Changing of guard gets early jump

ROB BRODIE -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 7:19 AM ET

LONDON, Ont. -- The easy thing would be to reminisce about the most memorable performances.

To expend more words attempting to do proper justice to the remarkable display of skating a superstar in the making named Joannie Rochette gave us Friday night at the John Labatt Centre.

Or perhaps, the free program skate young Jeffrey Buttle has been waiting for all season -- not to mention the Canadian men's crown. He delivered on both counts Saturday night.

Instead, we offer up the following two anecdotes as a way of beginning a wrap on an intriguing 2005 Canadian figure skating championships:

- As Rochette talked excitedly with the media about her night of brilliance, former coach Manon Perron gave her a warm hug and whispered a few words in French into her ears. When Rochette resumed the interviews, a bottle of water suddenly appeared in her hands -- necessary stuff in a dry arena. The thought it inspired was crystal clear. While their relationship is no longer coach and student, the matronly bond between Perron and Rochette remains as strong as ever. Probably for a lifetime.

- Ottawa ice dancers Siobhan Karam and Joshua McGrath couldn't stop smiling earlier the same day, as they expressed their thoughts about winning the junior ice dance crown. In the background, two proud women in blue and white Eastern Ontario Section jackets (I know them well, and I'll keep them nameless here) wiped tears from their eyes. If there has been a more popular victory in the Ottawa skating community in recent years, it escapes me right now.

You cover this sport for long enough, you know the arrival of an Olympic year means two things. A little sadness at the departure of some old favourites. And excitement about the next generation coming up.

That changing of the guard got a little bit of a head start here. Rochette and Buttle are just getting started, and watching where they take us next will be fascinating.

Then there are the ones on the verge of making their mark: Terrific teen Mira Leung and a rejuvenated Shawn Sawyer to name two, along with Christopher Mabee, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir -- a home-town trio who gave themselves memories they won't soon forget.

A CAPITAL GAIN

Now it's on to Ottawa and the 2006 Canadian championships. Excitement is already building in the nation's capital, with half the lower bowl seating sold just two days after ticket sales began.

The questions began this week about our prospects at the Turin Olympics, and those queries will intensify next Jan. 9-15 when the nationals hit town.

Skate Canada CEO Pam Coburn didn't back down yesterday when asked whether she's still convinced a combined four medals in Turin and at the 2006 world championships in Calgary are possible.

"We're very much on track for the goals we set for 2006," she said yesterday.

She checked off Rochette and Buttle as prime candidates to get the job done -- perhaps as soon as this year's worlds in Moscow. Rochette's total score for the free and short programs is a world best this season; Buttle's cumulative total ranks No. 2.

There were disappointments. Emanuel Sandhu was his usual erratic self, a characteristic that needs to change soon if he's to join the world and Olympic medal mix. The pairs free skate final was largely uninspiring, though Gatineau's Valerie Marcoux and partner Craig Buntin need offer no apologies for the gold medals they won for a second straight year.

The lasting memory here, though, will remain the charming Rochette, and not just for the brilliance she gave us on the ice -- as unforgettable as that was.

No, it was the revelation of a wonderful personality that kept making me smile every time she spoke. The shy young girl is gone. In its place, a mature and confident young woman Canadians will soon grow to love.

You'll love her, too, Ottawa. Trust me on that.


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