Men’s figure skating preview: Can Patrick Chan end ‘Canadian curse’?

Leave a comment

SOCHI, Russia – If the pressure to win an Olympic gold medal wasn’t enough for 22-year-old Patrick Chan, the Canadian has a long-standing curse that many are expecting him to break here Friday night in the men’s free skate, as well.

Four Canadians before him have won a combined nine world championships gold medals, but none of them have come away with that coveted Olympic gold, dating back to Brian Orser’s infamous loss to American Brian Boitano in 1988. The “Canadian curse,” it’s called.

That Chan is the three-time reigning world champion should make things easier, not harder, but his wins bring Canada’s world gold haul to 12 in total, but can he be the first to come away with an Olympic gold?

RELATED: Chan: Plushenko has ‘earned his spot’ in Sochi

“Chan is the heavy favorite because he’s won everything up to these Games,” said 2010 Olympic champion Evan Lysacek, a contributor for the “TODAY Show.” “So we’ll see if he can keep it together. But they always talk about the curse on the world champion going into the Olympics, and that could weigh on him. I sure hope not, though.”

Chan hopes not, as well. Below, a breakdown on the men’s singles event, from Chan’s chances to a rising star known as Yuzuru Hanyu, Spain’s unlikely star, a Russian legacy continued and two American longshots.

Chan’s Chances
Pressure was mounted on the slight shoulders of an 18-year-old Chan at the 2010 Vancouver Games after the Canadian had been a silver medalist at the World Championships the year before. But the teenager was hobbled by injury, and later admitted to being hobbled by the pressure of the home crowd. He finished fifth.

Since then, however, the quad-jumping, Detroit-based skater has been virtually unbeatable, winning the World Championships in 2011, 2012 and 2013 and capturing gold in 11 of 16 international competitions he’s entered. The Ottawa native set a world record score in November, but has otherwise struggled over the last twelve months, including at the most recent Worlds, where he fell twice in the free skate and barely hung on to gold, a win that detractors pinned to the “Chan-flation” of his scores.

He again struggled in the short program of last week’s team event (in which Canada won silver), placing third behind Hanyu and Plushenko in that segment of the event.

“Chan knows that his team short program score was reflective of the errors that he made out on the ice,” said Lysacek, who ended his attempt at a comeback for Sochi in December. “That was uncharacteristic for Patrick, especially in the short program. It might be good for him in the sense that he feels like he didn’t waste it, or leave his best skating in the team event. Chan has been very vocal about the individual medal – he wasn’t worried about the individual event – he wants that gold on his own.”

Brian’s Boys
The pair of skaters who are most likely to challenge Chan for the gold medal happen to train in Canada, where Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu and Spaniard Javier Fernandez live and work in Toronto with former world champion Orser, who helped Yuna Kim to her record-breaking gold medal at the Vancouver Games.

Hanyu has been a teenager on the rise over the last two years, the world junior champion in 2010 capturing his second straight national gold this past year and, at 19, winning the all-important Grand Prix Final in December, winning a gold over Chan for the first time in his career.

RELATED: Hanyu wants to make history | Fernandez skates for Spain

“Hanyu has burst onto the scene in a big way by beating Chan at the Grand Prix Final,” Lysacek said. “But he’s been very consistent and was far and away the best in the team short program and has been looking the best in practice. He’s young. I don’t know if he’s not feeling pressure or he’s just so good at dealing with it but it’ll be interesting to see how he takes that momentum from the team event into the individual competition.”

While Hanyu had the team event to get warm, two-time European champion Fernandez did not. The 22-year-old has been a breakout star for Spain, moving to the U.S. five years ago to train in New Jersey before joining forces with Orser – and in effect, Hanyu – after placing 17th at the Vancouver Games.

“Javier is in that mix,” Lysacek added. “There are just so many top-ranked guys, this is a deep field. This is going to come down to who can perform on the Olympic stage.”

Plushenko’s Final Push
A skater that has proved himself time and time again on the Olympic stage is 31-year-old Yevgeny Plushenko, who helped Russia to a team-event gold medal by performing solidly in both programs, particularly the free skate – which he won.

Petrenko has a record-tying four Olympic medals to his name, including individual podiums in Salt Lake (silver), Torino (gold) and Vancouver (silver). While he’s not favored to nab a medal here, he checked off every box he needed to in the team event, hitting his quadruple jumps and bringing the Russian crowd into his performances.

