'A great week of skating'

RYAN PYETTE -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 7:18 AM ET

When you walk around the downtown core, you notice it has evolved into a stew of old and new buildings.

By the end of this week's Canadian figure skating championships, the collection of senior gold medallists had conformed quite nicely to the landscape surrounding the John Labatt Centre.

There's the new -- 19-year-old Joannie Rochette and 22-year-old Jeffrey Buttle, who got his skating start at the Forest City Skating Club. Both earned their first national titles here on the weekend.

And the old -- pairs champion Craig Buntin and Valerie Marcoux, and top dance duo Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon, all of whom repeated as No. 1 nationally.

"It was a great week of skating in London," said Skate Canada CEO Pam Coburn. "Joanne Rochette posted the highest scoring total of the season (in the world) and Jeffrey Buttle's score was the second-best total in the world.

"It's positive. I think we're right on track for our goals" -- a combined four medals at the senior worlds and Olympics in 2006.

The week's attendance, far from the heydeys of filling such arenas as Edmonton's former Northlands Coliseum and Copps Coliseum in Hamilton, was 70,214 for the 11 ticketed events.

Last year in Edmonton, the Canadians drew 67,958 and in 2003 in Saskatoon, the total crowd count was 68,698. Skate Canada said it was the fifth-highest attended nationals in the past 10 years.

Although the men's free skate and pairs final Saturday night drew a sellout of 7,822, the week belonged to Rochette, the most consistently spectacular of all performers.

If there was an overall tournament MVP, it would have been "the Rocket" from Ile-Dupas, Que. She proved she has the requisite guts, and Canada finally has a worthy women's champion who won't be rattled on international ice.

"I came here to win," Rochette said. "It's my first national title and I'll never forget this week."

Rochette and 2004 champion Cynthia Phaneuf were named to the Canadian worlds team and will head to Moscow next month. The men's squad will consist of Buttle and Emanuel Sandhu. The pairs are back-to-back champs Buntin and Marcoux and the surprising second-place finishers, Jean-Sebastien Fecteau and Utako Wakamatsu.

The ice dance spots go to veterans Dubreuil and Lauzon, and Megan Wing and Aaron Lowe.

Tillsonburg's Christopher Mabee, who finished fifth in senior men's and dance team Tessa Virtue of London and Scott Moir of Ilderton, fourth in senior ice dance, are medal contenders on Canada's junior worlds team, which will compete in Kitchener on Feb. 28-March 6.

From a local perspective, London will be remembered as the spot where Virtue and Moir rose to the occasion in their first senior nationals. For the 19-year-old Mabee, it will be the place where he arrived as a contender for the men's podium.

Mabee, who trains with Buttle in Barrie, said he was inspired by his buddy's performance.

"I felt so wonderful for him. . . . When you see him every day, you're able to appreciate what he's able to do."

There are still a few bewildering rules that Skate Canada should tidy up before the 2006 nationals in Ottawa.

Figure skating still clings to the archaic system of holding a draw to determine skating order. For example, Buttle was first and Sandhu second following the senior men's short program. But in the free skate, Buttle skated second in the final group of six and Sandhu was last.

To maximize drama, it should have been Sandhu skating second-last and Buttle, the leader, with the night's final performance.

The qualifying groups are also unfair. Sandhu and Buttle, who everyone knew were the top two skaters going into the event, ended up in the same qualifying group.

That was tough on Watford's Mathew King, who was also in that group and ended up 13th and missed out on skating the short program.

Had the top 24 skaters from both groups advanced, King would have continued. But because qualifying rules dictate top 12 in each group move on, he missed the cut.

"It makes you work harder when you're in a tougher group," King said. "As a competitor, you can't worry about who's in there with you."


Videos

Photos