunity for younger skaters in the changing competitive landscape of a post-Olympic season.
Vanessa Crone and Paul Poirier made sure they were ready when it opened.
The Canadian ice dancers captured gold at Skate Canada International on Sunday, impressing the crowd in Kingston, Ont., and the judges with a demanding program arranged by ice dance legend Christopher Dean, a calculated choice of choreographer meant to turn heads in this first of a four-year march to the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
"That's the first thing we looked at this season," Poirier said. "And that's why we ventured out to try Chris as a different choreographer, to really push our limits because one of our goals for the season is to prove we're in that top group in the world.
"To do that we know we really need to push ourselves and surpass what we've normally been doing and I think that's really how we have to approach this season, because the door's wide open."
Crone, from Newmarket, Ont., and Poirier, from Unionville, Ont., trailed British siblings Sinead and John Kerr by a whisker after the short dance, but the Canadians' performance to Eleanor Rigby earned them gold with 154.42 points. They will also share $19,000 US in first-place prize money.
The Kerrs scored 149.80 for silver while Americans Madison Chock and Greg Zuerlein won bronze with 139.05.
The ice dance gold, Crone and Poirier's first on the Grand Prix circuit, capped a five-medal performance for Canada at the K-Rock Centre. It was a decent result for a team missing three of its four top entries.
Olympic ice dance champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir recently withdrew after Virtue underwent surgery to alleviate chronic pain in her shins. Joannie Rochette, who won Olympic bronze days after the death of her mother, is taking time off to contemplate her future, while pairs team Jessica Dube and Bryce Davison pulled out after Davison underwent knee surgery this week.
Toronto's Patrick Chan was the sole reigning Canadian champion to compete here, and lived up to his billing, landing his first quad jump in competition en route to winning gold.
"What we were looking for coming in is that some of our younger athletes would start to show that brilliance that we knew they had and get that depth going, so we weren't just talking about our established stars," said William Thompson, Skate Canada's CEO. "They really achieved that this week."
It's crucial that young skaters put their stamp on the international stage early in an Olympic cycle, Thompson said.
Crone and Poirier were seventh at the world championships in 2010 but still weren't in the same league as Virtue and Moir, so the two hired Dean. He and partner Jayne Torvill produced one of figure skating's most memorable moments, capturing gold with their stirring Bolero performance at the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics.
The program is athletically demanding with intricate footwork and lifts unlike anything Crone and Poirier had ever performed. They're hoping it allows them to make some noise in this season of movement.
"This is the year, this is their opportunity to put themselves on that track towards the podium in Sochi," Thompson said.
"Tessa and Scott didn't make the 2006 [Olympic] team, but then they made the big statement the next year in the Grand Prixs, they started having the breakthroughs — second at Skate Canada and then sixth at worlds — and that traction started to get going. That's a great opportunity when that happens."
Canada captured two medals in pairs. Kirsten Moore-Towers of Waterloo, Ont., and Dylan Moscovitch of Toronto won silver, while Paige Lawrence of Kennedy, Sask., and Rudi Swiegers of Virden, Man., added bronze. Amelie Lacoste of Delson, Que., had a bronze in women's singles.
Crone, 20, and Poirier, 19, weren't the only impressive Canadians in dance. Alexandra Paul of Midhurst, Ont., and Mitchell Islam of Barrie, Ont., posted the second-highest score in the free dance to finish fourth in their senior Grand Prix debut. Their on-ice chemistry and elegance evoked images of Virtue and Moir and earned them a standing ovation.
"That was exquisite," Thompson said. "For such a young team just coming out of junior … brilliant, I'm thrilled."
Paul, 19, and Islam, 20, won silver at last season's world junior championships and were still eligible to compete as juniors this year. But like their ice dance teammates Crone and Poirier, they decided now was the time to make their move.
"Like it is with a lot of sports after the Olympics, it's a new chapter into international figure skating," Islam said. "We feel we're definitely ready to make that next step to the senior level."
Chan's performance was the highlight of the weekend. His newly acquired quad, which Skate Canada high performance director Michael Slipchuk called "one of the best in the world," launched the two-time world silver medallist to an entirely new level.
"He won here falling four times [three in the short program and once in the long], and he still put up a huge score," Thompson said. "So you've got to think, where can he be in March [at the world championships]?"
While the Canadian team will be missing its three national title-holders through the remainder of the Grand Prix season, Thompson is optimistic about this squad's chances looking toward the Grand Prix Final in December in Beijing.
Skaters are assigned to two of the six Grand Prix events, and Skate Canada was No. 2 on the schedule. The top six in each discipline earn a berth in the final.
"We have a lot of skaters in the pot to get to that final," Thompson said.
Despite the big-name withdrawals, the competition drew 16,603 fans — 80 per cent of tickets — to the 4,130-seat K-Rock Centre.