Red-hot ice field

ANGELA MACISAAC -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 10:57 AM ET

Chances are good for a couple of medals hanging around Canadian necks.

Now that the top Russians have pulled out of the world figure skating championships at the Saddledome, March 20-26, medal hopes are rising.

"We're really excited about the podium possibilities for Canada," said Gayle McClelland, Skate Canada's national team director. "We're considered a huge threat. Some of the Russian champions don't want to be defeated so soon after the Olympic Games."

Jeff Buttle, who won men's bronze at Turin, will lead the Canadians in a strong field, despite the absence of Olympic champion Evgeni Plushenko of Russia.

Joannie Rochette, who had a strong free skate at Olympics, could sneak onto the podium without one of the world's most dominant skaters, Irina Slutskaya.

The absence of the Russians, said McClelland, shouldn't hurt the calibre of skating at worlds.

"Canadian fans will look for the Canadian skaters to be on the podium," she said. "We still have medallists from last year's worlds and the Olympics coming."

Sun writer Angela MacIsaac profiles some of the top skaters due to arrive for the worlds, which start with practice sessions March 17-19.

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WOMEN

SHIZUKA ARAKAWA

Age -- 24

Hometown -- Kamakura, Japan

Titles -- 2006 Olympic gold medallist, '04 world champion.

Odds 'n' ends -- Arakawa gave a brilliantly elegant performance in the women's free skate at Turin, earning a personal-best 191.34 point total. She doubled some of her scheduled triples but hers was the cleanest of the top skaters. Landed her first triple, a Salchow, at age eight. Collects Beanie Babies.

SASHA COHEN

Age -- 21

Hometown -- Laguna Niguel, Calif.

Titles -- 2006 U.S. national champion, silver medallist at '06 Olympics, plus '05 and '04 worlds.

Odds 'n' ends -- Cohen was masterful in the Olympics short program but fell to second when she opened her free skate with a fall on her triple Lutz. Has the best spiral sequence in the world. Loves lobster, White Lindt chocolates, ice cream and Justin Timberlake.

JOANNIE ROCHETTE

Age -- 20

Hometown -- Ile Dupas, Que.

Titles -- 2005 and '06 Canadian champion.

Odds 'n' ends -- Fifth was the best Olympics performance by a Canadian woman since Liz Manley won bronze at Calgary in 1988. Rochette landed six triples, more than any of the Turin medallists, but ditched her triple-triple combination in favour of a relatively clean program. Collects dolls and souvenirs from each country she visits. Loves Elvis ... Presley, that is.

OTHER NOTABLES

Americans Kimmie Meissner and Emily Hughes; Canadian Mira Leung, a 16-year-old jumping sensation from Vancouver; Carolina Kostner of Italy, ninth at Olympics; Fumie Suguri of Japan, fourth at Olympics; and Elene Gedevanishvili of Georgia.

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MEN

STEPHANE LAMBIEL

Age -- 20

Hometown -- Lausanne, Switzerland

Titles -- 2005 world and ISU Grand Prix final champion, silver medallist at '06 Olympics.

Odds 'n' ends -- Defending world champ overcame a cold and a crash in practice to hang onto an Olympic medal. His 231.21 total points were a personal best but could not catch the masterful Evgeni Plushenko of Russia. Program was solid and featured a quad-triple-double combination but a fall on the triple Lutz. Aficionado of all things ladybug.

JEFF BUTTLE

Age -- 23

Hometown -- Smooth Rock Falls, Ont.

Titles -- 2006 Olympic bronze medallist, '05 world silver medallist, two-time Canadian champion.

Odds 'n' ends -- Still hasn't landed a quad in competition but got extra points in his Olympics free skate for trying. Had the second-best free skate to jump from sixth after the short program to a bronze medal. Has a thing for Chicken McNuggets.

JOHNNY WEIR

Age -- 21

Hometown -- Coatesville, Pa.

Titles -- Three-time U.S. champion, fifth at Olympics

Odds 'n' ends -- Was expected to medal at Turin but wasn't even the best American skater (Evan Lysacek was fourth). Popped his triple Axel, then skipped two combinations and another triple Axel, seemingly making up his program as he went along. Went on a shopping trip in Turin and spent $1,330 in two hours. Loves his Roberto Cavilli beaver and python coat and believes he was, in a former life, a young Polish girl during the Holocaust.

