Future back on thick ice

BILL LANKHOF, TORONTO SUN

, Last Updated: 9:16 AM ET

The Canadian figure skating championships begin tomorrow in London -- one week in which to bring a sport from the fringes of villainy to vindication. There are difficult questions here.

Ponderables such as: Can this group of skaters make skeptics and cheeky headline writers stop referring to them as Team Zamboni?

And, if they can, is there another Canadian skating icon anywhere on the horizon?

And, even if there is, does anyone out there still care?

It is from this shadowed, brutal scenario that Jeff Buttle, Joannie Rochette and the new age of Canadian skaters attempt to relight a torch of international excellence once carried by Kurt Browning and Liz Manley.

"We've got a lot of good skaters here. I suppose it's fair to say it's a revitalization (of Canadian skating)," says long-time coach Doug Leigh.

It can't happen soon enough.

After a decade of rising popularity unequalled in the sport's history, the world of figure skating was blown apart after the Salt Lake Olympics. The foundations were rocked with a judging scandal. In Canada, fans bid adieu to Elvis and Sale and Pelletier and hello to a bunch of wannabes who had not yet gotten the 'K' out of their lutz.

Globally, arenas no longer became automatic sellouts at the sight of sequined dolls. TV ratings are acceptable, but rights fees have plummeted and, along with them, prize money. Every Tom, Dick and Scott Hamilton was putting on an ice show. So many, in fact, fans didn't know what they were watching anymore -- pro, amateur, competitive or plain Mickey Mouse.

"After the 2002 Olympics, there was a bit of dip in terms of interest in the sport," says Gayle McClelland, chief development officer for Skate Canada. That's about as close to criticism from the protectors of the sport in this country as you'll get. "Canadians are true figure skating fans. Their loyalty has not wavered. We're looking for good attendance. Our membership numbers are consistent."

Of course, she gets paid to talk like that.

It is just as reasonable to believe that figure skating fans have become so confused and alienated that the only place they feel comfortable is on the shrink's couch mumbling something about Marie-Reine LeGougne.

But, fret no longer.

Canada's waltz on the dark side of the sport may be drawing to a close as the lights go up this week at the John Labatt Centre.

There have been signs of a reawakening for some time. This year, Canada had five entries at the International Skating Union Grand Prix final -- the equivalent to skiing's World Cup -- Emanuel Sandhu, 24, and Jeff Buttle, who is just 22, in men's singles; Joannie Rochette, 18, and 16-year-old Cynthia Phaneuf in women's singles; ice dancers Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon. That's more than the U.S., more than Russia, more than any other country.

"In terms of competitive performance, Canada is in great shape," says McClelland. "We're 13 months out from the 2006 Olympics in Italy and we've come off the best season we've ever had on the Grand Prix circuit."

Buttle won a silver and Rochette, a bronze at the final. Quietly, the Baby Brigade has turned in a team performance unmatched in Canada's storied skating history.

"We had 15 medals on the ISU Grand Prix and that's far and above the most we've ever had as a federation," says McClelland. "The new skating stars that we have in Canada certainly rival the technical and presentation ability of any of our previous champions."

Okay, suggesting that fans might confuse Buttle with Browning might be a stretch, but it's difficult to blame McClelland for her enthusiasm. She is, after all, den mother of this group as it takes the first tentative steps this week toward the world championships in March. And, everyone knows what moms are like.

In men's singles, the defending champ is Sandhu.

"You could call him the favourite," Leigh says. "But he's got to do his job or he'll have Buttle and Ben Ferreira all over him like a bad heat rash."

All three finished on the podium at the international Skate Canada competition. Of course, with Buttle and Ferreira both skating out of Leigh's Mariposa club, it would explain why he's hoping calomine lotion is a big seller at a drugstore near Sandhu.

Of the three men, Sandhu has the most natural talent. He can land two quads -- a toe and a salchow -- or he can land, just as quickly, on his pants. He's been maddeningly inconsistent. If he has any hope of ever making a splash at the Olympics, it'll have to be in Turin next winter. As a prime-time international skater, he is running out of birthdays quicker than excuses.

Buttle is less spectacular (his program doesn't include a quad) but it is packed with triples and he does "all the little things very well," says Leigh. "The footwork, the value of his spins, is very good."

The biggest breakthrough has come in the women's competition with Rochette and Phaneuf, either of whom appear capable of becoming the first woman to win an Olympic or world championship medal since Manley in 1988.

"Are these ladies ready for the world podium right now?" Leigh says. "That's not realistic, I think. But being in the top 10, gaining ground, gaining some confidence, getting close to it? Now that's probably where we are in the curve.

"We're playing here with young kids. We've set ourselves up to be in the game."

Both include triple lutz combinations in their programs. Rochette is working on a triple lutz, triple toe and already has a reputation for her speed.

It hasn't hurt either that renowned Canadian choreographer, David Wilson, has put a lovely nuance and detail into her program.

Wilson's resume includes Buttle, Rochette, Canadian women's champion Phaneuf; Grand Prix competitor Nicholas Young; up-and-comer Shawn Sawyer; 2004 junior Grand Prix pairs champions Jessica Dube and Bryce Davison; former Canadian champions Sebastien Britten and Josee Chouinard (who both became world pro champions); and two-time Olympic silver-medallist Brian Orser.

Phaneuf is the more expressive -- facially, in particular -- of the two with an arsenal of technical jumping elements that score well.

But all the optimism is tempered by Leigh. If Canadians are waiting for the next Elvis, or Canada's answer to Katarina Witt, it may be a futile dream.

"It's not possible to be at the top of your game and win everything all the time. We've had more than our share," says Leigh.

"The rest of the world is also going: 'Wait a minute folks, you're not going to get all of it.' We've helped make the rest of the world better too, whether it's Japanese skaters or Chinese skaters."

The nature of the sport has changed to such a degree, says Leigh, that it may be impossible in the future for one athlete to dominate.

"Look at the top 10 guys now," he points out. "Everyone of them can do a quad. Before, there were maybe two or three. It wasn't long ago that a triple axel would be the knockout punch. Now, it's not even close.

"You have to be a complete skater now; the best spinner, the guy with the best footwork, the guy who's got the best of everything. The days when just landing a quad could win it are gone.

"There have always been the hunter and the hunted," Leigh says.

"The difference is that today there are a lot more hunters."

HEY FANS! Do you have a quirky sports item? Include your name and city and e-mail it to me at: bill.lankhof@tor.sunpub.com or fax it to: 416-947-2454

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