Canadian short-tracker squad looks to youth to challenge established stars
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MONTREAL — Charles Hamelin and Marianne St. Gelais are still going strong, but Canada's short-track speed skating team is looking for youngsters to start making their mark on the international scene.
And young guns like Samuel Girard, Namasthee Harris-Gauthier and Kim Boutin feel they are not far behind the established veterans. There is also world championship medallist Kasandra Bradette, who is 27 but is a relative newcomer to international competition.
They will get a chance to show they're ready at the team's fall trials this weekend at the Maurice Richard Arena, where teams of six men and six women will be chosen for the first four meets of the World Cup campaign, which opens Nov. 4-6 in Calgary.
"What I expect to see is the younger group that's been in the pipeline the last couple of years to be challenging at the top a little more," coach Derrick Campbell said Wednesday. "That group is very close, but to the credit of some veterans, they get better every year too.
"These guys have been on top for a long time for a good reason, but the young guys that have come in have bridged that gap every quickly."
Hamelin, 32, of St. Julie, Que., has been the unchallenged leader of the squad for a decade. The double gold medallist from the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver isn't slowing down, with six gold medals in five World Cup meets and another in the 1,000-metre event at the world championships last season.
His brother Francois, 30, and Olivier Jean, 32, of Lachenaie, Que., are also still very much in the mix.
St. Gelais, 26, a native of St. Felicien, Que., is coming off her best season with 11 World Cup medals and world championship gold. Marie-Eve Drolet, 34, of Laterriere, Que., and Valerie Maltais, 26, of Saguenay, Que., remain national team regulars.
Campbell said a handful of youngsters on the men's side are ready to step up, including Cedric Blais of Chateauguay, Que., Pascal Dion of Montreal and William Preudhomme of Toronto.
But Girard, of Ferland-et-Boilleau, Que., has the best chance of catching them. The 20-year-old had a breakthrough 2015-16 campaign, winning his first World Cup gold in the 500-metres in Toronto and taking silver in the 1,000-metres and in the relay at the world championships.
"He's a complete skater," said Campbell. "He's fast. He's fit.
"He's got a really good head on his shoulders in competition. He competes at a different level."
Girard's goal is not so much to knock Hamelin off his perch as to keep improving his own skating.
"I think it will come naturally," he said. "I don't want to force it, to push a guy like 'it's not your time any more, it's my time.'
"It's more like 'when the time comes, I'm the guy who can beat Charles and the rest in Canada.' I'm not alone. We have a lot of guys on the team who can push the older guys."
Bradette, whose development was stalled by a back injury, emerged last spring with a world championships bronze at 1,000-metres and silver in the relay.
Boutin looked ready to break out two years ago when she briefly took the 500-metre world record and then was the top Canadian woman at the worlds. But after taking a pair of silver medals at the season-opening World Cup last fall, her performances fell off. She took a break from skating in the second half of the season to sort things out.
"Physically, I was tired and I had a little back injury but mostly it was in my head," said Boutin. "I was not cushioning myself.
"I was really intense about skating. Now I've put a distance between my life on the ice and my life outside of the rink and I'm really happy about that. It's more stable and I'm more comfortable like that."
She's ready to compete with the veterans again.
"I don't think its a big gap," she said. "We push girls in the front.
"In training, it's interesting because they know we're here. Of course I'm trying to beat Marianne and Val and everyone but it's not so much to beat them as to do my best. I have the capacity to beat them, but we'll see."
After Calgary, there are World Cups in Nov. 11-13 in Salt Lake City, Dec. 9-11 in Shanghai and Dec. 16-18 at the rink that will be used for the 2018 Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea.
More trials will be held to pick teams for the final World Cups in Dresden, Germany and Minsk, Belarus in February. The world championships are in Rotterdam in March.