Ice Network

'D-H-L' coaching trio deliver ice dance excellence

Dubreuil, Haguenauer, Lauzon elevate school to elite status in short time
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The back-to-back world championships won by Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron are a testament to the one-of-a-kind coaching methods used by Marie-France Dubreuil, Romain Haguenauer and Patrice Lauzon. -Getty Images

Icenetwork will announce its choice for 2015-16 Person(s) of the Year later this month. Here's icenetwork contributor Jean-Christophe Berlot's nomination.

Any physicist will tell you that the most stable three-dimensional object is a tripod, and any ice dancer will tell you that stability is a key factor to success in any skating discipline.

The coaching trio of Marie-France Dubreuil, Romain Haguenauer and Patrice Lauzon has given credence to that belief this season. Five of their teams qualified for the 2016 World Figure Skating Championships in Boston, with France's Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron winning their second world title. Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue completed a succesful first season with the Montreal-based coaching team by placing sixth in Boston, four places higher than their previous best at the event.

The "D-H-L" special (Dubreuil-Haguenauer-Lauzon) has taken the world of ice dance by storm. Just like the express mail service company, the three provide results and deliver fast. In just two seasons, the team's school has emerged as one of the best in the world and is the current leader of ice dance on the global stage. They are my choice for icenetwork's Person(s) of the Year.

"We've never been pushed so hard. They've given us a level of commitment we never had," Hubbell explained after the team's short dance in Boston.

"In Montreal, I found a new work ethic. Now we're working on what it takes to be at the level we want to be," Donohue added.

"The system Marie and Patrice have implemented in Montreal allows for the best conditions toward the highest level," said Haguenauer, who joined the husband-and-wife coaching team two years ago. "Skaters can focus 100 percent on training without any disturbance of any kind. Here, I found what I was looking for."

"They found the right balance, with that unique blend between the best of North American skating skills and the originality of European skating," Papadakis confirmed. "Marie and Patch (Lauzon's nickname) know Europe well, as they trained there for several years. And Romain brings a great European experience as well, with originality and research for doing new things."

Lauzon is lauded for his work on skating skills. When asked how they developed their incredibly smooth way of gliding on the ice, each team invariably answers: "Patch!"

"We work all season long on skating skills," Lauzon confirmed. "We never stop stroking exercises from the start to the end of the season, although we reduce them during the competitive periods. Marie, Romain and I have made it one of our team's main values -- gliding, ice touch, speed. This is what we like in ice dance: noiseless blades. It's our vision of ice dance. We try to find the right balance between technique and expression, while emphasizing choreography. That's our main goal."

Technique, expression and choreography -- if the ice dance version of D-H-L was a startup company in the Silicon Valley, their scaling-up strategy could be summed up in just three letters: T-E-C. Unlike a startup, however, they want to remain craftsmen -- unique and small. Not one team they coach is similar to the others.

"They all have their own things, their own quality and their own style. It takes time to develop that sort of personality for everybody," Dubreuil told icenetwork in 2014. "So I don't see our school going to 20 teams. That would be just too large."

"Their teams have set themselves apart," Papadakis noted.

"They may also push our sport further," Cizeron added.

Spain's Sara Hurtado and Adrià Díaz, who were Dubreuil and Lauzon's first acclaimed students, made a name for themselves by skating to a Picasso free dance. Laurence Fournier-Beaudry and Nikolaj Sørensen, who skate for Denmark, have also explored new fields of artistry thanks to their improved skating skills, and jumped from 29th to 13th overall at worlds.

"If you want to make a point, you need to dare to try new things!" Dubreuil explained with a smile.

Haguenauer brought over a number of teams with him in 2014, including Papadakis and Cizeron, who had just placed 13th at the world championhips in Tokyo. Haguenauer was by no means a newcomer in the ice dance world. A renowned coach alongside Muriel Zazoui-Boucher in Lyon, France, he had trained Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder to their 2008 world gold medal, and -- who else? -- Dubreuil and Lauzon to their two world silver medals.

"I have a very European approach to ice dance," Haguenauer explained. "Marie and Patch have, of course, a more Northern American approach, even though I coached them for six years in Lyon. We just share roles. In today's ice dance, you can't do everything -- body posture, steps, placements, lifts, spins, etc.

