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Bitter cold greets skaters at Canadian champs

Skaters will try to heat up frigid Saskatoon this week

Joannie Rochette won twice on the GP circuit this year but finished fourth at the Final.
Joannie Rochette won twice on the GP circuit this year but finished fourth at the Final. (Getty Images)

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By Laurie Nealin, special to icenetwork.com
(01/14/2009) - Can 150 figure skaters heat up this frozen prairie city?

The athletes, their coaches and officials, who have come to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, for the 2009 BMO Canadian Figure Skating Championships are counting on it after they awoke to a rigormortis-inducing, minus-31 degrees Fahrenheit morning on Wednesday.

With the wind chill factored in, it was a teeth-chattering -40 F.

But the good news is there is a warming trend on the horizon. By the time Patrick Chan and Joannie Rochette begin their respective title defenses on Friday, meteorologists are predicting the mercury will soar to the freezing mark and hover there for the duration of the championships.

That should be to Chan's liking, since he has come here from Orlando, Fla., where he trains with coach Don Laws.

"It's a lot of excitement going to my first nationals defending my title," said Chan, 18, who scored a major upset a year ago by out-skating eventual world champion Jeffrey Buttle for the men's Canadian crown.

"I still have a bit of concern. I hope I skate as well, that I match the performance in Vancouver [last year]. That will be challenging because that was probably one of my best skates ever," said Chan, noting he tries not to think about the extra stress that comes with defending a title rather than chasing one.

Chan came out with all guns blazing on the Grand Prix circuit last fall, winning both his events, but the tide turned at the Grand Prix Final in Korea. He finished fifth there after his triple Axel deserted him.

Since then, Job No. 1 has been to whip that jump back into competition shape.

"I'm still having some difficulty with it. I keep telling myself -- and Don tells me -- it's just what you have to go through to get to that point that it's a consistent jump and it's just as consistent as the rest of your triples," Chan explained.

Looking to challenge Chan for top-dog status is Shawn Sawyer, who won the free skate at the HomeSense Skate Canada International. Sawyer, however, has his own issues with the triple Axel, a jump he often under-rotates or two-foots on the landing.

Fedor Andreev, who was the bronze medalist the last time the Canadian championships were held in Saskatoon in 2003, Kevin Reynolds and Vaughn Chipeur will also be in the fight for a podium position and one of Canada's three men's berths for the upcoming world championships in Los Angeles.

Rochette, who landed here on her 23rd birthday Tuesday, is expected to make it five years in a row as the undisputed queen of Canadian figure skating. Domestically, she is unmatched. Rochette was the silver medalist here six years ago and, coincidentally, one of the things she remembers most about that week was how cold it was.

The Canadian women's field is by far the weakest of the four divisions when it comes to depth of talent. Mira Leung has been the silver medalist the last three years but has seen her fortunes fall internationally this season. She could be nudged from the second spot on the podium this week by 2004 Canadian women's champion Cynthia Phaneuf, who has patiently continued her comeback from injuries and a teenage growth spurt that threw her off balance, literally and figuratively.

No one can fault Rochette for setting goals beyond this week's championships. After all, she has designs on the world and Olympic podiums. Asked what it would take to out-score Mao Asada and Yu-Na Kim in the months ahead, Rochette answered, "I think it's tremendous consistency. They're human, and they do make mistakes sometimes, so it's possible. I just have to be consistent and do a better short program. They set the bar really high, and they don't allow you to make a lot of mistakes, that's for sure."

With the reigning pairs champions, Anabelle Langlois and Cody Hay, out of the competition due to Langlois' ongoing recovery from the fibula fracture she suffered in the summer, Jessica Dubé and Bryce Davison are favored to reclaim the title they first won in 2007. The world bronze medalists took a detour en route to Saskatoon, landing in Edmonton for a last-minute tune-up with their sometime advisors, Jamie Salé and David Pelletier, the 2002 Olympic champions.

Meagan Duhamel and Craig Buntin, now in their second season together, could tip the apple cart if Dubé and Davison stumble here. Duhamel and Buntin improved significantly over the summer and impressed many observers with their Grand Prix performances.

Skate Canada has announced that the full world championship team will not be named until after the in Vancouver in early February, rather than at the end of these national championships. The idea is to ensure the strongest team possible is sent to the world championships. In Los Angeles, it's all about earning the maximum number of entries for Canadian figure skaters at their home-country 2010 Olympic Games.

That means Langlois and Hay could still be named to the Four Continents and world championships team if Langlois can recover in time.

Reigning ice dance champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir make their season debut in Saskatoon Wednesday night. Virtue was off the ice throughout the fall after surgery to fix painful injuries in her legs. Still, the world silver medalists should be in a class of their own this week, leaving as many as five other couples to duke it out for silver and bronze.