Nation's elite skaters in London

RYAN PYETTE -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 7:16 AM ET

The cream of Canadian figure skating has checked into London.

About 250 elite competitors from across Canada -- the world leader in membership for the ice jump-and-spin set -- are here this week to see how they rate at one of this country's most celebrated amateur sporting events, the Canadian figure skating championships.

The week-long skatefest, which begins today with senior women's qualifying and ends with Sunday's nationally televised Parade of Champions, will take place at a renovated 8,018-seat John Labatt Centre. The international-sized rink at the Western Fair Sports Centre will serve as the primary practice facility.

"If you normally go to the JLC for a Knights game, you won't recognize it this week," said Jackie Stell-Buckingham, chief skating programs and events officer for Skate Canada.

"It looks totally different. It's been transformed for Canadians. Everyone's been working hard and we're excited. We think it's going to be a great nationals."

Before the JLC and the Western Fair centre were built, London didn't have an adequate facility for Skate Canada's larger, more important events.

The last major competition here was Skate Canada International in 1991 at London Gardens, an event won by up-and-comer Elvis Stojko.

The last nationals here, which crowned Toller Cranston as national men's champ, were held in 1976 at Thompson Arena.

One of the most intriguing aspects of this week's competition will be the uncertainty at the top of the podium. In men's singles, three-time champ Emanuel Sandhu, 24, has to be considered the favourite, but he has been beaten recently on the international stage by electrifying 22-year-old Jeffrey Buttle, a one-time member of the Forest City skating club now representing the Sudbury skating club.

And there are several contenders who could steal the show, including Tillsonburg native and national team member Christopher Mabee, Buttle's training mate at Barrie's Mariposa School of Skating.

The women's competition holds similar intrigue -- Quebec's Cynthia Phaneuf was a shocking victor at 15 at last year's Canadians in Edmonton, toppling six-time champ Jennifer Robinson, who has since retired and is serving as the event's honorary chairperson here.

Phaneuf's friend, Joannie Rochette, 19, is considered the top female skater in the country, but she'll have to prove it on the JLC ice. Local hopes will fly with Lauren Wilson, who became the first Londoner to win gold at nationals in the junior ladies event at Hamilton in 2002.

The ice dance competition will feature the senior debut of local favourites and dominant juniors Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue, who have been tabbed as Canada's future stars with the retirement of world champs Victor Kraatz and Shae-Lynn Bourne, a Chatham native.

"We're very excited, this is probably going to be the most positive skating experience in our lives," Moir said yesterday from Ilderton. "We've been looking forward to the chance to skate at home at nationals for a long time. There's going to be a lot of people in the stands who know us, a lot of family and friends, and it should create a lot of energy for us.

"The whole week is going to be exciting."

Also debuting at the nationals this week will be the Cumulative Points Calculation judging system, which has replaced the old, easily corruptible format of skating for the perfect 6.0 score. The International Skating Union concocted the system after the 2002 Olympic Winter Games judging scandal that briefly denied Canadian pair Jamie Sale and David Pelletier a gold medal.

At the end of the competition, the top five finishers in each discipline (men's, ladies', pairs, ice dance) will be named to the national senior and junior teams, offering the possibility of international assignments and world travel.

The best of the best will earn coveted berths at the world championships in Moscow in March.

Of course, there are always surprises -- last year, Phaneuf turned down her worlds spot to compete at junior worlds.

She won't do that again if she finishes first or second this year. The Olympics are just a year away, which increases the importance of a good performance at this week's nationals in London.

Most of the skaters who do well here will be representing Canada in Turin, Italy, at the Winter Games.


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