Skating uphill

Ryan Pyette, Free Press Sports Reporter

, Last Updated: 10:18 AM ET

Every so often, you read about the great decline of figure skating in Canada -- how it's never been the same since Elvis left the building or how the international judging system pushes the sport onto the same reality plane as pro wrestling. But as much as you write it off, bury it or try to ignore it, figure skating is too much a part of this country's soul and history. Every few years, something -- a promising new star, a bitter rivalry, a pretty face -- injects some electricity and pushes it back into the national conversation.

"It's always ebb and flow, the 2002 Olympics (which featured the memorable Sale and Pelletier pairs judging controversy) caused a jitter, but I think we're over that now," Skate Canada CEO Pam Coburn said this week from her office in Ottawa.

"Back when Elvis (Stojko) and Kurt (Browning) were competing head-to-head, that caused a bump in interest. The popularity depends on what's going on in the sport at the time."

The foundation of skating in this country remains static, but strong. As long as thousands of Canadian kids beg moms and grandmoms to sew Power skating badges onto their shirt sleeves and get excited about performing at club carnivals, not even a Tonya Harding-style whack on the knee will chop down the sport's national cash-flow potential and sponsorship appeal.

The key stats of skating read like this: More than six million of Canada's 32 million citizens lace up the blades at least once a year, be that the family gliding down the frozen Red River in Winnipeg to the mall or a mother-and-daughter zipping around the patch of community ice in front of Covent Garden Market in London. Skate Canada remains the largest of the world's national skating bodies, with more than 200,000 members.

The average audience for the national championships is 75 per cent female and half of all spectators have a post-graduate degree and a household income more than $60,000. The TV numbers for this year's nationals are expected to be about 1.75 million daily for the four days -- 25 hours of coverage by TSN and CTV.

But for much of the last year, the 2005 national championships, which will be held in London at the John Labatt Centre (with practice sessions at the Western Fair Sports Centre) in little more than a week, appeared to be heading toward the skating equivalent of a slumber party.

Where was the sizzle and buzz, marquee magic, compelling matchups?

Longtime champs Elvis Stojko and Jennifer Robinson will be here, but not on the ice. Elvis is making a promotional appearance and Robinson is the honorary chairperson. Ice dance princess Shae-Lynn Bourne of Chatham will be coaching here instead of boogieing with former partner Victor Kraatz. The closest you'll get to Jamie Sale and David Pelletier is to buy a pair of their brand-name skates at Canadian Tire.

Until the fall, London's 2005 nationals had all the makings of a transitional championship, a year in which the young upstarts just try to improve themselves, learn to compete and make sense of a new cumulative points judging system. There aren't expected to be any landmark jumps or spins performed on the JLC ice.

"It will be a very knowledgeable audience in London," said Ilderton's Carol Moir, the skating programs co-ordinator for Skate Canada's Western Ontario section, which provides the volunteer base and host duties for this nationals.

"Maybe the casual fan won't know all the names here but the figure skating fan will. There are a lot of very good skaters coming and this is the showcase event of the year in Canada. There are national team spots and trips to international events at stake."

In the months leading into London, it seemed like the big story at this year's nationals would be whether you loved or hated men's singles champ Emanuel Sandhu.

But something funny happened on the way to oblivion. In the past few months, the Canadian skaters have flourished under the new marking system on the international tour. Free from thoughts of potentially corrupt judges and the pressure of the perfect skate, the Canadian team rocketed from a sixth-place ranking in the world to third.

Suddenly, the big question wasn't how you felt about Sandhu; it was whether he could hold off hard-charging Jeffrey Buttle in London.

The ladies' singles, who rarely do much these days in other countries, started reeling off wins and podium finishes. Defending Canadian champ Cynthia Phaneuf, who unseated Robinson's long-term reign last year in Edmonton, now has to contend with Joannie Rochette. Is a strong rivalry budding?

Locally, ice dance couple and successful juniors Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue make their foray into the senior ranks on friendly ice.

Who knows how they'll make out in a wide-open dance competition?

"It's just the way it is this year, it seems like there's any number of skaters who could rise up and win," Coburn said.

"Everyone loves the new judging system. It means you're not out of it if you have a poor short program. Emanuel went from seventh to first (at Skate Canada International in Halifax) and that would never happen under the old system. There's no more absolute 6.0 for a perfect score -- you're skating for a personal best. The points mean everything. They're based on degree of difficulty in your program and how well you perform the elements in it.

"I watched how the crowd reacted to it and for the first few skaters, you don't really know how they stand. But by the third skater, they get right into it and pick it up."

This will be the first time the new judging system is used at a Canadian championship.

London has been front and centre for many figure skating firsts, including Stojko's first major international win in 1991 and the creation of the national team concept in 1981.

This will be a good test for the JLC and its ice, which has yet to hold a week-long event of this magnitude. Canadian figure skating championships are usually splendidly organized, thanks to an army of helpers who have been involved in the grassroots of skating for several years.

