Showdown in London town

ROB BRODIE, Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 10:44 AM ET

It is that magical element, the thing that does more than just about anything to give sports its sizzle. They're called rivalries, those spirited showdowns that ooze passion from both participant and spectator.

And Canadian figure skating, it appears, has a couple of doozies beginning to brew.

Emanuel Sandhu vs. Jeffrey Buttle.

Cynthia Phaneuf vs. Joannie Rochette.

Two storylines that'll be front and centre this week at the John Labatt Centre, as the national figure skating championships make their return to London, Ont., for the first time in 29 years.

Phaneuf, the terrific teen who ended the five-year reign of Jennifer Robinson in stunning fashion last year in Edmonton, and Rochette hit the ice tomorrow for women's qualifying. Then three-time champion Sandhu and Buttle get their feet wet Tuesday, when men's qualifying is held.

The buzz should be in full flight by then.

"It's fabulous," said CTV analyst Tracy Wilson about the juicy battles for gold. "It's the best thing that can happen ... from every perspective, it's so healthy, that kind of rivalry, when you get two athletes pushing each other."

In both cases, healthy and rivalry are two words that seem most fitting together. Especially for Phaneuf and Rochette, two Montreal-based teens who each take great pains to make sure you know they're good friends (sorry, scandal-mongers, no Tonya and Nancy here).

The push in both disciplines has raised the bar dramatically in the level of skating we're seeing. Not coincidentally, all four skaters are reaping the rewards of it on the world stage.

Canada had four singles skaters in the Grand Prix final for the first time ever. Buttle (silver) and Rochette (bronze) both brought home medals from that December competition in Beijing. Sandhu, the men's GP final champ in 2003, was just off the podium in fourth.

WOMEN ON RISE

While Canadians have gotten used to such success on the men's side over the years, the breakthough by Rochette and Phaneuf is most startling. Canada hasn't had a world or Olympic medallist in 17 years -- Ottawa's Elizabeth Manley is the last to accomplish both -- but Rochette, in particular, seems poised to end that drought.

Much has been said and written about that remarkable evening at Rexall Place a year ago, when Phaneuf and Rochette led the charge on what was widely described as the finest night of women's skating the nationals have ever produced.

Phaneuf, Rochette and others -- teen prodigy Mira Leung and former national junior champ Meagen Duhamel, to name two -- figure to give us more in years ahead.

"Some years ago, you could win nationals with three triples," said Rochette, 19, of Ile-Dupas, Que. "But I don't think that's going to happen anymore."

Rochette has even been spotted playing around with triple Axels and quads -- still extremely rare for women -- though you won't see either from her this week.

To quad or not to quad ... that might be THE question when it comes to the men's event. As in, can Buttle -- who's had huge success all season without one -- topple Sandhu for the first time without the four-revolution jump?

Buttle did just that at the Grand Prix final. But Sandhu, who's armed with a pair of them, gets the edge if he lands both. Still, it comes down to who lays down the best overall package -- especially in skating's new world order, where the code of points system now reigns supreme.

If either falters, plenty of talented guys -- Edmonton's Ben Ferreira, Ottawa's Fedor Andreev and Chris Mabee of Tillsonburg among that crowd -- stand ready to move up.

It's the kind of depth that will make every event in London this week worth a look. But count on the cream at the top attracting the most eyes.

Said Wilson: "You want a situation where one skater throws down the gauntlet, and the others have to respond.

"That's what you want to see in sports."

Who's going to prevail? Wilson says it's too close to call.

Perhaps Phaneuf, who turns 17 today, put it best.

"Anything can happen on the ice," she said.

"The game is on the ice."

What a game it should be.

rob.brodie@ott.sunpub.com


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