Canadian girl power

BILL LANKHOF -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:20 AM ET

Enough with all that hugging and kissing.

The Canadian figure skating championships are history.

So, behind all those bejewelled, fur-bearing humans who dominate the hallowed halls at this event, what does it all mean?

Skeptics will note that this has been a lot of fuss over people who are going to the world championships to finish 12th. Skate Canada prefers the "Renaissance of The Sport" concept. As in most things, there's probably a bit of the truth in both positions.

While the world championships are still two months away, the Canadian championships did prove something, primarily that Joannie Rochette should inject adrenalin -- and some hardware -- back into the women's program.

Rochette has that difficult to define star quality. What is not difficult to discern is that she has the speed, the technical ability and, it appears the personality, to become a world player.

Even better, with Cynthia Phaneuf and now 15-year-old Mira Leung crowding her from the back of the national podium, Rochette won't have to carry Canada's international standard on her own as Jennifer Robinson -- who won six national titles but never placed better than eighth at worlds and seventh at the Olympics had to do for a generation.

"Jennifer helped Canadian ladies a lot when people were saying they couldn't skate. You couldn't measure her contribution by medals," says former coach Doug Leigh, who celebrated his 30th Canadian championship here in London. "Our young skaters learned from her dedication, commitment and upbeat manner. She did more with the talent she was given than anyone I've ever coached."

Unfortunately the much-loved Robinson was never endowed with the talent of a Katarina Witt or a Rochette. But, as she once joked after a horrid outing: "I'm still a pretty girl."

In Rochette, Phaneuf and Leung, Canada would seem to have upgraded to "pretty girls with medal potential."

Canada's best chance for a medal in Moscow probably hangs with Rochette. She won a bronze at the International Skating Union Grand Prix final this season and, this week, turned in arguably the best performance ever by a woman at the nationals. Given that Skate Canada CEO Pam Coburn is promising four medals at the worlds and Olympics next year, plus two at the March worlds in Moscow it is evident who is expected to fulfill that mission. "If we look at what (Canadian men's champion) Jeff Buttle and Rochette did here, those numbers say they would be on the podium," Coburn said at a yesterday's closing news conference.

Rochette had the highest point total of any skater in the world this year. On the men's side, Buttle's score was the second-highest in the world. "I think we're in touch with our goals for 2006," Coburn said. "This is just a great team effort that's happening here now ... we just have to get the country to believe."

NO EASY TASK

It won't be easy. While the team won a record 15 Grand Prix medals this season, several of the top skaters in the world did not compete and the likes of Michelle Kwan and Victor Plushenko will be at worlds and, next year, at the Olympics.

While Buttle turned in an inspiring performance in the free skate to win his first national title, he and Emanuel Sandhu had horrid performances in the short program and, skeptics suggest, were propped up by the friendly Canadian judging.

That won't happen at the worlds. A similar effort there would bury them so deep a comeback to the podium would be unthinkable. Even Buttle admits that to succeed at worlds he's going to have to learn to land a quad.

"My priority is to get one into my program," Buttle said. "Here I was able to get away without a quad. If I want to pursue my goals at the worlds, I'm going to need one."

ELEGANTLY TALENTED

Then there is Sandhu. Still elegantly talented. Still an enigma who has never finished better than eighth at the worlds. So why? Maybe, here's a hint. His reaction after losing the Canadian title to Buttle was to shrug: "It's not that big a deal. I've won it three times before."

Maybe that's Sandhu in a nutshell. Winning is nice but, in his mind, it isn't that big a deal. Under the old Canadian notion that the only expectation from our elite athletes was that they do their best, that might have worked.

It's not nearly so certain that attitude will play with the current regime.


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