There is a palpable buzz around 2016 Skate Canada International and, quite frankly, it’s not difficult to understand why.
You have Yuzuru Hanyu and the veritable army of Japanese media that follows him wherever he skates around the globe, no matter the size or scope of the competition. Tour buses of fans have also swarmed into the Hershey Centre, swelling the size of the crowds to near capacity.
But for the home folks, at least, the buzz on Friday night was largely about the much-anticipated return of former Olympic and World ice dance champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir to Grand Prix competition.
While a large group of media waited in the mixed zone to speak to Virtue and Moir, the Danish duo of Laurence Fournier Beaudry and Nikolaj Sorensen approached the area. And exited almost as quickly.
“Nobody wants to talk to us? Okay, I get it. No hard feelings,” Sorensen said with a grin as they ducked behind a curtain, he said — to a hearty round of laughs — “we’ll be right over here if you need us.”
If you didn’t know, Fournier Beaudry, who is Canadian-born, and Sorensen happen to share the same training base and coaches as Virtue and Moir. So yeah, they get it.
Virtue and Moir posted a score of 77.23 — about half a point less than their personal best, recorded just a few weeks ago at the Autumn Classic in Montreal. But here, it’s good enough for just a 1.02-point lead over Americans Madison Chock and Evan Bates (76.21). Canada’s Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier are third (72.12), followed by Italians Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte (71.08).
It wasn’t all that long ago that the score of Cappellini and Lanotte, the 2015 World champions, might have landed them on top of the leaderboard at a Grand Prix event. But not here.
“Back in June, when we saw the entry list … we thought, ‘we better come with our knives sharpened,’” said Cappellini. “As you can see, the scores are going up for everybody, so it’s getting more and more challenging. But it’s good motivation and it makes everybody be better.”
Are Virtue and Moir, back on the competitive scene after the absence of two seasons, surprised to find themselves in this kind of a battle? Hardly.
“There’s great depth in ice dance right now. We knew what we were walking back into, and we’re thrilled to be in the mix,” said Virtue.
“We stepping back into a field that really doesn’t have room for us, in a way. It’s interesting trying to find out where we’re going to slot in,” said Moir. “We feel like we’re starting from the beginning, and we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
It might be said they’re off to a good start. At least in the eyes of the fans here.
And, now lost among all of that, at least for some, is that we’ve got one hell of an ice dance competition on our hands, with a tremendous level of depth in the field.
Speaking of Mr. Hanyu …
Perhaps the biggest shock of the night was seeing the 79.65 score beside the former Olympic and World champion’s name for what turned out to be an error-riddled short program. This from a guy who owns the planet’s best all-time score in the short program of 110.95.
That opened the door for Canada’s Patrick Chan to seize the lead at 90.56 points – and he did not go clean, either, falling on a triple Axel — followed by Japan’s Takahito Mura (81.24) and another Canadian, Kevin Reynolds (80.57). Hanyu placed a startling fourth.
“I’ll take that. Tomorrow’s a new day and we’ll see how it goes,” Chan said about holding the lead after the short.
For Hanyu, who lives and trains in Toronto, this Skate Canada script might look eerily familiar — his score for the short a year ago in Lethbridge, Alta, was 73.25. He was even further down the standings (sixth) at that point, but roared back in the free to win a silver medal behind Chan.
One would surmise, however, that Hanyu is a little more annoyed about the mistakes in his performance than his current standing. It’s certainly the tone Mura sounded when asked how he felt sitting in second place after the short.
“This must have been my worst short program in recent times,” he said. “All the spins, all the levels were very low, the speed was very slow as well. I would say I’m quite mad at myself about the short program.”
Reynolds, who has a large fan following in Japan, drew some approving smiles and laughs from that country’s media when he was asked to respond to a question in Japanese, and heartily dove into an answer in a language he has become fascinated with over the years.
“It was nothing complicated,” he said. “I just said I was feeling a little bit nervous, but because things went well, I was happy with the overall result.”
As Reynolds spoke, Mura smiled and nodded his approval.
“Approved by Takahito Mura,” Chan said with a laugh.
Reynolds is taking Japanese as a minor as part of his studies at the University of British Columbia. His popularity in Japan led him to become intrigued with the language. “That’s the reason I became interested in the language, visiting Japan for the first time at NHK Trophy,” he said. “Slowly, bit by bit, I became more interested in the language and wanted to be able to communicate more with my fans that way.”
Evgenia Medvedeva caused a bit of a stir when, speaking in the mixed zone after the free skate, she seemed to infer that she had to break in a new pair of skates just four days before this competition. But a few minutes later, during the post-event news conference, she assured one and all that the time line for the change wasn’t quite so dire.
“Not four days ago. No, no. One and a half weeks ago,” she said. “After Japan Open, I broke my skates, my old skates. Now, I have new skates and I’m so happy. It’s really good, it isn’t broke. Everything is okay.”
Judging by her short program, apparently so.
The last time we caught a glimpse of Kaetlyn Osmond at Skate Canada International, it was the most dispiriting of sights.
Time after time, the 20-year-old Canadian with the happy-go-lucky persona was forced to pick herself off the ice in Lethbridge, Ontario — five falls in all in the most soul-crushing of free skates, which dumped her to 11th in the final standings.
Fast forward to Friday night at the Hershey Centre, and the Osmond of old was back, positively beaming after a short program that produced a career best score of 74.33 and placed her second by a whisker behind reigning World and European champion Evgenia Medvedeva of Russia (76.24). Behind her in third was Russia’s Elizaveta Tuktamysheva (66.79), the 2015 World champion.
For Osmond, who missed the entire 2014-15 season with injury, then had to build herself back up beyond that miserable night in Lethbridge, it was a most re-affirming moment.
“On the days when I skate the way I did today, I could compete with them and I can be at their level,” Osmond said when asked whether she feels she might have it in her to go toe to toe with the world’s best on a regular basis.
Want a barometer of how Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford felt about their performance? Well, Duhamel’s reaction said it all. When she punched the air at the end of their short program on Friday, the message was clear: their efforts at Finlandia Trophy three weeks ago, which she branded as “a disaster,” were now in the rear-view mirror.
“Our mission was to come in here and nail a good short program. Start the season off by showing ourselves and also show the World that we’re not backing down,” said Duhamel.
China’s Xiaoyu Yu and Hao Zhang are second (69.43), and fellow Canadians Lubov Ilyushechkina and Dylan Mosovitch (67.53).