Grand Prix Finland has the highest concentration of top-ranked men of any Grand Prix event this season. The eleven skaters entered in Helsinki have won eight World medals between them. Five of those medals–and two world titles–belong to one improbably brilliant skater: Yuzuru Hanyu.Embed from Getty Images
If Hanyu had opted to retire after PyeongChang he would have gone out on the very highest note: the only man to defend his Olympic title since Dick Button in 1952. A four-time Japanese national champion, he holds the historic records for highest short program, free skate, and overall score. He’s won four Grand Prix Final titles in a row from 2013-16.
What does a skater with that much hardware do for an encore?
If you’re Hanyu, you show up to your 15th Grand Prix competition to an international press scrum waiting for you at the airport, armed with a great jacket (Skating Twitter™is fawning) and two of the most intriguing programs of your career. The post-Olympic press narrative for Yuzuru Hanyu is that he’s a skater with nothing left to prove. Lucky for us, he’s ignored his own coverage.
Grand Prix Finland is not a guaranteed gold medal for Yuzuru Hanyu. His season debut in September at Autumn Classic was tantalizing, but imperfect. I’m sure he’d like to get a couple of missed quads and that pesky invalid combination spin back for a do-over. While Hanyu is the dominant skater of his generation–perhaps even The Best Ever, if it’s possible to assess such a thing–he is not unbeatable.
Enter Mikhail Kolyada.Embed from Getty Images
Of all the men at Grand Prix Finland I give Kolyada the best odds for defeating Hanyu. He upset my fantasy pool last season by winning Cup of China on the way to a bronze medal at the Grand Prix Final. At his best he skates with superb power and speed, and can float a triple axel whose height defies physics. He’s a worthy inheritor of the great tradition of Russian and Soviet male skaters who blend high drama with impeccable jump technique.
Kolyada, however, was unnerved at the Olympics and exhausted by Worlds. His programs are not groundbreaking: that’s a tall order for a short program set to a Muse song and figure skating’s 10,000th Carmen free skate. He does, however, skate those programs with ferocity and commitment. He also has a quad lutz tucked away which, when landed, is perhaps the best in the discipline. He arrived at the Russian Open Skates in September looking ready for redemption. If he can hold an exit edge on that quad lutz, and Hanyu makes mistakes, he could top the podium in Helsinki.Embed from Getty Images
What about Boyang Jin? The last time Jin skated competitively was at Worlds in March, where he finished an abysmal 19th. It was an abrupt fall for a skater who had won the bronze at Worlds two years running.
Jin is a skater with formidable technical gifts, among them a dizzying quad lutz. He’s vaulted into world contention on the strength of jumps he ought to have a pilot’s license to launch. His program sophistication, however, falls into the “winsome but immature” category. When the jumps fail him, as they did at Worlds, not even Lori Nichol’s jazziest Star Wars-themed choreography can save the program.
Jin also had a tumultuous off-season, with a much-publicized and ultimately abandoned coaching shift to Brian Orser. What seemed like a sure move to the Toronto Cricket Club in May dissolved by July, as Jin opted to stay with coach Caishu Fu. He did not skate in any pre-season competitions and, aside from a handful of show skates, no one has seen him skate fully trained competition programs since March. Grand Prix Helsinki will be a season debut for Jin and a curious skating community will be watching for signs of change.Embed from Getty Images
Finally, I don’t think anyone should count out the breakout skater of this season, Junhwan Cha. Fresh off a bronze medal at Skate Canada last week, Cha is taking advantage of the post-Olympic season shifts that open up space for new skaters. He’s showing all the signs of a beautiful skater in the making: flow, speed, power, and security. Training alongside Hanyu and Javier Fernández at the TCC for three years with Tracy Wilson’s stroking classes certainly helps, too.
Meanwhile, his Romeo and Juliet free skate has taken on an internet life of it’s own thanks to the “Junlieeeeett!” sobriquet bestowed on him by fans. I’m not wild about the R&J program, but it doesn’t feel draped over him, either. Cha is finding ways to connect with the music and interpret Shae-Lynn Bourne’s choreography in a way that matches his on-ice demeanour. I’d love to see him repeat a podium placement in Helsinki.
In short: Grand Prix Finland showcases the peak of the men’s field this season and promises to be a cracking good competition. Set your pre-dawn alarms on Saturday for the short program!Embed from Getty Images