Champs coming home

RYAN PYETTE, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:57 AM ET

The cheers rained down, the future shone bright and a new Canadian ice dance powerhouse glided onto the national stage.

That's how London's Tessa Virtue and Ilderton's Scott Moir left their first BMO Canadian figure skating championships in 2005 -- the last time the event was held at their hometown John Labatt Centre.

"After we finished (the long program), I remember saying to Tessa, 'Take it all in because we never know when we'll get the chance to have a moment like it in this rink again,' " Moir said yesterday.

"It was our first nationals," Virtue added. "You always remember it, and for it to be at home was special."

There will be more.

The nationals return to the JLC five years later, Jan. 13-17, 2010. It will mark one of the most important competitions of Virtue and Moir's career.

Olympic berths will be at stake. The local ice dancers have juked and jived their way into favourite status for a medal at Vancouver, where the Games will be held less than a month after London.

Back in '05, Virtue and Moir were the fresh, new ice flavour -- a stirring hope for the future of Canadian skating. For the 2007 world synchronized championships at the JLC, Moir was moving boxes and setting up as part of the pre-event volunteer crew.

"I didn't even get to stay to watch anybody skate," he said. "Tessa and I had to go out on tour."

Now, with the surprise retirement of men's world champion Jeffrey Buttle (who won his first national title in London), they're the face of Skate Canada.

"As for the focus being on us, we welcome it," Moir said. "I think it'll be good for us."

Skate Canada CEO William Thompson said it was mere coincidence Virtue and Moir's hometown arena was selected for the pre-Olympic liftoff.

"We were coming here regardless," he said.

But Thompson also said this sets up London for an even bigger event, perhaps as early as 2012 or 2013. Next to the Olympics, the senior worlds represent skating's pinnacle and a hometown showdown could one day be on Virtue and Moir's dance card.

Virtue counts Buttle as one of her best friends. She feigned mock horror at the audacity of the reigning world champ calling it quits and placing much of the Olympic host country's skating hopes and pressures on their shoulders.

"How dare he," the 19-year-old said. "I wouldn't say I was surprised by his announcement, maybe just the timing of it. But when you're ready to go, you're ready. I saw him recently and he was just floating. He's very happy."

"He knew when he wanted to get out and did," Moir added, "and that's not easy to do. There's a lot to be said for not staying on too long."

Skate Canada high performance director Michael Slipchuk didn't feel Buttle's goodbye would change anything for Virtue and Moir -- just the attention their way.

"It won't affect how Scott and Tessa prepare or perform at all," he said. "If anything, it sends a ripple through the men because the world champion is gone. They (the Canadians) know they can't rely on Jeff getting an Olympic spot for them -- they have to go out and do it themselves."

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Buttle's rocket rise to the top of skating's world stage is something Virtue and Moir would like to mirror. They were fourth in that first nationals at the JLC.

In 2006, they were third. Then, they jumped to second in '07 and capped the ladder climb in early '08 with their first Canadian title and a world championship silver.

After all that, they took two weeks off.

The 21-year-old Moir went to Cuba and Virtue headed to Mexico.

"It was the first vacation I had since I was six," she said. "It was very relaxing. Now, I'm ready (to skate) again."

For the 2009 season, their aim is another win at nationals at Saskatoon and a world gold in Los Angeles. In 2010, it's first in London and top of the podium in Vancouver.

"We've started training now (with coaches Igor Shpilband and Marina Zoueva at the Arctic Edge Ice Arena in Canton, Mich.)," Moir said. "We get started in October (in Ottawa for Skate Canada International), then before you know it, you're into nationals and worlds and after that, it's an Olympic year and suddenly, you're getting ready for (he broke into a ghostly voice) Vancouver."

Always the wise-cracker, Moir said his off-season training included, briefly, swimming at a local GoodLife.

"I'm no swimmer," he said. "I thought I'd do a few laps because I heard it was good for your back and I went out there and these old ladies flew right by me and I said that's enough of that."

They will, as usual, put together a daring 2009 program but could kick it old school musically this year. They have showed a recent interest in tunes from bands like Pink Floyd.

But they'll have to find new ways to celebrate big victories on the international stage. Watching the video of Jamie Sale and David Pelletier's gold-medal skate at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, Moir knew their raw reactions would be difficult to duplicate.

"He stole that from me - I have to come up with something new, maybe I'll do a little jig or something," Moir said. "Maybe I'll let Tessa kiss the ice and I'll be the one standing behind saying, 'Omigod'."


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