RELATED: Olympics’ opening night belonged to Yevgeny

“Everyone is talking about Yevgeny Plushenko and speculating whether he’ll be able to keep his condition up through the team and individual events,” said Lysacek, who beat Plushenko for gold in Vancouver. “In the team event he won the free skate, and you can’t really argue with that because it’s the more physically demanding of the two.”

American Longshots
At 28 and 19, American hopes Jeremy Abbott and Jason Brown at the opposite end of the Olympic spectrum, Abbott saying he’ll call it a career after this season and Brown expressing hope to skate in not one but two more Games.

While Abbott has all the tools to be in medal contention, but has famously froze on the international stage. The four-time national champion was ninth at the Vancouver Games and hasn’t placed inside the top five at the World Championships in four appearances.

RELATED: Abbott moves out of Village for ultimate focus

“Jeremy had a really good skate at Nationals,” Lysacek said. “A short program like he had in Boston would put him in the mix; it would put him in the skating final group.”

Brown, however, lacks a quad jump and will need to be near-perfect in both his programs to help him contend. He’d need a near-repeat (or even better) of his viral performance of his “Riverdance” free skate from Nationals last month.

“For Jason, overall, he has the capability to post a high score, but I don’t know if it will be with the top guys in the world,” Lysacek said. “He’s fresh on the international scene and a newcomer here, but either way it’s great experience for Jason.”

Keep an Eye On
Japan has the best depth of any team in the world, with Tatsuki Machida and Daisuke Takahashi joining Hanyu in the men’s event. Takahashi was a bronze medalist at the Vancouver Games, and – like Abbott – has the tools to score big when he’s on.

Yan Han, an 18-year-old from China, could be in the mix, as well, as could Denis Ten, the 2013 world silver medalist who has dealt with injury this season. Michal Brezina is coached by former Olympic champion Viktor Petrenko and Brian Joubert, a former world champion, competes in his swan song competition at age 29.

The Last Word
“If everyone skates their best, it would come down to Hanyu and Chan,” Lysacek said. “They are so different and I think the judges really like that. It’s hard to compare them because they have different strengths and very few key weaknesses. It’s all so complex what the judges are looking for. They’re both aggressive, fast skaters, but I would say that Chan overall has more finesse and valuable experience. If it comes down to the Grades of Execution like it did in Vancouver, in that case I would have to give it to Chan.”

Several women’s players spurn worlds inquiry from USA Hockey

Getty Images
3 Comments

As sports organizations and notable hockey figures express support of the U.S. women’s team, several players say they rejected overtures from USA Hockey to serve as replacements for the upcoming world championships.

Two players told The Associated Press on Friday that USA Hockey reached out to them to gauge their interest for the worlds, which begin next week in Plymouth, Michigan.

Brittany Ott, a goaltender for the Boston Pride of the National Women’s Hockey League, and Annie Pankowski, a junior forward at the University of Wisconsin, said the email from USA Hockey was not an invitation but rather an inquiry about their availability.

“I responded to that email and I said I’m not willing,” Pankowski said.

A third player, goalie Lauren Dahm, told the AP on Saturday she also turned down an invitation. Dahm plays for the Canadian Women’s Hockey League Boston Blades.

The U.S. team has said it plans to boycott the worlds over a wage dispute with USA Hockey, which confirmed Thursday it would begin reaching out to potential replacement players. Several players posted messages on social media saying they support the national team and would decline or have declined any outreach from USA Hockey.

“From a personal standpoint I have never been invited to a USA Hockey series or camp or anything like that and I would honestly love to be invited to something like that,” Ott said by phone. “However at the current time, this is a fight that I believe in and I’m definitely going to stand up and help fight as much as I can.”

Many players posted a version of a Jerry Rice quote on Twitter on Friday: “Today I will do what others won’t so tomorrow I can do what others can’t. I said no to USAH & will not play in the 2017WC.” Not all players who tweeted that message were asked by USA Hockey if they could play.

On Saturday, NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith joined the chorus of support for the players, saying on Twitter the organization stands behind their pursuit of fairness and equality.

“These women understand inequality when they see it and are expressing their right to be treated fairly as athletes and workers,” Smith tweeted. “Of course, they have the NFLPA’s support in daring to withhold their services until a fair agreement is reached.”

Philadelphia Flyers coach Dave Hakstol posted his support on Twitter, calling players competitors and role models.

On Friday, the NHL Players’ Association and Major League Baseball players posted messages of support. The NHLPA posted on Twitter that it supports players and panned USA Hockey’s bid to stock the team with replacements, adding that the decision “would only serve to make relations, now and in the future, much worse.”

The MLBPA encouraged all female hockey players to stand united behind their national team colleagues.