OTHER NOTABLES:

Former Canadian champ Emanuel Sandhu of Vancouver and up-and-comer Shawn Sawyer of Edmundston, N.B.; Americans Evan Lysacek and Matthew Savoie; French champion Brian Joubert; Japan's Nobunari Oda, who finished third at Mastercard Skate Canada International last fall.

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PAIRS

ZHANG DAN/ZHANG HAO

Ages -- 20 and 21

Hometown -- Harbin, China

Titles -- 2006 Olympic silver medallists, third at '05 worlds.

Odds 'n' ends -- Survived a spectacular crash on their unprecedented attempt of throw quad Salchow during their free skate and captured silver in Turin. Were 10 points behind Russian gold medallists, Tatiana Totmianina and Maxim Marinin, who won't be coming to worlds. First team to execute a quadruple twist in competition, at the 2000 junior worlds.

SHEN XUE/ZHAO HONGBO

Ages -- 27 and 32

Hometown -- Harbin, China

Titles -- 2006 and '02 Olympic bronze medallists, two-time world champions.

Odds 'n' ends -- First pairs team from China to win an Olympic medal and the only Chinese world champions in pairs. Zhao tore an Achilles tendon during training last summer and, as late as November, was still walking with a cane. 'Xue' is the Chinese word for 'snow.' Known for the height Shen achieves during their throws.

JESSICA DUBE/ BRYCE DAVISON

Ages -- 18 and 20

Hometowns -- Ste-Cyrille de Wendover, Que., and Cambridge, Ont.

Titles -- 2004 Canadian junior champions, silver at '04 junior worlds, silver at 2006 senior Canadians, 10th at Olympics.

Odds 'n' ends -- Placed higher at Turin than three-time Canadian champions, Valerie Marcoux and Craig Buntin, who are also at worlds. Davison was born in Walnut Creek, Calif. Each competed in singles at senior nationals in January with Dube placing eighth in women's and Davison 15 th in men's. Projected to be on the worlds podium in two years and the Olympic podium at Vancouver 2010. Dating off ice. Says Davison: "You have to make sure that the fights on the ice stay on the ice and the fights off the ice stay off the ice."

OTHER NOTABLES

Qing Pang and Tong Jian, China; Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, Germany; last year's worlds bronze medallists Dorota Zagorska and Mariusz Siudek, Poland.

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ICE DANCING

MARIE-FRANCE DUBREUIL/ PATRICE LAUZON

Ages -- 31 and 30

Hometown -- Lyon, France

Titles -- Four-time Canadian champions.

Odds 'n' ends -- Finished fourth after the Olympics compulsories but bailed after a fantastic fall in the original dance. Dubreuil lost her grip on Lauzon's arms during a rotational lift and landed on her hip. It was the most replayed moment of the Olympics on TiVo. Both born in Montreal and skate under the Canadian flag but train in France. Considering the worlds their swansong.

TANITH BELBIN/ BENJAMIN AGOSTO

Ages -- 21 and 24

Hometowns -- Canton, Mich., and Chicago

Titles -- Silver medallists at 2006 Olympics and '05 worlds, three-time U.S. champions.

Odds 'n' ends -- Belbin, born in Kingston, Ont., raised in Kirkland, Que., received her U.S. citizenship on New Year's Eve, allowing her to compete for the U.S. at the Olympics. Only the second American couple to win an Olympic medal in ice dance. Watch for combination lift, during which Agosto is in a spread eagle with Belbin hung upside down over one arm. Considered to have the best twizzles on the circuit.

BARBARA FUSAR POLI/ MAURIZIO MARGAGLIO

Ages -- 34 and 31

Hometowns -- Sesto San Giovanni and Milan, Italy

Titles -- Eight-time national champions, 2001 world champions, sixth at 2006 Olympics, 2002 Olympic bronze medallists.

Odds 'n' ends -- Came out of retirement to skate for host country at 2006 Olympics, which was their first international event since the Salt Lake City Olympics. Won the compulsory dance in Turin but were 10th in the original dance. Known for their high-energy programs.

OTHER NOTABLES

Albena Denkova and Maxim Staviski, Bulgaria; Margarita Drobiazko and Povilas Vanagas, Lithuania; Galit Chait and Sergei Sakhnovski, Israel; Megan Wing and Aaron Lowe, Vancouver.


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