Ice Network

Hersh: Ten observations from the 2016-17 season

Icenetwork writer marvels at Osmond's recovery, questions Gold's future
  • Ice Network on Facebook
  • Ice Network on Twitter
The outlooks for Kaetlyn Osmond and Gracie Gold heading into the Olympic year could not be more different. -Getty Images

Here are 10 random observations about the figure skating season following its biggest event, the 2017 World Championships in Helsinki:

1. Yuzuru Hanyu can look erratic, both painfully and delightfully so.

Even with that, the Japanese star is exceptional enough to have achieved consistently brilliant results in the past four seasons.

Olympic gold. Two world titles. Two world silvers. An unmatched four straight Grand Prix Final victories by a singles skater. Highest scores ever in the short program and free skate, and over a competition. A fan base in his own country and across the world that, thanks to social media, may be the largest in the sport's history.

And imagine what his record would be had he not lost leads after the short program at the 2015 and 2016 World Championships.

This year, he rallied from fifth in the short program to take the gold.

My icenetwork colleague, Jackie Wong, makes a case for Hanyu as the greatest ever, given the technical demands of the sport today. Certainly no one before him has blended free skates of such consummate artistry and four quadruple jumps.

Comparing the achievements of skaters from different eras is impossible because of changes in the sport's judging and scoring systems, and the advances in jumping. The best way to judge is to look at dominance in a particular era.

By that standard, there is no doubt after this season that Hanyu, at 22, already has a place in the sport's pantheon.

He could increase his stature even more by putting together two error-free programs at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games. He won the gold in Sochi with a sloppy, two-fall free skate.

The signature performance of Hanyu's career came at last season's Grand Prix Final, an event that gets little attention outside the skating world. It would be nice if he could match that next February, when even the people who watch skating but once every four years would know they have seen an athlete for the ages.

2. You can make numbers do anything you want, which is the basis for the aphorism, "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics."

Still, there are numbers from the 2017 World Championships that make a persuasive argument for how much certain parts of the sport have improved, top to bottom, over the past three seasons.

Best case in point: It took 46.69 points to quality for the pairs free skate in 2015 and 62.03 last week. That's a 33 percent increase.

In dance, the rise to make the free was 12 percent.

In ladies, the 24th-place finisher this year had a score 27 percent higher than in 2015; in men's, the increase was 13 percent. The score to make the ladies podium was 12 percent higher in 2017 than in 2015; in men's, it was 13 percent higher.

Some of the differences owe to changes in base values and Grades of Execution, and some to score inflation. But those factors probably account for no more than one-third of the increases -- and likely much less.

The largest piece of the difference owes to technically more demanding programs being executed better than ever before.

That is why Canada's Ted Barton, one of the creators of the sport's oft-maligned scoring system (first used at worlds, with its "beta" version, in 2005), was feeling vindicated when we talked last week.

"This is exactly what we designed the system to do: challenge people to do more, and with better quality," Barton said.

3. At 21, Kaetlyn Osmond defied everyone's expectations -- even her own, according to what she had told Canadian reporters in Helsinki -- by staying strong through all four minutes of her worlds free skate to win the silver medal.

At every other international competition this season, the Canadian champion either had come apart or lost steam in the final stages of the free skate. Never was that more apparent than at her last event before worlds, the Four Continents Championships, where she literally fell from a whisker out of first after the short program to a distant fourth overall.

"After Four Continents, I worked a lot on stamina," she said.

That she found it so quickly was remarkable, especially since it has taken the better part of two years for her to recover from a broken leg suffered during a September 2014 practice.

''After that injury, I never thought I would be skating again, let alone get on a worlds podium,'' she said. ''I had to relearn everything. There was a lot of doubt last season, and finally this year, those doubts have washed away.''

That's what happens when you return to worlds after a two-season absence and beat everyone but Russia's untouchable Evgenia Medvedeva.

4. The future of U.S. men's skating appears bright through at least the 2022 Olympics.

Nathan Chen, 17, may have finished his breakout season with a disappointing sixth after big jump mistakes in both programs at worlds, but his scores indicated how close he was to winning a medal. That Chen did not back down from a historic attempt at six quadruple jumps despite boot problems showed a competitive will that can carry him to the top of the sport.

