Montreal in for a treat at world figure skating championships in March
Russian teen trio highlight what should be a fascinating competition
The world figure skating championships will unfold in a devoutly skating city and in a country which has a national passion for the sport.
Beginning March 16, the championships in Montreal promise to be hotly contested but also will showcase the flair and flavour which this timeless, international pursuit has always been known for.
While the Canadian skaters hope to capitalize on home-ice advantage, they might not be the headliners of the event. It matters little because fans of figure skating are traditionally less interested in partisanship and more concerned with appreciating exquisite, athletic and artistic performance.
When 200 athletes from 50 countries take to the ice mid-March they'll create a stir and set figure skating's bar ever higher with a view to the next Olympic Winter Games which are in Beijing, China and incredibly… less than two years away.
As the music cues at the outset, here are seven storylines to consider.
The Montreal milieu
Canada has hosted these championships on 10 previous occasions, most recently in London, Ont., in 2013. Not since 1932 has Montreal staged the championships. Back then there was no ice dance competition and the great Sonja Henie of Norway, a 10-time world champion and three-time Olympic gold medallist, won the women's title.
In the almost 90 years since, Montreal has become fertile ground for the international skating community and produced myriad champions.
It is unquestionably at the very core of ice dancing's evolution and the home of Canadian coaches Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon, who have guided the success of three-time Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir as well as Gabriela Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, the four-time and reigning world champions.
Canadian pairs skaters have emerged from Montreal, including two-time world champions Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford.
"Montreal was my home for 12 years and it's a big sporting community," said the now retired Duhamel. "It's also a city that celebrates the arts, which makes figure skating very popular as it combines both sport and the arts."
The Bell Centre in downtown Montreal is an enormous arena and tickets are expensive and in high demand. The atmosphere of the place and the skating savvy of the crowd is a given.
Montreal also has a proven record of devotion to anything involving steel blades including ice hockey, short track speed skating and figure skating.
The Canadian figure skating program is unquestionably at the tail end of a golden age where athletes from this country contended for medals in each of the four disciplines.
Still, there are ambitious skaters in both pairs and the ice dance who have podium aspirations and could capitalize on the familiar and friendly setting the Bell Centre affords them. Included are the current world junior ice dance champions Marjorie Lajoie and Zachary Lagha who train in Montreal.
"After the 2018 Olympics, Canadian figure skating started a rebuilding program," said Duhamel a two-time Olympic medallist. "This is a chance for up-and-coming skaters to compete at this level on home soil in front of an enthusiastic Canadian crowd."
In the ice dance, Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier will compete in their eighth world championships together and will skate for the first time as reigning Canadian champions.
They were a strong second at the recent Four Continents championships in Korea and have been in the top eight six times at the world championships. They're dedicated to achieving a best-ever finish in Montreal, which should place them in the top five or better.
The Canadian hopefuls in the pairs competition are Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro, the two-time and current national champions. They spent time training in the Montreal area before moving to Oakville, Ont., this year to work with coach Bruno Marcotte, who relocated there along with Duhamel, who has recently given birth to the couple's first child.
Moore-Towers and Marinaro were fifth at the Grand Prix Final and could have been better. It's their fourth time at the world championships and they've never been out of the top 10.
Chen versus Hanyu
The matchup in the men's competition could produce fireworks and more than a little magic.
American Nathan Chen has been on a roll since he self-destructed in the short program and missed a medal in the singles event at the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang. Chen has won virtually everything since and has an arsenal of quad jumps at his disposal.
Meantime, the two-time Olympic champion, Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan hasn't won the world title since Helsinki in 2017, was second to Chen at the Grand Prix Final, and was also defeated at the Japanese championships by Shoma Uno.
In addition he finally achieved a lifelong goal by winning the Four Continents championships for the first time.
"When I became a senior competitor the first medal I won was a silver medal at Four Continents," Hanyu said recently. "It was also the competition before the tsunami in my home of Sendai. I've been trying to get that gold medal several times at Four Continents but it was difficult to do. Finally I've got it and it's very meaningful."
A confident and rejuvenated Yuzuru Hanyu taking on Nathan Chen who is at the top of his game could produce unforgettable skating.
The Young Russians
The Russians are not only coming to Montreal, they could dominate the proceedings, particularly in the women's competition.
Three youngsters have changed the landscape in the current season of skating. So impressive are Alena Kostornaia, Alexandra Trusova, and Anna Shcherbakova that the current Olympic and world champion, Alina Zagitova, who is also Russian, couldn't make the team's roster for Montreal.
At 16, Kostornaia is the oldest of the trio and won both the Grand Prix Final and the European championship. The other two skaters are only 15 and all of them are capable of landing quad jumps in competition.
The Russian women have won four of the last five world titles, with Kaetlyn Osmond of Canada being the exception in 2018. Prior to this current run the Russians had not won the coveted women's crown since Irina Slutskaya in 2005.
They are on a major roll and their talent pool is deep.
The ice dance should provide a landmark moment in Montreal. Gabriela Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France are favoured to win their fifth world title. That would take them beyond Jane Torvill and Christopher Dean of Great Britain, who won four world championships. If they prevail, Papadakis and Cizeron will have won more gold medals at the world championships than any team in history, with the exception of Soviet skaters Liudmila Pakhamova and Alexander Gorshkov, who won six back in the 1970's.
Papadakis and Cizeron are 24 and 25 years old respectively so their dance dynasty may in fact be in its infancy. There is, however, one caveat which could create some drama. The French skaters were surprisingly defeated at the most recent European championships by Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov of Russia.
Nam the lone wolf
There's a lot riding on the shoulders of 21-year-old Nam Nguyen. He's the lone Canadian in the men's competition and that hasn't happened at the world championships since the late Brian Pockar was the only Canadian male to skate in Dortmund, Germany way back in 1980.
Nguyen is hoping to kickstart his career which saw him finish fifth at the world championships in Shanghai in 2015 but not come close since.
Nguyen, a two-time Canadian champion, was the runner-up to Roman Sadovsky at this year's nationals but earned his sixth trip to the world championships by finishing sixth at Four Continents.
He's still a young skater but with plenty of international experience under his belt. In Montreal Nguyen adds the burden of continuing a strong Canadian tradition in men's skating and having to do it alone.
A new era of celebrating skating
The Montreal championships will most assuredly be a showcase for the sport as figure skating aspires to go box office.
The traditional championship gala will take on an added dimension and become more of an awards show. Co-hosted by three-time world champion and Canadian skating legend Elvis Stojko, awards will go to the season's most valuable skater, best costume, most entertaining program, best newcomer, best choreographer, and best coach. In addition there will be a special lifetime achievement award as well as performances from some of the most notable champions from 2020.
We should also expect beloved Canadian champions from the past to perform exhibitions on Bell Centre ice. It's likely we'll get another chance to see Joannie Rochette, Patrick Chan, Eric Radford, Meagan Duhamel, and even Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir in the spotlight as the Canadian figure skating community celebrates an accomplished history.
There will be many more plot points to come as the world championships get closer. And at the outset, seven stories to watch can barely scratch the surface as figure skating gathers for its global summit on Canadian ice.