New coaches. New programs. New music. Four falls.
That kind of opening to Patrick Chan’s season was not going to leave the dedicated, sometimes nerve-wracked, fans of the two-time reigning men’s figure skating world champion filled with confidence as the Sochi Olympics come more clearly into focus.
But was what happened at the Japan Open earlier this month cause for concern, or was it to be expected? Put another way, is it time for everyone to take a sedative and look forward to this weekend’s Skate Canada outing, the first of the Grand Prix circuit for Chan, with optimism?
"Um… both," says Kurt Browning, the four-time world champion and now CBC commentator, who is a good friend of Chan’s.
"When he falls four times, in an event that was fairly important, and he looked fit for it, then something is not quite right and I don’t think it was the flu."
OK, so let’s panic then? Not so fast.
"Sometimes, it’s a temporary thing and you can go, ‘Look, give the kid a break,’" Browning says.
Told him so, himself.
"I looked at him and said ‘Look, you’ve been top two in the world for the last four years, this is bound to happen. Go ahead and beat yourself up a little bit, but don’t hang on yourself, just give yourself some good time to think about what may be causing this and get the hell over it."
It has been a world of change for Team Chan since the world championships ended on March 31 at Nice, France with the Canadian at the top of podium and Daisuke Takahashi a close second.
Christy Krall became the sixth former lead coach on the skater’s long ISU biography page when she left. Long-time choreographer Lori Nichol is no longer there.
In are Jeff Buttle, the former world champion who has created the new short program to Rachmaninoff, and veteran David Wilson, with a long program to the opera La Boheme.
The boss now is Kathy Johnson, a movement coach with no competitive figure skating experience, and part-time jump instructor Eddie Shipstad. That last one has some wondering.
"The general logic of the figure skating community is you need a jumping coach, because that’s what we all do, right? That’s the normal practice," says Browning. "So, I saw him in practice and his jumps look fine.
"I think he was just going through something that got in his head, got in his cage, and allowed him to have a bad skate."
Chan himself does not seem concerned with all the changes.
"Every coach I have been with has been just right for every moment of my career," he said. "I needed them in a different way. Don [Laws] was a great transition, and he taught me a lot of good things … Christy did a lot of great work with the quad, but after that, something was missing."
Something was missing in Japan, and Chan understands that. He made no excuses.
"I went into my turtle shell and I hid from everyone and didn’t do well."
Then, he boarded the plane home and put his mind to work on how to fix things right away, calling Japan his "turning point" of the season — one that comes before the real year has even begun.
"I kind of woke up and came back and really wanted to work hard, was really motivated to do my programs and run my sections and get the jumps more consistent and just give myself more confidence."
Mike Slipchuk, Skate Canada’s technical director, is a man who doesn’t mind speaking his mind when the time comes. He’s calling for a little patience here.
"You know what, Patrick is the best in the world, right? He’s the two-time world champion, they’ve gone in a different direction with the programs this year, and it’s always good to challenge yourself.
"When you are the world champion, everyone is always going to be looking at your faults and not your strengths, and we always make sure we prepare our athletes for that."
He added there is only one real way to judge.
"At the end of the day, the event that counts is the world championships, and that’s the one you want to be your best at," Slipchuk said. "No one remember in March who won Skate Canada, but everyone remembers who won the worlds."
The key may be in the way Chan has grown, from goofy and happy youngster to veteran professional, even at the still-young age of 21.
"Hopefully people see that," he says, happy at being asked. "I’ve had some coaches, some judges and some people from Skate Canada say, ‘You’ve really matured as an athlete.’"
There is now much more time spent thinking his way through things, putting the experience to work.
"You just can’t pick it up, it’s something you get going to Grand Prix [events] and to worlds, it’s a sign of maturity and being a veteran of figure skating.
"I never thought I’d be mature enough to be where I am."