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Strong Canadian contingent ready for Team Trophy

After winning most medals at worlds, Canada looks to be the favorite

Patrick Chan's first Grand Prix competition will be the 2009 Rostelecom Cup in Moscow.
Patrick Chan's first Grand Prix competition will be the 2009 Rostelecom Cup in Moscow. (Getty Images)

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By Laurie Nealin, special to icenetwork.com
(04/13/2009) - A veritable who's who of Canada's elite figure skaters is headed to Japan on Monday for the inaugural ISU World Team Trophy, which will be held from April 16-19 in Tokyo.

Fresh off winning the most medals of any country last month at the world championships in Los Angeles, Team Canada is excited for this new challenge, despite fatigue that tends to set in at the end of an intense, pre-Olympics season. The substantial prize money available -- $200,000 for the first-place team, $170,000 for second and so on down the line -- is also a pretty decent motivator.

World silver medalists Joannie Rochette and Patrick Chan and world bronze medalists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir are the Canadian headliners. Jessica Dubé and Bryce Davison, who won the world bronze medal in 2008, are the pairs representatives, while Cynthia Phaneuf and Vaughn Chipeur round out the team.

Canada, given its significant star power in all four disciplines, could be the team to beat among the six countries competing in the event, but Team USA should give the Red and White a run for its money. China, France, Japan and Russia could be hampered by weak links in one or more of the disciplines.

As insurance against any of its athletes suffering injury at the event, Skate Canada chose to send a physiotherapist as one of the two team officials permitted to accompany the skaters.

"It's a difficult time for the athletes coming right out of worlds," said Skate Canada CEO William Thompson.

"They're tired, and you don't want to see anyone go and get injured or something like that. I think that was our biggest area of concern," added Thompson, noting that the Team Trophy rules require countries to send their top-ranked athletes based on their world championships results.

Virtue and Moir, who endured a season of frustration due to her recovery from surgery to both legs last October, welcomed the opportunity to get one more competition under their belts before their Olympic campaign begins next fall.

"That was a great free dance they had this year, and I think they felt it never got to what it could have been because of the injury, so they were quite excited about the possibility to get to do it again," Thompson said of the Canadian champions' contrary Pink Floyd routine.

He reports that Virtue's injury continues to improve, with significant gains being made in her condition between the ISU Four Continents Championships in February and worlds in March.

"She's still getting a lot of treatment," Thompson said. "She's still not 100 percent, but everything's on track and looking good. If they can just work through the next couple of months with a bit more down time and not so much strain on it, they'll be in good shape going into next year. All indications are she has recovered very, very well."

Although Skate Canada was not consulted about establishing this new event, which extends the season by three weeks, Thompson said he understands why the ISU added the competition to its lineup.

"There was interest from a television network in Japan to do this team event. I think it was probably financially driven. It was beneficial to the ISU and, like so many sporting organizations, everyone's always looking for new sources of revenue, so I think that was the genesis.

"It's interesting, and I do think, at some levels, it is not a bad idea because we need to find some new things for the sport, as well. While the timing was a bit tough on the athletes, the concept of looking for new things that can generate interest and revenue is not bad, not bad at all," said Thompson, noting the athletes also benefit from the prize money available.

The decision as to whether to bring their coach with them to Japan was left up to the skaters, since they would have to use some of their prize money to cover the cost of the coach's travel. Only Rochette's coach, Manon Perron, Phaneuf and Dubé and Davison's coach, Annie Barabe, and Virtue and Moir's coach, Igor Shpilband, are slated to make the trip.

Canada's team leader is former high-performance coach, Cynthia Ullmark, who will be available to provide coaching to any of the other Canadian competitors who ask for help.

The Team Trophy's introduction also had an impact on Canada's Stars on Ice, requiring a one-week delay in the traditional start of its annual, cross-country tour. Rochette and Phaneuf will go from Japan to Halifax, Nova Scotia, for rehearsals for the tour, which launches April 23 in that East Coast city. Rochette is again slated to perform in all 12 cities, while Phaneuf joins the cast for the first four shows. Dubé and Davison will make guest appearances in three shows in Ontario midway through the tour, which winds up May 12 in Vancouver.