Sandhu, Buttle set for battle

Jeffrey Buttle, in action during yesterday's senior men's qualifying at the Canadian figure skating...

Jeffrey Buttle, in action during yesterday's senior men's qualifying at the Canadian figure skating championships, is looking for his first national title. (London Free Press/Derek Ruttan)

RYAN PYETTE -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:26 AM ET

Emanuel Sandhu hasn't been able to find his mojo since he landed in London.

Top rival Jeffrey Buttle searched for answers in California this year, then ended up looking lost on the John Labatt Centre ice.

All told, the two would-be kings of Canadian senior men's figure skating left little clue in yesterday's qualifying session as to who would be crowned national champion after Saturday night's free skate.

Will it be three-time Canadian champ Sandhu, who bumbled through the first 90 seconds of his long program yesterday before waking up and delivering an applause-worthy performance?

Or Buttle, who felt a bit sheepish for not using enough of his pre-skate practice time to figure out the feel of the ice?

Sandhu, a 24-year-old Richmond Hill native who trains and lives in Vancouver, leads the pack heading into Friday night's short program, posting 143.17 points in the new judging system to Buttle's 137.39.

The top 12 in each of the two qualifying groups moved on and the two-time defending champ admitted he entertained early thoughts about being one of the unlucky striders sent home.

"I was freaked out," Sandhu said. "It actually ran through my mind, 'What am I doing?' I actually thought, 'Wouldn't everybody have a field day if I didn't qualify?' "

Sandhu ended up skating more like someone who has finished at least first or second at the nationals for the past seven years. He missed both of his planned quad jumps and will trying to get his confidence back over the next two days.

"I felt really stressed. I had good practices last week but I haven't had a good one since I got here. It was just good to get it over with and look ahead (to Friday's short program)."

Sandhu also looked shaken after bumping into fellow competitor John Mattatall during the warmup session.

"That happens sometimes. It's different than at worlds. Guys aren't in sync with the skating patterns.

"The best skaters are able to forget about that, keep their focus and do what they have to do. Some people run into you on purpose. It's a sport and you're looking for every edge. I don't know if that was the case this time."

Buttle, a former London resident who got his competitive start with the Forest City Skating Club, shrugged off a lacklustre effort as a learning experience.

He seemed happy there wasn't a bigger gap between Sandhu and himself during qualifying, which counts for 25 per cent of the overall total points.

"I'm not that far behind. I just have to be better in the short and long program to get in front," he said. "(Emanuel) must not have had his best day."

The 22-year-old, who trains at Barrie's Mariposa skating school, also went to California this year to work out at Lake Arrowhead, where nine-time U.S. women's champ Michelle Kwan skates.

Buttle, who is looking for a first national title, got a good look at what it takes to be a champion.

"You see that it's not dumb luck. There's a reason why she has won all those titles.

"She uses every second that she's on the ice. It's not just about the jumps. She works on every part of the program.

"Out there, I learned to look at the way I approached my training differently. It was well worth it."

The big question is whether his extra efforts are going to add up to victory here.

Buttle beat Sandhu at the recent Grand Prix final in Beijing but has yet to do it in the big show on native soil.

"Jeff is well-coached, his programs are great and he has never won a national title -- he has that extra fire of having never won," Sandhu said.

"I'm just concentrating on what I have to do. I have two days now to figure it out."


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