Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir had hoped to gauge themselves against the best in the world ahead of the Vancouver Olympics.
But after a couple of key withdrawals from this week's ISU Grand Prix Final in Tokyo, the Canadian ice dancers expect their stiffest competition to come from a team they see at the rink every day.
Virtue and Moir are favourites to win gold at the Grand Prix Final that starts Thursday in Tokyo, what's predicted to be a showdown between the Canadians and U.S. skaters Meryl Davis and Charlie White, their good friends and training partners in Canton, Mich.
The event is the final meeting of the sport's elite before the 2010 Vancouver Games in February.
"It's the last chance before the Olympics to go against the top teams and see where you sort of fit in," Virtue said. "And to feel that real competitive energy would be amazing and a really, really important stepping stone for us. Good practice, and we can't wait."
Ice dancers Vanessa Crone of Aurora, Ont., and Paul Poirier of Unionville, Ont., and Joannie Rochette of Ile-Dupas, Que., in ladies singles are the only other Canadians in the field at the Final, which includes the top six skaters or teams from each discipline based on points scored on the Grand Prix circuit.
There will be numerous no-shows. Five-time U.S. ice dance champions Tanith Belbin, who was born in Kingston, Ont., and Benjamin Agosto withdrew after Belbin underwent dental surgery for an infected wisdom tooth.
Reigning world gold medallists Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin of Russia have skipped the Grand Prix circuit because of his knee injury.
Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder of France won the world championships in 2008, but have yet to skate this season - they returned to training last month after Delobel had a baby.
Virtue, from London, Ont., and Moir, from Ilderton, Ont., bronze medallists at last year's world championships were forced to skip last year's Grand Prix circuit while Virtue recovered from surgery on both her legs.
The Canadians have bounced back stronger than ever, capturing gold in both their Grand Prix appearances - Trophee Eric Bompard in Paris and HomeSense Skate Canada International earlier this month. At Skate Canada in Kitchener, Ont., the two recorded the highest score in the world this year, and earned the first-ever perfect 10 under the new judging system.
Davis and White, fourth at last year's world championships, have also won two Grand Prixs this season.
Crone and Poirier, bronze medallists at the NHK Trophy in Nagano, Japan earlier this season, were added to the lineup after the withdrawal of two other teams.
Rochette will face a stiff test in Tokyo against the reigning world champion Kim Yu-Na. The South Korean skater, who trains in Toronto with former Canadian star-turned-coach Brian Orser, has been obliterating the competition on the Grand Prix circuit, is considered the overwhelming choice to capture gold at the Vancouver Games.
The men's field in Tokyo won't look anything like the Olympic lineup. Patrick Chan of Toronto, the reigning world silver medallist, headlines a list of male skaters that are either injured or are taking a pass for the Grand Prix Final.
Chan, who's rebounding from a torn calf muscle suffered earlier in the fall, didn't qualify for the Final because he only skated one Grand Prix event - a disappointing sixth-place finish at Skate Canada.
Former world champions Evgeni Plushenko of Russia and Stephane Lambiel of Switzerland, are making Olympic comebacks, but neither are competing this week, while French medal contender Brian Joubert is out after cutting himself in the foot while training recently.
That leaves Americans Evan Lysacek, the reigning world champion, Jeremy Abbott, and Johnny Weir, along with Daisuke Takahashi of Japan to battle it out this week.
In pairs, two-time world champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, the runaway winners at Skate Canada, will be the favourites. Jessica Dube of St-Cyrille-de-Wendover, Que., and Bryce Davison of Huntsville, Ont., just missed qualifying for the Final after finishing third at Skate Canada.
Tokyo, U.S., Russia Canton, Mich. Aurora Unionville Ile-Dupas Japan Kingston Toronto France London, Ont. Ilderton Paris Kitchener Nagano Switzerland St-Cyrille-de-Wendover Huntsville
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