Players are seeking a four-year contract that includes payments outside the six-month Olympic period. The sides met for 10-plus hours Monday, but players have called USA Hockey’s counterproposal “disappointing.”

USA Hockey said Thursday its priority was to have all the players selected for the national team on the ice March 31 when the tournament begins. But the organization added that it informed players’ representatives it would begin reaching out to potential replacements with the tournament coming up.

Star national team forward Hilary Knight said last week she wished USA Hockey luck putting together a suitable team of replacements to defend the gold medal because the player pool was united in the dispute. Ott and Pankowski said they had not heard from any players expressing a willingness to play in worlds.

“It’s a very unified front,” Ott said. “It’s a tight-knit community that we have in women’s hockey here. This is definitely a big opportunity for us to make a big change and have a big impact on our sport and have it grow. We’re all standing together.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Stanley Cup-winning goalie joins U.S. women’s coaching staff

World Figure Skating Championships pairs preview

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Volosozhar and Trankov couldn’t do it. Neither did Shen and Zhao. Nor Gordeeva and Grinkov.

Canadians Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford can win a third straight pairs world title next week, a feat not seen since Irina Rodnina and Alexander Zaitsev of the Soviet Union won six in a row from 1973 through 1978.

But they don’t feel like favorites.

“We’re coming in a little more under the radar,” Radford said.

They lost their two most recent international competitions — third at the Grand Prix Final in December; second at the Four Continents Championships in February.

Duhamel and Radford are seeded fifth by best international scores this season going into the world championships in Helsinki (broadcast schedule here).

“Sometimes it feels like worlds last year was so long ago,” Radford said.

Last year in Boston, Duhamel and Radford had the performance of their seven-year partnership in the world championships free skate. They tallied a personal-best 153.81 points, more than seven points clear of their previous best.

It was easily enough to overtake Chinese short-program leaders Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, who were relegated to silver behind the Canadians for a second straight year.

This season, Duhamel and Radford haven’t come within 13 points of their 2016 World Championships total. Duhamel went through “an unforeseeable circumstance” in her personal life in November that she chooses not to reveal.

They implemented the throw triple Axel, but Duhamel fell three times in a four-event stretch this fall. They lost by nearly 13 points at December’s Grand Prix Final, which ended with a Duhamel backstage meltdown.

“We never fell like that at home [in practice],” Duhamel said on the IceTalk podcast. “It started to shake us up a little bit.”

They replaced the throw triple Axel in their program. Without it in February, both skaters had trouble with jumps at Four Continents at the 2018 Olympic venue and finished nearly 13 points behind Sui and Han.

“We kind of went back to square one, to the drawing board after Four Continents, reassessing what’s gone on this season, why are we underperforming, why are we not succeeding in competition the way we are training,” Duhamel said.

They made program changes, notably on their throw and jump entrances and overhauling the footwork in their short program.

Duhamel adopted a rescue dog from South Korea. Radford, who had surgery over the summer to remove a cyst from his ankle bone, leaned on a sports psychologist.

“I personally feel a lot more relaxed and seemless,” Radford said. “That feeling has come a little bit later this season.”

Five pairs could take gold in Helsinki in perhaps the most wide-open event.

Germans Aliona Savchenko and (French-born) Bruno Massot won both of their fall Grand Prix events but missed the Grand Prix Final after she tore an ankle ligament. They returned to take silver at the European Championships in January with the best score of their two-year partnership.

Young Russians Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov stepped up to win the Grand Prix Final, the second-biggest annual competition, and then the European Championships. But free-skate struggles have dogged them this season.

Another Russian pair, Olympic silver medalists Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov, are perhaps the biggest wild card. They missed the fall season due to Stolbova’s left leg injury, but then beat Tarasova and Morozov in their season debut at the Russian Championships. Stolbova fell on their throw triple flip in both programs at the European Championships in January, and they finished fourth.

Then there are Sui and Han, looking to break through for a first senior world title in their sixth try (though Sui is just 21 years old, and Han 24). They missed the fall season after Sui underwent right ankle and left foot surgeries last spring. They returned at Four Continents and posted personal-best free skate and total scores, ranking only behind Tarasova and Morozov for the season.

U.S. pairs Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim and Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier have both missed significant time due to injury in the last two years. They are behind the top pairs from Canada, China and Russia.

The U.S. hasn’t put a pair in the world championships top five since 2006, and that doesn’t figure to change next week.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Ashley Wagner knows pressure’s on her at worlds

NBC Sports researcher Sarah Hughes contributed to this report.