Following a slew of retirements, the Canadian Olympic figure skating team in Beijing will look much different than it did only four years ago.
Gone are ice dance legends Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, along with the pairs team of Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford, plus singles skaters Kaetlyn Osmond and Patrick Chan.
Those losses account for all four medals Canada earned at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics in the sport.
Now, a younger generation of Canadian skaters look to take the first step in rebuilding the esteemed program.
The Olympic figure skating schedule begins with the team event on Thursday night (9 p.m. ET, CBCSports.ca, CBC Sports app, CBC Gem) and runs all the way through Feb. 19 when the pairs event wraps up.
WATCH | Meet the Canadian Olympic figure skating team:
In Beijing, Canada’s best hope for a medal appears to be ice dancers Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier, who are tasked with filling the awfully large skates left behind by Virtue and Moir.
The 30-year-olds placed eighth in their Olympic debut four years ago but have consistently grown in the quadrennial since, including a bronze medal at the 2021 worlds. Before the current Grand Prix season was cut due to COVID-19, Gilles and Poirier won the Skate Canada International and placed second at the Internationaux De France.
To achieve that goal, Gilles and Poirier must contend with heavy favourites and longtime Virtue and Moir rivals Gabriela Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France. Papadakis and Cizeron have won four world championships together, along with Olympic silver in 2018.
Russia’s Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov and Americans Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, who finished fourth in Pyeongchang, should also be in the mix.
WATCH | Slow and steady a winning formula for Gilles, Poirier:
Defending gold in team event
Gilles and Poirier also promise to play a key role in helping Canada defend the team title in won in 2018.
The team event features ten countries. In the qualification phase, each nation chooses one entry to compete in the short program for each of the four main events. Competitors are ranked by their performance, with the best score receiving 10 points, the second-best nine points, and so on.
The Canadian roster will be completely revamped from Pyeongchang, but may have enough depth to compete for a spot on the podium nonetheless. It’ll need a leading skate from Gilles and Poirier to give that high-level edge.
Russia’s strength and depth, particularly in women and pairs, make it the heavy favourite to win team gold after finishing second to Canada in Pyeongchang. The Americans should also compete for the podium.
Radford, James look to meet potential
Canada does boast one returning member of that gold-medal team: Eric Radford. Radford, who competed then with Meagan Duhamel, came out of retirement last year to team with Vanessa James, who used to skate for France, ahead of the Beijing Olympics.
The pair pulled out of nationals in January, citing fatigue after both had recently contracted COVID-19.
WATCH | Radford, James leave retirement to team up:
On their own, Radford and James boast impressive resumés: the former is a three-time Olympic medallist, the latter is a past European champion and world bronze medallist.
But perhaps due to a lack of time together, it hasn’t seemed to click. In two Grand Prix appearances — which rarely include the full international field — James and Radford placed fourth twice.
And while the talent remains capable of surprise in Beijing, they’re unlikely to compete for medals. Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov of Russia are the heavy favourites, while reigning silver medallists Sui Wenjing and Han Cong give host China its best shot at the podium.
Russians could dominate women’s competition
In the women’s event, it’s almost a foregone conclusion that the gold medal will be headed to Russia for a third straight Winter Games. The only question is whether it will be around the neck of world record-holder Kamila Valieva or one of her teammates.
Valieva’s score of 272.71 points at the Rostelecom Cup was more than 35 points higher than anyone else.
The Russians’ biggest competition will come from Japan’s Kaori Sakamoto. But keep an eye on 17-year-old American Alysa Liu, who withdrew from U.S. nationals after a COVID-19 positive but whose jumping ability gives her a chance at the medal stand.
Canada’s lone entry in the event is Madeline Schizas, an 18-year-old who won the 2022 national title and has only competed on the senior circuit for two seasons.
WATCH | Schizas golden at nationals:
Chen vs. Hanyu highlights men’s competition
The men’s competition promises a showdown between dominant American Nathan Chen and reigning Olympic gold medallist Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan.
Chen went nearly four years without a defeat following his disappointing fifth-place finish in Pyeongchang. The only thing he’s yet to accomplish? Winning Olympic gold.
Hanyu withdrew from both of his Grand Prix assignments because an injured right ankle, but he dazzled last month in winning the Japanese championship. His key to victory could rest in becoming the first skater ever to land the quadruple axel — a jump that involves 4 1/2 rotations that he has landed in practice.
Canada sent two men to China: Keegan Messing, who returns after his 12th-place finish in 2018, and Olympic rookie Roman Sadovsky.
However, Messing’s Olympics are in question as he remains in Canada awaiting the necessary COVID-19 test results to travel to China.
Others to watch in the men’s competition include Shoma Uno, the reigning Olympic silver medallist who won the NHK Trophy last fall and Vincent Zhou, the American who beat Chen at Skate America and was second to Uno at the NHK Trophy.