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Lightning GM Julien BriseBois cracked the Stanley Cup code, now faces tougher puzzle



Professional sports have a peculiar way of glorifying underdogs who win championships while being blasé about teams with all-star rosters that win.

The 1980 Team USA hockey “Miracle on Ice” is folklore. Cinderella teams are more compelling than No. 1 seeds in March Madness. Unless it’s part of a dynasty, hearing an absurdly talented team talk about how hard it is to win a championship is like hearing a billionaire complain about a dearth of island vacation options.

But for Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois, whose all-star roster hoisted the Stanley Cup in 2020, probability does not equal promise.

“When the season starts, the odds are that you’re not winning the Stanley Cup,” he said. “Even when the playoffs start and you’re down to 16 teams, even if you’re the top seed, the odds are that you’re not winning the Stanley Cup.”

Since 2013-14, the Lightning have been the NHL’s most successful franchise in the regular season, winning more games (343) and amassing more points (733) than any other team. Each season begins with the Lightning among the odds-on favorites to win the Stanley Cup — including before the 2019-20 season, when they were the betting chalk to hoist the Cup.

“So your job is to defy those odds. You have to believe that you’re the one team that will defy those odds. Because someone will,” BriseBois said.

The Lightning were that team this season, winning the Cup for the second time in franchise history and capping an inevitable climb to the summit that had its share of precarious slips along the ascent. It was the culmination of 10 years of partnership between owner Jeff Vinik, who purchased the team in 2010; BriseBois, who was hired that year by then-GM Steve Yzerman as assistant general manager; and coach Jon Cooper, whom BriseBois hired to be his American Hockey League coach in 2010.

The past decade saw the Lightning amass an all-star team, thanks to great drafting, shrewd management … and an assist from Florida’s tax laws.

Center Steven Stamkos and defenseman Victor Hedman were the foundations, and they signed deals that were slightly under market value to stay. Coming through the Lightning system were forwards Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn and Anthony Cirelli, as well as goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. Defensemen Ryan McDonagh and Mikhail Sergachev arrived via trade.

Without a salary cap, this roster would be impressive. Under salary-cap constraints, building a team such as this is remarkable.

“Over an 82-game season, a little edge in talent adds up. But when you’re only looking at one game or one series, it comes down to who does enough to meet the challenge for that game or that series. And it can be either team. It’s that close,” BriseBois said. “So I’m in awe of what our team accomplished. I’m in awe of how deep they had to dig, physically and mentally, for us to fly back to Tampa with the Cup.”

Cooper was in awe of what his general manager did to make that Stanley Cup win happen.

“He’s not afraid to put his you-know-what’s on the line to do something,” Cooper said to ESPN. “There’s a lot of belief and trust [between us]. He went out and gave up some things and took a lot of criticism from people who thought he gave up too much. You’re going to be second-guessed. But he did what he thought was right, and it worked out.”

Few general managers have been as bold as Julien BriseBois. He’s going to have to be even bolder to win the Stanley Cup again.

BriseBois was poached from the Montreal Canadiens in July 2010, having served as their vice president of hockey operations. He was a hockey management prodigy: When he took over Montreal’s minor league affiliate, the Hamilton Bulldogs, in 2007, BriseBois was the youngest GM in the AHL, at 30 years old.

With BriseBois a native of Greenland Park, Quebec, many thought he was a natural GM successor in Montreal. For the next decade, teams continued to try to hire him away from the Lightning — to no avail.

Vinik has called BriseBois “progressive” in his managerial style. The Lightning were at the forefront of the analytics movement, even though they aren’t often grouped with teams that trumpet their analytics use more loudly. Tampa Bay’s scouting and player development were gold-standard stuff in the NHL under Yzerman and BriseBois. From a salary-cap management perspective, the Lightning were exemplary.

But the duo was abruptly broken up in September 2018, when Yzerman stepped aside to become “Senior Advisor to the General Manager,” and BriseBois was given the reins of the franchise.

“In the first year that he’s GM, he’s thrown into it in September,” Cooper said. “That’s a tough position. You couldn’t really do anything with this team other than watch and see where we were at.”

Of course, there wasn’t much to change during the 2018-19 season. The Lightning went 62-16-4 for 128 points, tying the NHL record for wins in a season.

Then the Columbus series happened. The Blue Jackets swept the Lightning out of the playoffs in the opening round, a No. 8 seed humbling a heavy favorite.

“One of the toughest things about being swept was seeing Steve afterward. I was sick to my stomach that we couldn’t win a Cup for him while he was still with the organization,” Cooper said of Yzerman, who left after that season to become general manager of the Detroit Red Wings. “But it gave Julien a year to watch and see where we’re at.”

