Rochette, Buttle victories added spark

MORRIS DALLA COSTA -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 7:24 AM ET

The marks are in. The Canadian figure skating championship week is over. And while the marks are varied, give the week a passing grade.

Skate Canada had to be thrilled with the way the week ended. Up until the men's final on Saturday, the only inspiration in a rather uninspiring week was provided by Joannie Rochette, the new Canadian women's champion, and by Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who added local flavour to the senior dance competition.

But the men were living up to their reputation. For a country with a history of producing great men's skaters, the latest crop is classified as milquetoast, lacking not only the talent to compete successfully on an international stage but also the charisma, intensity and toughness to significantly improve.

Until Saturday, that is.

That's when Jeffrey Buttle responded with the skate of a true champion, winning the title from defending champion Emanuel Sandhu.

Winning is the optimum word here. He landed the title along with seven triple jumps, failing to succumb to the pressure of the moment.

More important, he wasn't alone in overcoming the gag reflex. Christopher Mabee,19, from Tillsonburg, skated the program of his life, finishing fifth and landing a spot in the national team.

New Brunswick native Shawn Sawyer, just turned 20, gave a hint of potential with his third-place skate.

Considering the substandard quality of the men's competition to that point, the final gave the men's division a semblance of hope.

But if there is one person who earned top-of-the-class grades, it was Rochette. She destroyed defending champion Cynthia Phaneuf to win the women's senior title with a skate that left the responsive John Labatt Centre crowd gasping.

Rochette exhibited a toughness and a lack of fear missing from skating champions of recent years. Some skaters win Canadian championships and clearly have little hope of medals in the international competition. Rochette's performance would play well on the international stage.

Rochette and Phaneuf provide legitimate hope of an international revival for Canadian women. It was a memorable moment.

Great marks go to local ice dance pair Virtue and Moir.

Not unexpectedly, the young local skaters stole the hearts of the crowd. The teenagers finished fourth in the senior event, their first foray with the older kids. The defending Canadian junior champions wanted to prove they belonged. This was their voyage of discovery in the land of senior skating.

Skating under the glare of their youth and before a home crowd, Moir and Virtue showed the maturity of much more experienced skaters.

Pressure, what pressure? Virtue smiled her way through the duo's first four-minute performance, the longest competitive performance of their careers, and Moir punctuated the final seconds with a fist-pump.

They came off the ice to yet another standing ovation and another blizzard of stuffed animals, balls and flowers. The bounty from the week included a pair of London Knights sweaters.

"It was so exciting for Scott and I," Virtue said. "We're just trying to take it as a learning experience and take it all in where we learn from these amazing dance teams that compete against us."

Where they go from here is clear. They need to get stronger and insert a greater degree of difficulty in their routine. That will come with age and experience.

"Senior level is awesome," Moir said. "It's totally different from what it was like last year -- a totally different feeling. We want to learn from every competition we are in. We learned a lot this week."

Which brings us to the JLC. This is the first major sports competition this venue has held. It gets a passing grade from the skaters.

The logistics of staging a major event is another matter.

"It's an amazing arena, a good size," said Patrice Lauzon, who with partner Marie-France Dubreuil dominated the senior dance competition. "Everyone is close to the performance. We watched some of the skating from the booth (private boxes.) You can feel the program." "It's very intimate," Dubreuil added.

Total attendance at the entire event was 70,214, average for the figure skating championships.

Skate Canada announced during the competition that it anticipates winning four medals at the world championships and the 2006 Olympics.

Optimistic and unrealistic?

Of course, but maybe not as unrealistic as it appeared at the beginning of the week.


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