Canadians still speeding ahead of short track pack — for now
Kim Boutin emerging as star, but men's side took hit with Samuel Girard's retirement
In spite of its brief history, short track speed skating has proven to be the backbone of Canadian success on ice at the Olympic Games.
Since it first appeared at the 1992 Games in Albertville, France, short track has yielded a total of 33 Canadian medals.
That's a record of production surpassed only by long track speed skating, which has seen 37 Canadian podium finishes since its introduction at the first edition of the Olympic Winter Games in Chamonix in 1924.
Almost all of the medals won by Canadian athletes in this sport have been claimed by Quebecers.
Short track speed skating is ubiquitous in that province — and its champions are revered citizens.
"Ever since short track has been part of the Olympic family, Quebec has had a tradition of producing very successful skaters year after year," said Isabelle Charest, Quebec's Minister for Education and the Status of Women.
Charest happens to be a former short track speed skater who won three Olympic medals and three world championships. The 48-year-old was also Chef de Mission for Team Canada at the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang.
WATCH | 4 Canadians to look out for this short track season:
At the outset of the current season, Charest was skeptical that the momentum of five medals in South Korea could be maintained in light of successful Olympians who had decided to leave the fold.
"With the retirement of a few skaters of high profile like Marianne St-Gelais and Samuel Girard we could have expected to experience a few dry seasons," Charest surmised. "But that's not the case. I'm pleased and a bit surprised to see we have extremely great potential and I'm very excited about Kim Boutin's early results."
Indeed, the 24-year-old Boutin, who rocketed to prominence by winning three Olympic medals in 2018 and six world championship medals in the last two years, is off to a stellar start to the campaign.
Boutin became the first female to skate the 500 metres in less than 42 seconds while setting a world record at that distance in the opening World Cup of the season in Salt Lake City. She also claimed gold medals in the 500 and 1500, and she contributed to Canadian bronze in the 3000 relay.
WATCH | Boutin sets 500m short track world record:
While Boutin may be the reliable future star of the women's team, she's also backed up by 21-year-old Alyson Charles of Montreal, who won six World Cup medals last season.
The men's picture isn't quite as clear.
Charles Hamelin, now 35, has returned for yet another campaign. Hamelin has five Olympic and 40 world championship medals to his credit. He's done everything there is to do in the sport.
But with the sudden retirement of his heir apparent, 22-year-old 1000 Olympic champion Samuel Girard, Hamelin felt the urge to keep racing.
"I still love my sport and have the desire to win," Hamelin said after racing to a fourth-place finish in the 1500 in Salt Lake City.
"The next generation is very strong and they are ready to compete at the international level. But the lack of experience might be what is missing right now, so yes, in a way, I'm here to ensure a good transition. But I wouldn't keep skating if the love for my sport wasn't there."
Three-time Olympic medallist and 16-time world champion Nathalie Lambert is the chair of the International Skating Union (ISU) short track speed skating committee. She's the first woman to lead the rule-making body of the sport and has successfully lobbied the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for the adoption of a mixed gender short track relay at the next Games in China.
"This team is rebuilding but it may not be totally ready for 2022 and the Beijing Olympics. Charles brings experience and stability and I believe he is a positive leader on a very young team.
"It's the centre of his universe."
Lambert is fully aware that Canada's pre-eminence will be challenged as programs in other countries become more sophisticated.
"The international level is now incredibly strong and it's really hard to make the finals on World Cup," Lambert said.
"Canada has a national training centre which is locally based and the team has been restructuring and I believe doing the right things. But the depth of the team isn't what it used to be. There are many new skaters with very little international experience and it seems we are challenged to keep up with not only China and South Korea but also now with the Netherlands, Hungary and Russia."
Montreal World Cup another test
Still, there are young Canadian men in the fold like 22-year-old Steven Dubois, who set a 500 world record last year and won a handful of World Cup medals. Pascal Dion, 25, helped Canada win a relay medal in Pyeongchang at the Olympics. The men's relay team also won bronze last weekend in Salt Lake, but with the exception of Hamelin, no Canadian male skater made a final.
That said, as the curtain rises on the home World Cup at Maurice Richard Arena in Montreal, Lambert and other short track legends are confident that the tradition of excellence in Canada, and particularly in Quebec, will continue to flourish for the foreseeable future.
"There is a critical mass of good skaters training together on a daily basis moving everyone forward," she said.
"This sport has solid grassroots programs with hundreds of clubs from everywhere in the province and a competition circuit which is supporting development. The success of the team doesn't depend on any one individual. They have a very solid and competent team of coaches. They should be able to have a few key players in place. They definitely have some great talent on board, so it will be interesting to see them develop."
The Canadians trail only South Korea as the most successful short track speed skating nation of all time.
As they hit home ice this weekend in Montreal, they'll learn if they have what it takes to remain leaders of the short track pack.