Vinik is fond of the phrase “there was no flinch” to describe how BriseBois and the Lightning reacted to that devastating setback. Cooper remained head coach. The core remained intact. The climb continued.

“He could have easily blown everything up. But there was a lot of trust in our relationship. We had been together for 10 years,” Cooper said. “It wasn’t changing our structure or our plan. We have to change our attitude and our personality. We felt we could do it.”

The autopsy on that postseason gave BriseBois and Cooper three points of emphasis to address before the team’s next playoff run.

The first was on defense, as Tampa Bay sought to reduce the number of quality chances it faced. That meant protecting the slot better, cutting down on turnovers and reducing the number of minor penalties taken. The Lightning improved on the first two items, even if penalties were still a problem through the postseason.

The second point was game management. Closing out opponents. Protecting leads. Not making the mistake the Lightning made in Game 1 against the Blue Jackets last postseason, when they attempted to win 7-1 after a three-goal first period and instead lost 4-3 to set the wheels of the upset in motion. The Lightning were 41-1-4 when leading after two periods, including 10-0 in the playoffs.

The third point was becoming a team that battles harder, which is what happens when you get your lunch handed to you by a lunch-pail team such as the Blue Jackets. The Lightning sought the services of Patrick Maroon, the “Big Rig” who helped the St. Louis Blues roll to the Stanley Cup in 2019. They signed Zach Bogosian after he was waived by the Sabres. They added Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow at the trade deadline to make their supporting cast more battle-ready.

In the cases of Coleman and Goodrow, that came with a considerable cost.

Darryl Plandowski was assistant director of amateur scouting under BriseBois before he left for a new job with the Arizona Coyotes in September. For him, draft picks were the coin of the realm. To see his general manager trade two first-rounders for what many considered to be depth players at the deadline was … well, interesting, to say the least.

“When you’re with the scouts and you lose all those draft picks at the deadline, you’re like ‘hoo-boy,'” he said with a sigh. “But it worked out. Nobody even cares now.”

It’s customary for contending teams to add depth forwards at the trade deadline. It’s unusual for teams to trade as much as the Lightning did for theirs. BriseBois traded a first-round pick in a package for San Jose’s third-round pick and Goodrow, a forward who hadn’t scored more than eight goals in a season in his six-season NHL career. For Coleman, BriseBois traded prospect Nolan Foote and the first-rounder the Lightning acquired from Vancouver in last summer’s J.T. Miller trade. This was overpayment from a conventional standpoint; from BriseBois’ perspective, it wasn’t.

“My mindset at that point was to be very aggressive in pursuit of the pieces that I believed could give us a strong push forward. It wasn’t just about adding depth to our team. It was about making our team better. All the while, keep an eye on next season, and make sure that we’re a competitive team year in and year out,” said BriseBois, noting the contract term he took on in acquiring Goodrow and Coleman.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time, trade decisions are guided by insuring that we get good value. At this particular juncture, if I had passed up opportunities to give every possible chance to win this season, and we didn’t win the Cup? I felt like I wouldn’t have been able to live down the regret that I would have had.”

BriseBois heard the reaction to the trades at the time. Many applauded the boldness in going for it. Others thought the Lightning overpaid. The general manager saw it as a matter of perceived value vs. actual value.

“If you look at the acquisition cost of Barclay Goodrow, the trade was a late first-round pick for two seasons of Goodrow at a really good cap number and a third-round pick,” he said. “So the difference becomes the probabilities that the player we were going to select with our late first-round pick was going to turn into an NHL player two to four years from now and the probability that the third-round pick ends up being an NHL contributor two to four years down the road. When you frame it that way, I think we ended up getting great value.”

Same deal with the Coleman trade. “The probabilities that the late first-round pick ends up being a top-nine forward like Blake Coleman is less than 50 percent,” he said. “If you have a guy that’s an established top-nine forward, they usually move for more than a late first-round pick.”

The Devils and Sharks used those draft picks in the same week that Goodrow and Coleman lifted the Stanley Cup during a parade of boats in Tampa Bay, having paired with Gourde to create perhaps the best checking line in the NHL postseason. Things worked out OK for BriseBois.

“It was his first run at it. He had a chance to do it himself and implement his own plan. Looking back on it … my god,” said Plandowski, his words trailing off in astonishment.

Yzerman and BriseBois built the machine. BriseBois finally figured out what gears to swap and what repairs to make in order to make it run more efficiently.

Now comes the hard part: Figuring out how to make that machine hum when it has become too expensive to operate at its current capacity.