The championships don't have the pomp and circumstance or surrounding community trappings of a Memorial Cup, but it will rival the Cup for media attention -- and certainly national interest.

One telling factor of success is always ticket sales. The JLC will hold 8,018 for figure skating and none of the key, televised dates (Thursday-Sunday) have yet to sell out.

The senior women's and senior pairs short program goes on Thursday and is 75 per cent full, the Friday crowning of the women's singles champ is 80 per cent sold, the senior men and senior pair final on Saturday is 86 per cent full while the Sunday senior dance final and Parade of Champions festival is at 81 per cent capacity.

Coburn didn't agree that holding the event in London instead of a larger, NHL-sized arena, was a sign of the event's decline.

"I don't think you can say the event is getting smaller or is unsuccessful because of the size of the arena -- we want to go to places like London, Edmonton and Hamilton."

Coburn, who has been CEO of Skate Canada since 2002, recently made some major changes to the organization, including defining some bold and specific goals for the future.

By 2010, she wants to have a base of 3,400 elite skaters, 125,000 CanSkate, 25,000 CanPowerSkate and 40,000 StarSkate participants and a minimum of 400 synchronized skating teams.

On the elite level, Coburn is looking for a combined four medals at the Olympics and world championships in 2006 and three Olympic medals at the Olympics in 2010 at Vancouver. She also is shooting for a 75-per-cent success rate in top-five finishes at international development events.

"Money is always the easy answer for everything, but I feel if you have specifically defined goals, then people will want to help you get where you want to go," she said. "We have talented skaters and the best coaches and clubs in the world. There's no reason why, competitively, we can't be the best in the world."

SCHEDULES

Jan. 17

Senior women's qualifying B, 2 p.m.

Senior women's qualifying A, 5:15 p.m.

Jan. 18

Junior compulsory dance, 9:15 a.m.

Junior pair's short, 11:05 a.m.

Senior men's qualifying A, 2 p.m.

Senior men's qualifying B, 5 p.m.

Jan. 19

Junior original dance, 12:30 p.m.

Junior women's short, 2:55 p.m.

Junior men's short, 5:45 p.m.

Jan. 20

Junior pair's free, 11:25 a.m.

Senior compulsory dance, 2:30 p.m.

Senior women's short, 4:30 p.m.

Senior pair's short, 7:35 p.m.

Jan. 21

Junior free dance, 9:25 a.m.

Junior men's free, 12:05 p.m.

Senior men's short, 3:20 p.m.

Senior women's free, 6:30 p.m.

Jan. 22

Junior women's free, 10:35 a.m.

Senior original dance, 1:45 p.m.

Senior pair's free, 3:45 p.m.

Senior men's free, 6:15 p.m.

Jan. 23

Senior free dance, noon

Parade of champions, 3 p.m.

TV schedule

Jan. 20: Senior women's short, senior pair's short, 7-10 p.m., TSN

Jan. 21: Senior men's short, senior women's free, 7-10 p.m., TSN

Jan. 22: Senior original dance, senior pair's free, senior men's free, 2-4 p.m., TSN, 8-10 p.m., CTV

Jan. 23: Senior free dance, 1-2 p.m., CTV

Jan. 29: Parade of champions, 7-9 p.m., CTV

CANADIAN FIGURE SKATING CHAMPIONSHIPS

When: Jan. 17-23 at John Labatt Centre

Tickets: Call (519) 488-1012, visit any Ticketmaster location or online at www.ticketmaster.ca or at the John Labatt Centre box office.

Champions the last 10 years

SENIOR MEN

2004 Emanuel Sandhu

2003 Emanuel Sandhu

2002 Elvis Stojko

2001 Emanuel Sandhu

2000 Elvis Stojko

1999 Elvis Stojko

1998 Elvis Stojko

1997 Elvis Stojko

1996 Elvis Stojko

1995 Sebastian Britten

1994 Elvis Stojko

SENIOR WOMEN

2004 Cynthia Phaneuf

2003 Jennifer Robinson

2002 Jennifer Robinson

2001 Jennifer Robinson

2000 Jennifer Robinson

1999 Jennifer Robinson

1998 Angela Derochie

1997 Susan Humphreys

1996 Jennifer Robinson

1995 Netty Kim

1994 Josee Chouinard

PAIRS

2004 Valerie Marcoux and Craig Bunlin

2003 Jacinthe Lariviere and Lenny Faustino

2002 Jamie Sale and David Pelletier

2001 Jamie Sale and David Pelletier

2000 Jamie Sale and David Pelletier

1999 Kristy Sargeant and Kris Wirtz

1998 Kristy Sargeant and Kris Wirtz

1997 Marie-Claude Savard- Gagnon and Luc Bradot

1996 Michelle Menzies and Jean-Michel Bonbardier

1995 Michelle Menzies and Jean-Michel Bonbardier

1994 Isabelle Brasseur and Lloyd Eisler

ICE DANCE

2004 Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon

2003 Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz

2002 Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz

2001 Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz

2000 Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon

1999 Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz

1998 Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz

1997 Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz

1996 Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz

1995 Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz

1994 Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz


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