Rochette is new ice queen

BILL LANKHOF, TORONTO SUN

, Last Updated: 9:30 AM ET

For Cynthia Phaneuf there will be tomorrow. Today belongs to Joannie Rochette. In the battle of Canada's new ice urchins, Rochette won her first Canadian figure skating championship last night with a devastating performance that included seven triple jumps.

"I've done some good performances before but I've never felt this relaxed; this good. This is the best week I've ever had in skating," Rochette said. "There were so many expectations. I'm just so happy I could do this."

Now the hard part: Capturing the hearts of Canadian figure skating fans -- not to mention a medal at the worlds in March would be nice, ... you know, on her way to the Olympic podium next year. Other than that, no pressure ...

Women's figure skating is changing. After more than a generation, winning the Canadian championship is no longer enough. It now comes with greater expectations -- as the 19-year-old from Ile Dupas, Que., has just begun to discover.

Just this week, Skate Canada chief executive Pam Coburn declared Canadian skaters would win two medals at this year's worlds plus four more at next year's worlds and Olympics. Rochette knows that talk was meant for her.

"This was one of my life goals and it's something nobody can take away from me ever, but I have many others."

After more than a generation in the shadows of the men's program, Rochette and fellow skating teen-angel, Phaneauf, gave an adrenalin-pumping performance. Unfortunately for the dancing divas, Phaneuf spent most of the night struggling to stay upright. She fell twice, touched down with her hands twice and if not for a huge lead going into the final it might've cost her a spot at the worlds. "I don't know what happened. I lost my focus. It was terrible. I was watching everyone in the warmup and what they were going to do when I should've been thinking about myself."

In other words, she looked all of her 17 years. "I think it was the pressure," said her coach, Annie Barabe. "I've seen her have a bad warmup like tonight before. It's a matter of learning to breath; it's experience. I think she'll learn from this."

It has been evident most of the week that this is Rochette's time. She has looked a little more certain of herself. She has appeared focussed while Phaneuf has exhibited that deer in the headlights look.

Mira Leung, a 15-year-old prospect from B.C., landed six triple jumps. That was enough to give her third place. Fans booed the judge's marks. But the new scoring system rewarded Phaneuf for her skating skills, technicality and a finesse between jumps that Leung stills lacks.

Nobody, though, could touch Rochette, who earned a career-best 123.12 points for her long program. She has emerged this winter with the attitude of someone who has gone from wanting to be a world beater to knowing she can be one. There's a huge difference between the two -- one that Canadian women have been unable to bridge since Liz Manley won a silver at the Olympics in 1988.

"I don't know if I sent a message (to the world's skating community) but ... I have many goals and they include (medals) at the worlds and Olympics.This is just the beginning."

That would be good news considering the last time a Canadian woman stood on the podium at a world or Olympic event, Phaneuf had not yet been born and Rochette thought a hearty meal came out of a pablum jar.

The last Canadian to win a world gold was Karen Magnussen 32 years ago -- a ridiculous situation considering we live in an ice-encrusted country that claims a birthright to the sport.

Meantime, the men's program is in shambles. Again. In last night's short program there were more skaters than stuffed animals littering the ice.

Jeff Buttle emerged as the leader despite doing a two-hander on a triple Lutz. "I'm the better of the not-so-great. I'm happy with the result but not the performance," said Buttle, who was a picture of dejection following his skate.

But that was before Ben Ferreira messed up the back end of a triple Axel, Nicholas Young knocked himself silly on the end boards - and it looked like the best skate of the night was going to go to the Bart Simpson doll. But wait, Emanuel Sandhu, stumbled on the back end of a quad combo; then only got past the first rotation of what should've been a relatively simple triple Axel. That left him fourth in the short program, trailing Buttle by 5.96 going into tonight's final.

Even Sandhu's grasp on the second spot for world's is tenuous. Shawn Sawyer sits 4.09 points behind in third. So ends, another night of disappointment from a defending champion who appears to specialize in them.

Which left, Buttle, to his and everyone's astonishment, one skate away from his first national title. "I'm totally surprised to be where I am," Buttle said, "I'm not going to embellish my victory. I didn't think it was that good."

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

Photos