Hosted by veteran broadcasters Scott Russell and Andi Petrillo, Road to the Olympic Games chronicles athletes’ journeys on and off the field of play. Here’s what to look for on this weekend’s show on CBC Television and CBCSports.ca.
The racing starts at the Olympic Oval in Calgary.
But speed skating’s demons of the short track hail from a Canadian heartland much further to the east.
When four-time world champion and double Olympic gold medallist Annie Perreault of Sherbrooke, Que., accepted her induction to Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame this week she left no doubt.
“I will make my remarks in French,” she explained with great emotion, “for the people of Quebec who have supported me so much over the years.”
- Watch short track speed skating Saturday at 3 p.m. ET at CBCSports.ca, and 5 p.m. ET on CBC TV.
- Commentators: Scott Russell, 2-time Olympic Champion Catriona Le May Doan.
- Watch the Grand Prix of Russia on Saturday (3 p.m. ET, CBC TV, CBCSports.ca) and Sunday (2 p.m. local, CBC TV, CBCSports.ca).
- Commentators: Andi Petrillo, 4-time World Champion Kurt Browning, Olympic Champion, David Pelletier.
Just as Russians revere and nurture female figure skaters, Quebecers have an affinity for short track speedsters who can command the ice.
It comes with the territory.
Austrians love alpine skiing, Norwegians adore cross country and the people of this one Canadian province, for whatever reason, elevate their stars of short track speed skating.
As the six-stop World Cup season begins this weekend, there are a dozen skaters from Canada. Ten of them hail from Quebec and they are attempting to improve on the 44 World Cup medals they won last campaign – their best total in more than a decade.
The team is boosted by the return of two-time Olympic medallist Marie-Eve Drolet, who is back on ice after giving birth to her first child. But it is unquestionably led by two superstars of the current generation of short trackers, Marianne St-Gelais and Charles Hamelin.
The accomplished couple, who plan to be married following the 2018 Games in South Korea, have produced seven Olympic medals and 11 world championship titles. They are headliners in their home province and are already approaching icon status.
“I don’t feel like a Queen Bee in my sport,” chuckles the always gregarious St-Gelais, who captured her first world championship last season in the 1,500 metres. “But I’m happy with that situation. It means I did something good. I know I’ve done a lot for my sport and I have some good titles. I’m happy with my career but I want to reach for more every day.”
Meantime, Hamelin – once the bright, young, heir apparent to the legendary five-time Olympic medallist Marc Gagnon – has evolved into a 32-year-old senior statesman on the squad.
Undaunted, the man they call “the Sainte-Julie locomotive,” will race on. Although he’s been to the top of the podium three times in three Olympic appearances, Hamelin still covets an all-around world crown. It’s the one thing that’s eluded him over the course of his 14-year career with the national team.
“The older I get, the more I think about it,” Hamelin admits. “I want to finish my career by leaving a better team than the one I was on when I arrived. I want to make sure that when I’m not there anymore that short track will be as good as it always has been.”
For Hamelin, success will ultimately involve creating a personal legacy.
He’s fully aware of the legion of star skaters from his home province like champions Sylvie Daigle, Nathalie Lambert, Perreault and Gagnon, who pioneered the sport when it made its Olympic debut in Albertville, France, in 1992. Gagnon has an arena named after him in his native Chicoutimi, while all of them are hall of famers and justifiably considered to be sporting royalty in Quebec.
Recently, the indoor skating rink in Hamelin’s hometown of Sainte-Julie underwent renovations and has been renamed after he and his brother Francois – also a member of the national team – as well as his father Yves, a coach and high-performance director, who now runs the Olympic speed skating oval in Calgary.
The newly minted Hamelin Arena is a testament to the status that short track enjoys in Quebec.
It’s a sport bred in the bone in that province.
While the Olympic history of this form of speed skating is relatively brief, its folklore is already rich and the current athletes like St-Gelais and Hamelin intend on deepening this passionate connection they have with their ardent fans.
“When you live it you don’t always think about what will be left behind,” Hamelin reckoned. ”But it’s our family name that’s on that arena now and people recognize what we’ve done.”
Simply put, these stars from Quebec have put short track speed skating on the map throughout the country.