Heat goes up at nationals

RYAN PYETTE -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:29 AM ET

Now, the Canadian figure skating championships start to get interesting.

Today is when the national TV cameras stop collecting dust, the best pairs first fly, the top ice dancers start strutting and the senior women begin jockeying for podium positions.

The atmosphere at London's John Labatt Centre starts to feel more like the electricity of a Knights hockey game and less like mid-morning at a library. When Skate Canada sells this event, it pushes the final four days. The first three are simple frills.

These nationals have some built-in value. There are world team spots on the line here and the last thing a 2006 Olympic hopeful wants to do is miss the world championships in Moscow in March.

Talk about a major stride backward.

There is also intrigue in the air. In all four senior disciplines, there are no sure-shots who can stumble and fumble around the rink, yet still be better than everyone else out there.

This time, they'll have to bring their big game or risk being shut out of the world championships.

In senior men's, Jeffrey Buttle is capable of beating two-time defending national champ Emanuel Sandhu.

In women's, Joannie Rochette clearly has enough stuff to knock off 17-year-old reigning queen Cynthia Phaneuf.

In pairs, Patrice Archetto and Anabelle Langlois are the best couple without a national crown. Will they finally be No. 1 or defer again to Craig Buntin and Valerie Marcoux?

The only potential yawner could be dance. Defending champs Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon have long been Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz's successors and shouldn't miss a beat.

But one false step or-mismanaged twizzle and it might be Megan Wing and Aaron Lowe, the Windsor-based veterans appearing in their 16th straight Canadians and still hungry for their first national title.

The X-factor remains Londoner Tessa Virtue and Ilderton son Scott Moir, the internationally dazzling duo now making their senior debut on ice they know better than anyone.

"We train with them everyday. They're outstanding," said Lowe, who is 30. "I wish I was that good at 17. If they keep improving, they have a great future."

It's too early to call this current cast a renaissance of Canadian skating but Skate Canada's still projecting it that way.

CEO Pam Coburn again restated the national skating organization's goals of four medals combined at the Olympics and world championships in 2006 and four more in 2010, when the Olympic Winter Games roll into Vancouver.

If those future medalists didn't skate at the JLC yesterday in the junior flight, or don't compete today in seniors, then they're likely never going to be ready in time to fulfill Skate Canada's dreams.

"I think the expectations have been raised. It was competitive last year (in Edmonton) and people expect the same this year," Rochette said.

"Everyone's pushing each other to be better. I don't know why (there's more interest in women's skating than in the past decade) but it's good now. There's good on-ice rivalries."

Rochette and Phaneuf take centre stage tonight with a much-anticipated short program.

Starting today, there will be little friendly talking and time for rest.

As of now, the heat is on the ice.


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