"Our goal is to perform all your elements at their best, while still proposing something interesting to the audience," he continued. 

"Romain's style is refined and streamlined," Dubreuil added. "He works on the movement of body lines and the fluidity of skating. Patrice and I also add that man-to-woman relationship that was always our trademark when we were skating."

Just one season into joining forces, the D-H-L trio had coached a team to European and world gold.  

"When Gabriella and Guillaume arrived in Montreal, we worked on precision and connection. That allowed them to get closer to one another while skating their elements," Haguenauer explained. "The more connection you get, the more transitions you can do. It enhanced their assurance and trust and agility on the ice. They had so much energy. We have smoothened it a bit so that they could control their movements better and make the experience more mature and their programs more readable."

Dubreuil, Haguenauer and Lauzon have also enlisted Catherine Pinard, a former cast member and trainer for Cirque du Soleil, to work with their teams.

"We work with her once a week," Hubbell explained. "We spend a lot of time trying to find the reasons behind every movement and the way we perform it. We certainly used to work on interpretation before, but it was not quite as deep into who we are. We knew that we were good performers and actors, and interpretation was something we took for granted. We like to perform, and we did not feel the need to go beyond.

"Now we are going much farther, and we are discovering new meanings every single day. Working this way makes the program become a part of you. It's a whole new process."

"Sometimes, if you were watching us working with her, you would really wonder if we were smoking or something," Papadakis confessed with a laugh. "After three hours of work, we also wonder, actually. Except the next day, it shows on the ice."

The Montreal coaching team also includes Pascal Denis, an ice dance and synchronized skating specialist, and Ginette Cournoyer, a ballroom dance teacher.

Renowned ballet Master George Balanchine used to say, "See the music, hear the dance." Mr. B., as Balanchine was known, may have influenced D-H-L as well. Papadakis and Cizeron make sure their music is "seen." They interpret it, they embody it. They won't make their dance "heard," however, as their blades are the most silent of all.

Choreography roots itself in expression.

"When I listen to a piece of music, I think of my teams," Dubreuil explained. "I need to feel a choreography. It has to come right away. Otherwise, it won't work."

"This year, we spent weeks with Marie doing the choreography, trying to find the right movement," Hubbell recalled. "I would say. 'No, I don't feel right doing this at this moment.' Now we want to know precisely what each movement means to us. Once we fully master our dance, it's not a dance anymore but rather our expression of a piece of music. The story becomes so deeply ingrained. That will take us from top 10 to top three."

As they strive to give the appearance that they are floating over the ice, D-H-L's students work tremendously hard on technique. They go through a somewhat esoteric process to express themselves. They carve unique choreographies to emphasize both their technique and expression. "D-H-L, the T-E-C coaches" -- wouldn't that be a great name for the trio?

They also coach beyond pure skating, however.

"Marie is a coach of life," Hubbell mentioned, "preaching love and appreciation for what we do."

"Our coaches keep talking about intention. 'Think of your intention,' they always tell us," Donohue said.

"When you master the technique of a program and get used to it, you tend to repeat it mechanically, in kind of a robotic way," Hubbell added. "When you do it with intention, that's when it becomes art. All the answers are inside of us, we just need to find them. The question is, what you are willing to create at this precise moment?"

The three coaches proved stable enough to take Papadakis and Cizeron through the hurdles they endured right from the start of the 2015-16 season, when Papadakis suffered a concussion in late August. They managed to help them come back and regain their confidence to win their first international competition of the season at the European championships before going on to their second world title in Boston.

"We have a great team, and they help us build a global vision," Cizeron had summed up after their first world gold medal. "We may think of the longer term until the next Olympics and build something like a plan, when we all come to be inspired by a common project."

"In fact, we don't have any pre-established plan," Haguenauer said with a smile. "That's what I would like for them: be themselves. That has made them succeed right from season one. They should keep going on their own path."

"I suppose they will see their school develop fast in the months and years to come," Cizeron had offered at the end of last season. "They may have a strong demand next year."

Hubbell and Donohue joined them a few months later. Now 2010 Olympic gold medalists and 2014 Olympic silver medalists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir have enlisted the coaching team for their comeback after two years away from the sport.

Ice dance's D-H-L, the T-E-C coaching team has a lot more excellence to deliver. They are three, but they are united like one.