Vincent Zhou, 16, won the world junior title with three quads in the free skate after finishing second to Chen at the U.S. championships.

They are the first two men the U.S. has produced who can go toe to toe (or, in this case, lutz to lutz) with the rest of the world in the quad revolution that has transformed men's singles.

5. Following two injury-riddled seasons, 2015 U.S. champion Jason Brown finally looks like his old self again, a skater with a quality level few others can match.

That makes his inability to land quadruple jumps even more telling.

"We say all the time, 'You can't close the gap, you can't close the gap (without quads),'" Brown said. "In reality, it's about how to maximize your points."

Yet two solid and artistically attractive skates at worlds, with a fall on his lone quad attempt, left him seventh, 21 points behind Chen's significantly flawed performances and 34 points from the podium.

6. No matter what happens at the 2018 U.S. Championships, the husband-wife team of Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim deserves the lone U.S. pairs spot at the upcoming Winter Olympics.

If they are healthy, that is.

Despite having lost the first half of this season as Scimeca Knierim fought a stomach illness that required three surgical interventions, the couple skated respectably in finishing 10th (barely four points from fifth) at the world championships, just their second competition since last year's worlds.

The Knierims set a personal best in the short program. Their big mistake in the free skate likely meant the difference between 10th and fifth in a pairs event of remarkably high quality.

Some may carp that, despite the stunning failure of U.S. champions Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier to qualify for the free skate, even a ninth-place finish would have earned a second Olympic spot for Team USA. Truth be told, though, the Knierims are the only U.S. team with a chance for even a top-10 finish next winter in South Korea.

7. Whither Gracie Gold?

The two-time U.S. champion was skating in a Findlay, Ohio, ice show during the time when she might otherwise have been traveling to worlds.

The "otherwise" part is due to a season of one implosion after another for Gold, who split with coach Frank Carroll after ending sixth at the U.S. championships and moved from Los Angeles to suburban Detroit to train with Marina Zoueva and Oleg Epstein a few weeks later.

Video from one of her Findlay performances showed Gold doing just footwork, two spins, a couple very earthbound split jumps and one double flip in 2 1/2 minutes -- almost the length of a short program.

There are three places for U.S. ladies at the 2018 Olympics, and only Karen Chen has a leg up on earning one of those at this point. Gold clearly has a long way to go if she is to make the team. Regaining the competitive fitness absent this season would be a good place to start.

8. The success of Japanese singles skaters has been the best thing that could happen to figure skating at a time when the sport needs to find new fans.

As they had in Boston last year, Japanese fans flocked to Helsinki carrying their national flags, national flags of other athletes and bags full of appreciative good sportsmanship. To them, the International Skating Union should say, "Domo arigato." Over and over again.

9. Legendary Russian pairs coach Tamara Moskvina likes to cite this proverb: "Some like the preacher, some like the preacher's wife, and some like the preacher's daughter."

The meaning behind that proverb, that taste is individual, always seems best applied to ice dance.

So it was in Helsinki, where the power and passion of Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir barely prevailed over the refinement and subtlety of France's Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron.

Minor flaws in the French team's short dance dug them a hole too deep to climb out of despite a winning free dance of truthfully Ode-on-a-Grecian-Urn beauty.

Yes, I understand and appreciate the technically based judging system has given dance some sporting chops instead of it being viewed as more of an entertaining sideshow. In my mind, though, Papadakis and Cizeron deserved even bigger scores for having unmatched, riveting and utterly breathtaking qualities in the free dance.

With no jumps, dance has a bigger entertainment aspect than any of the sport's other disciplines. Shouldn't there have been a goosebumps bonus for the final 90 seconds of the French couple's free dance?

10. This may sound like an old guy's lament, but here goes.

Can someone please turn down the volume?

The modern audio systems in arenas are so powerful that forte passages of music can make your ears ring and your ribs vibrate like a tuning fork.

And the volume too often makes the music overwhelm rather than complement what the skaters are doing, especially with the added distraction of lyrics that have been allowed the past three seasons.