“Some hard decisions are going to be made,” BriseBois said. “Some players are going to have to be moved out of the organization to reallocate that cap space.”

Julien BriseBois has a lot of fans among NHL general managers, including Bill Zito, the newly appointed GM of the state rival Florida Panthers.

“He’s a really good person. Very caring and very thoughtful. I’m really proud of him and really happy for him,” Zito told ESPN. “He’s a good dude, man.”

Unfortunately for BriseBois, a high Q rating amongst his peers doesn’t translate into a desire to bail him out of the salary-cap prison in which his team resides this offseason.

BriseBois managed his salary cap through what he knew and what he anticipated. He knew that Vasilevskiy’s new contract ballooned his cap figure to $9.5 million beginning next season. He knew that Cirelli, Sergachev and defenseman Erik Cernak were restricted free agents in need of new contracts. He expected that the salary cap would rise to at least $84 million, but the crisis-averting new collective bargaining agreement will keep it flat at $81.5 million for next season. BriseBois believes that because of the economic impact of COVID-19, the cap could be flat for two seasons after that.

The Lightning currently have just under $2.9 million in cap space, factoring in the expected bargain-basement re-signings of Maroon and Luke Schenn. The list of players who could be moved includes Killorn, Gourde and Johnson, all of whom have trade protection.

To get around that, BriseBois made the bold move of putting Tyler Johnson on waivers, allowing any NHL team to claim his contract, which has four years remaining on it at $5 million against the salary cap. Johnson passed through without a claim.

BriseBois said last week that he doesn’t expect the Lightning to “be buying out anyone.” Nor does he think they have any contracts that “we’re going to have to bury in the minors,” which would be another option with Tyler Johnson. In fact, BriseBois said he believe that “every single one of those guys, there will be a market for them” as the Lightning look to open salary-cap space.

“When we make decisions, it’s about the player, the person and the contract. The irony of my predicament is that we have good players, and they’re on good contracts,” BriseBois said.

The Lightning are bottled up by the current hockey economy, but they aren’t a lightning-in-a-bottle team. This was their fourth trip to the Eastern Conference finals in six seasons and their second trip to the Stanley Cup Final in that span. A break here or there, and we could be talking about a team looking to expand a dynasty, rather than one seeking to become the third franchise since 1998 to win back-to-back championships.

“My duty is to increase the odds of the team being successful. Every decision that I’m making [in the offseason] is going to be based on trying to improve the chances that we’ll continue to be a Stanley Cup contender,” BriseBois said.

As the offseason begins, the Lightning are in familiar territory: 7-to-1 favorites to win the Stanley Cup, according to William Hill.

“To win a Cup, the players had to do a lot of hard work. The coaching staff had to make a lot of hard decisions,” BriseBois said. “And now, if we want to win another Cup, it’s my turn to make some hard decisions.”


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Mayweather critical of number of title belts



Floyd Mayweather Jr. is the latest voice to criticize the growing number of championships in boxing.

In an interview ahead of a title fight between Gervonta Davis and Leo Santa Cruz, Mayweather chastised those in boxing for the litany of title belts throughout the sport, especially the sanctioning bodies with multiple champions within a single division.

“This is not good for the sport of boxing,” Mayweather said in an interview with Showtime. “Now when a fighter fights, every fighter is a champion.”

There are four major recognized sanctioning bodies: the WBA, WBO, IBF and WBC. The WBA has “super” versions of its belt, one of which is held by Davis (23-0, 22 KOs) heading into his fight against Santa Cruz (37-1, 19 KOs). Mayweather admitted that even his promotional company deserves blame for the trend.

The former pound-for-pound champion’s comments came less than a week after a lightweight unification bout between Teofimo Lopez and Vasiliy Lomachenko. Lopez, who won via unanimous decision, was billed as the undisputed champion because the WBC’s franchise belt was at stake. However, ESPN recognizes Devin Haney as the WBC’s top 135-pounder.

In an interview with The Athletic, WBC president Mauricio Sulaiman claimed Lomachenko-Lopez wouldn’t have happened and would have been less lucrative without the WBC franchise belt. Sulaiman defended the organization’s practices.

“I am proud to have a designation for those who are really the driving forces of boxing,” Sulaiman said.

Others have disagreed with the system that has created significant confusion among boxing fans. Mayweather argued that the main reason for the multiple belts is for sanctioning bodies such as the WBC and the WBA to collect more money on sanctioning fees.

“Ain’t no such thing as super champion,” Mayweather said. “You guys are just taking extra money from all these fighters (by) getting extra money from sanctioning fees.”

