SPORTS

Canadian short-track team ready for world championships after trying season

03/04/2015 04:09 EST | Updated 05/04/2015 05:59 EDT
MONTREAL - It's been a so-so year for Canada's short-track speedskating team by their lofty standards, but they hope to rectify that at next week's world championships in Moscow.

For coach Frederic Blackburn, this season has been about fixing shortcomings spotted when Canada was held to four medals at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, including only one gold to Charles Hamelin in the men's 1,500 metres.

Blackburn, who coaches the women's team, has tested star skater Marianne St-Gelais' mettle by pushing her to be more aggressive and try more passes on the ice.

He has youngster Kim Boutin of Sherbrooke, Que., try to stay in the pack longer instead of rushing to the front.

The aim is to have more well-rounded skaters for the next Winter Games in 2018.

"We were missing something in the last Olympics and we have to work on it right now," Blackburn said Wednesday. "If we win something (now), it's a bonus."

It seems to be working. At the last World Cup event in Turkey two weeks ago, the Canadian women ranked first after taking six medals. A highlight was Boutin's first World Cup medal, a bronze just behind St-Gelais' silver in the 1,500 metres. She also took bronze in one of the two 1,000-metre races.

The women's team was held to one medal in Sochi, a silver in the relay.

Blackburn said St-Gelais had to get tougher on the track.

"With Marianne this year the focus was on taking risks during competitions, not to just be second," he said. "If Marianne is in a final of the 500 and she's second but then tries something to pass and win the gold, even if she falls or gets disqualified, that for me would be a win."

St-Gelais, of St-Felicien, Que., said that approach is already paying dividends.

"I'm not an aggressive person on or off the ice, but (Blackburn) said 'you don't have to be someone else, just be you but with more aggressiveness,'" she said. "I don't feel uncomfortable with that."

The rest of the women's world championship team has veteran Valerie Maltais of Chicoutimi, Que., Geneve Belanger of Montreal and Kasandra Bradette of St-Felicien. St-Gelais, Boutin and Bradette will enter the individual events, while the relay team has yet to be decided.

The men's team has Hamelin, of Ste-Julie, Que., with Patrick Duffy of Oakville, Ont., Guillaume Bastille of Riviere-du-Loup, Que., rising junior prospect Samuel Girard of Ferland-et-Boilleau, Que., and Olivier Jean of Lachenaie, Que.

Hamelin, Duffy and Girard will be in the individual races.

Three-time Olympic gold medallist Hamelin has also been taken out of his comfort zone this year to work on situational racing. It led to disappointing results that saw him drop to seventh in world rankings, but he's not worried.

"I tried more, different things in my race strategy and maybe that's why," he said. "I put myself in positions I'm not comfortable in so I had to react differently and adjust.

"So if I'm in a big competition and I end up in a position I'm not used to, I won't panic. But other than that, my skating was really good. I got better with each competition."

The 30-year-old says he's ready to compete with the best March 13-15 in Moscow.

"It's not because I'm ranked seventh now that I have less chance than last year to win," he said. "I think my chances are even better. I learned a lot this year. I have a great shot at the title."

Charle Cournoyer of Boucherville, Que., who won 500-metre bronze in Sochi, is not on the squad. He missed six months this season with shoulder and foot injuries.

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