Right out of the chute, Jeffrey Buttle made a rather emphatic statement.
It's my title. Come and get it if you want it.
The reigning champion was the leadoff skater in yesterday's men's qualifying session that highlighted Day 2 of the Canadian figure skating championships at the Civic Centre.
And Buttle set the bar so high, nobody really came close to matching it.
Starting with a triple flip-double toe combination, the 23-year-old Smooth Rock Falls native made it look almost effortless in reeling off eight clean triple jumps. Granted, one of them was a planned quadruple toe loop, but his total score of 154.02 nearly matched the 156.95 he earned in a brilliant free-skate final at last year's nationals in London.
And it's only qualifying.
"All in all for qualifying, it was a good skate," said Buttle.
Even more impressive: Buttle dumped his free program, a tribute to pianist Glenn Gould, just a week ago, reaching back for a resurrected version of the Samson and Delilah free program he used in the 2003-04 season.
Buttle felt his performance yesterday validated the decision. He made the change because the middle section of the Gould program exhausted him and made him feel tense.
"Considering I had only a week to do run-throughs, I'm happy with how it turned out, but not completely surprised," said Buttle. "I feel more at ease with this program. Everything just ran smoothly.
"It killed me to give up on the (Gould) program. That's not to say I won't go back to it in the future. But it's too important a year ... I'm going to stick with this for the Olympics."
Buttle didn't qualify for the world championships in 2003-04, so Samson and Delilah has yet to be seen on the biggest stages.
"I feel like it's unfinished," he said. "I didn't give it the performance it deserves."
Three-time Canadian champ Emanuel Sandhu took the biggest shot at matching Buttle. He opened with a slightly two-footed quad toe-double toe combo, and checked off six clean triples, including a triple Axel-triple toe combination.
It wasn't enough. The judges handed him 140.52 points.
Only 25% of yesterday's score goes forward, so Buttle's lead over Sandhu is 3.88 points heading into Friday's short program.
The Richmond Hill native called it a decent start.
"I did what I needed to do to get the program out there for qualifying," said Sandhu, 25, who was tops in Group B. "I went out and did my thing. Now I've got two days of practices, I'll make use of those, then the short and long (programs)."
In the battle for the third Canadian Olympic berth, it's advantage Christopher Mabee so far. The Tillsonburg native ripped off eight triples of his own, scoring 126.28. He carries 31.57 points forward.
"To me, it didn't feel like anything special," said Mabee, 20. "It's what I've been doing at home in practice every day. But I'm happy with it."
Right behind in fourth is Shawn Sawyer of Edmundston, N.B. (30.47). Then comes last year's national junior champ, Ottawa-born Patrick Chan (29.75), who just turned 15 on New Year's Eve and is age ineligible for the Turin Games.
While the collars figure to get tighter later in the week, Mabee and Sawyer are both keeping their Olympic dream in perspective. Or so they're saying at the moment.
"I came here to do three solid skates," said Mabee. "If I make it, I make it. If not, I've got four more years (until Vancouver 2010)."
Said Sawyer: "I can't step on the ice thinking about that. That wouldn't be me. I'm here to compete and give it the best I can. If it happens, it happens. If not, I'm sticking around until 2010."
Not so for veteran Ben Ferreira of Edmonton. At 26, he's down to his last Olympic shot and finds himself in sixth spot (29.68).
"That's about 60% of what I'm capable of," he said of yesterday's performance. "But the bottom line is there's (still) a short and a long ... it's either make the (Olympic) team or see ya later."
The top 12 in each group advanced to the short program. Making the cut was Kingston's Tyler Cochrane, 12th in Group A (15.94). Minto's Brennan Martin (13th, Group B) and Michael Elias, (15th, Group A), and Bradley Price of Nepean (16th, Group B) didn't advance.