REGINA — Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir sometimes marvel at the crowd they travel with these days.
While they are just two when they step on the ice, Canada's ice dancers have constructed a formidable team of about a dozen sport specialists behind them they hope will help lift them to the top of the Olympic podium in Pyeongchang.
"Sometimes we joke because there are many people who walk behind us, but they're part of this team because they're there on the daily," Moir said.
When the Olympic gold and silver medallists returned from a two-year hiatus last fall, they upended their training situation, moving from Canton, Mich., to Montreal where they assembled their squad, led by coaches Marie-France Dubreuil, Patrice Lauzon and Romain Haguenauer.
"A big reason for coming back was we wanted to do it differently," said Moir. "We know what's worked in the past, we want to see if we can do it even more efficiently."
They've gone undefeated in their return, winning their third world title last spring. They'll embark on what they've all but confirmed will be their final Olympic season on Friday at Skate Canada International.
Standing at the boards during Thursday morning's session, Virtue and Moir received some guidance from a familiar face — but it wasn't Dubreuil or Lauzon. Their coaches had missed a connecting flight from Montreal, and so Brian Orser, the world and Olympic silver medallist who now coaches many of the world's top singles skaters, stepped in.
"It was like we won a radio contest this morning, 'Get coached by Brian Orser!'" Moir said, laughing. "When (Dubreuil and Lauzon) texted us to tell us they wouldn't be here, we were like 'Oh my god, that's awesome, Brian Orser is going to be coaching us.' I think they were a little bit insulted."
Kidding aside, Virtue and Moir have found strength in numbers in Montreal. Their group, assembled partly with the help of the private business group B2Ten, includes sports psychologist Jean-Francois Menard and osteopath Dave Campbell, among others.
"Tessa and I love these. . . we have little board meetings, where we get to run the show and kind of talk about what goes on for the next month, and if we accomplished our goals from the previous month," Moir said. "There's about 12 people who sit around the table, and that was a new experience for Tessa and I last year. It's really really cool, and learning how to use that to our advantage was what last year was all about really."
Menard usually travels with them, and the trio will chat on the bus to the rink or over dinner after the event.
"It's a great time to work and kind of reflect," said the 30-year-old from Ilderton, Ont. "And when we get in those high-pressure situations, we can talk about the Olympics, some things can weigh on you or be a heavier load on your shoulders than you anticipated, so having those check-in moments helped us last year."
Heading into their third Olympics, and intent on reclaiming gold, Virtue and Moir know all about carrying the weight of a country's expectations — and their own. This time around, they're all about embracing the pressure.
"We have different perspective on what this all means in the big scheme of things, and how personal it is," said Virtue, a 28-year-old from London, Ont. "Our investment in this whole process is so fulfilling . . . it's every single day of training, it's all this work for those brief fleeting moments at the Olympic Games. And we have a better understanding of the magnitude of that, and what it all means to us personally."
Virtue and Moir had considered retiring after Sochi, but were unsatisfied with silver. They also admitted in the days after Sochi to a rift with former coach Marina Zueva.
Now, facing the end of their career, they can't imagine life without their team.
"We think about that often, about when the lights go off in four months," Moir said.
Added Virtue: "When we have an emergency and we (normally) call and we get ten people saying 'I'll be there in 15 minutes. Whatever you need.' It will be a change."
Virtue and Moir are aiming for their seventh Skate Canada title. Three-time world champion Patrick Chan of Toronto will face stiff competition from Japan's Shoma Uno. The 26-year-old Chan missed Thursday's morning's practice because of a flight delay, and arrived with his skates, but not the rest of his luggage. He practised later Thursday.
Canada's two-time world pairs champions Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford are the favourites to win gold, and Kaetlyn Osmond, who captured world silver last spring, is the top-ranked entry in women's singles.