Ice Network

Virtue, Moir lead Chock, Bates at Skate Canada

Returning after two-year absence, Canadian duo doesn't skip a beat
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Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir performed brilliantly in front on the home crowd Friday, finishing first in the short dance. -Getty Images

Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir held court in the mixed zone, with a scrum of mostly Canadian reporters hanging on their every word and chuckling where appropriate.

"What's up, guys? Do you want me to say something first?" Moir said. "I forget how this works."

It's a scene that's played out many times, at two Olympics, half a dozen or so world championships and a handful of Skate Canada events. This time, though, the talk didn't veer toward scores or levels or what they thought about the judging. For the moment, Canada's 2010 Olympic champions were too busy relishing their return to competition after a two-season absence to worry about the details.

"That (performance) was the kind of energy we missed, to be honest," Moir said. "It's a big reason why we came back -- we want that pressure. The feeling out there today was right where we wanted it to be. We were really together, the fans were electric for us, and that was truly a special moment. Technically, we have to work on being a little bit stronger, but we're right where we want to be this time of year."

"There's great depth in ice dance right now," Virtue said. "We knew what we were walking into. We're thrilled to be in the mix."

They're much more than in the mix; their fast and powerful short dance to a blues and hip hop Prince medley, with emphatic movements and eye-catching shapes, leads world bronze medalists Madison Chock and Evan Bates by a point heading into Saturday's free dance. It earned a healthy 77.23 points.

"This is a program that will only grow with the season," said Marie-France Dubreuil, who coaches the couple in Montreal. "Now, they're not used to thinking so much about technique. It's something they haven't done in two years, and I think the more they compete, the more they will be able to bring a loose and fun performance as well as the technical skill that is required to be the best in the world."

Virtue and Moir may not have thought about their technique too much, but they did well with the technical panel, gaining Level 4 for their twizzles and closing curve lift, and Level 3's for their three step sequences.

"We're happy with the way they are progressing," said Patrice Lauzon, Dubreuil's coaching partner and husband. "They are actually progressing faster than I thought they would."

"We started in June, and the amount of work they've done in a short time is pretty mind blowing," Dubreuil said. "The sport evolved technically while they were away; the levels are harder to get now. The callers are more aware of the technical turns and edges. The speed of skating has increased. They upped that."

No one knows better than Virtue and Moir how the sport has progressed in the two seasons since they won the silver medal at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. But, as they've said several times, they're not just coming back to compete -- they intend to win.

"We're stepping back into a field that doesn't really have room for us, kind of in a way," Moir said. "It's interesting to kind of find out where we're going to slot in. We feel like we're starting from the beginning. We have a lot of work to do."

Chock and Bates, who competed at two Challenger Series events earlier this fall, had the best outing yet of their short dance that combined a languid, sexy blues to "Bad to the Bone" with a super-caffeinated hip hop to "Uptown Funk."

The U.S. silver medalists gained four Level 4 elements -- only their partial step sequence rated Level 3 -- and they edged Virtue and Moir in the technical element score. Slightly lower program components put them second to the Canadians with 76.21 points.

"When the crowd gets into it and we get excited, the challenge is to stay consistent on the elements," Bates said. "We got a Level 4 on our non-touching (step sequence), and that's our last element, so I think that we're grounded and having a good balance between performing and skating cleanly."

"At the beginning of the season, it was a little daunting for us to do hip hop, just because it is such a different way to move than we were used to," Chock said. "We worked really hard on it, and our choreographer, Rohene Ward, was wonderful getting us out of our comfort zone and into his program."

Ward, whose home base is in Monument, Colorado, will accompany Chock and Bates to their next event at Russia's Rostelecom Cup, and then travel back to spend a week with the couple in their rink in Novi, Michigan.

No couple had more fun with their short dance than Canadian silver medalists Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier, who captured the Hershey Centre crowd with their blues and disco short dance to "Oh What a Night for Dancing" and "Disco Inferno." They gained three Level 4 elements, with two of their step sequences earning Level 3, and their 72.12 points put them third heading into the free dance.

"We learned from the quick change of the short dance before worlds last year that really relatable characters read well on us, so that's something we want to continue," Poirier said. "I think we kind of knew right away we wanted to do disco. It allowed us to narrow in and have something authentic and real. We're making a tribute to an era that is gone."

The return of Virtue and Moir has only revved up the couple's competitive juices.

"At the end of the day, we have to be better than everyone, and for them to come back, it motivates us," Gilles said. "We don't want to be the third spot anymore. We've worked really hard these last couple of years, and we've earned the position we are at."

Italy's 2014 world champions Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte skated a charming program to blues and swing music that evoked a date night from the 1950's, but the program lacked some of the sophistication and intricacy of the other top teams. They sit fourth with 71.08 points. Russians Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin are fifth with 68.12 points.

Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, fifth in the U.S. last season, skated an entertaining and intricate short dance to blues and hip hop versions of "Feeling Good" that gained 65.01 points and put them in sixth place.

"We left a lot on the table. It wasn't 100 percent, which is to be expected this early in the season," Hawayek said. "We're happy with the score, but we know we can improve."

"We want audiences and judges to recognize we're really here to compete," Baker said. "We did our job for the day, and we're excited to come back and fight in the free dance."