Unlike major sports, boxing lacks a single unified governing body to create rules and regulations. Those tasks are typically left up to the state athletic commissions and organizations such as the WBC. With his latest comments, Mayweather has joined the growing group of voices concerned about where things are heading.

“We gotta clean the sport of boxing up,” Mayweather said. “This don’t look good.”


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Sources: Ravens looking at Dez Bryant again



The Baltimore Ravens are planning to bring in wide receiver Dez Bryant for evaluation, and if he’s a fit they would sign him to their practice squad, sources confirmed to ESPN’s Ed Werder Thursday.

The move to the practice squad would give Bryant a chance to get in game shape, sources said, adding that the team thinks he can help as a physical presence.

The Ravens have been courting the 31-year-old Bryant for years. He worked out for the team back in August but left without a deal.

Bryant is attempting to become the second Pro Bowl wide receiver to miss two full seasons and then to the NFL since the 1970 merger (Josh Gordon was the first), according to the Elias Sports Bureau. He hasn’t played in a game since December 2017.

The Ravens attempted to sign Bryant in April 2018. However, he turned down a multiyear offer from the team then because he wanted a one-year deal and a chance to prove himself, in hopes of getting a bigger long-term deal in 2019, according to Werder.

Bryant signed a one-year, $1.25 million deal with the New Orleans Saints in November 2018. But he tore an Achilles tendon during his first practice with the Saints and has been out of the NFL since.

Bryant’s 531 career receptions would be the most by any wide receiver before missing two full seasons and then returning to the NFL, according to Elias.

The NFL Network first reported the Ravens’ latest interest in Bryant.

Information from ESPN’s Jamison Hensley was used in this report.


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How did figure skaters prepare for Skate America during a pandemic? It wasn’t easy



After months of being joined at the hip, ice dancers Caroline Green and Michael Parsons found themselves cut off from each other from March until June of this year, living with their families 15 minutes apart in Rockville, Maryland, during the initial wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The spring and early summer are normally crucial building-block times for ice dance and pairs teams constructing new programs as they choose new music and work on choreography. Green and Parsons didn’t want to lose momentum in just their second season as a duo at the senior level, so they were diligent about doing fitness workouts led by their coaches via Zoom. Parsons built a contraption to do pullups and inverted situps in his backyard, and used a downed tree limb for shoulder presses.

Staying in shape artistically was a different matter. Parsons and Green had decided they wanted to change up the music for their short program, or rhythm dance. So Green applied an old adage: She danced with the one who brought her, persuading her older brother and former partner Gordon to serve as a stand-in until she could train with Parsons again.

It wasn’t as simple as it sounds. Sure, the siblings had skated together for 10 years and won the 2019 junior national championship, but Gordon had since left the sport and was looking ahead to his freshman year of college. And the required pattern for the rhythm dance this season isn’t the easiest romp around the rink. It’s the Finnstep, a showy ballroom quickstep that, as stated on ice-dance.com, calls for “very crisp and tidy timing as well as footwork.”

“I do not know all of the boys’ steps, so it was kind of just a lot of trial and error,” Caroline Green said, laughing. “There was no video, thank goodness. I’m sure it was a little rough. Some of the things I tried — oooh, they didn’t quite work.”

In some ways, elite U.S. ice dancers and pairs skaters were no different from millions of people worldwide who adapted to taking movement classes via Zoom or other video applications. But there was one important difference. The skaters eventually had to transfer those remotely taught dance moves, intricate step sequences and lifts — the athletic maneuvers that are often the highlight of programs — to their far more slippery workplace.

The steps that worked as they slid around hardwood floors in their socks, or the flips they practiced in the backyard, didn’t necessarily fly once they got back on the ice. Imagine water polo players training on grass. It’s just not quite the same.

The programs that U.S. dance and pairs teams will debut for a national television audience at Skate America (Friday through Sunday, NBCSN) at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas — the first major event in a truncated international figure skating season — are the product of innovation born of necessity and aided by technology.

Dallas-area pairs skaters Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc assembled new short and long programs despite not having seen their choreographer, Michigan-based Pasquale Camerlengo, in person since last season. Normally, the 2019 national champions would work together on the ice for at least two weeks, with periodic checkups and fine-tunings throughout the season.

“Having to look at what they’re doing on a small screen or a computer, sometimes with bad wi-fi, and then they have to see how you’re interpreting that over a small screen, and doing all of this on the floor, so you’re not even on the same medium … oof, it was challenging,” LeDuc said. “It was definitely very outside our comfort zone. When we started, I would have been like, ‘You’re crazy, that’s never gonna happen, how on earth would we do that?’ And here we are.”

Now that they have journeyed this far, actual competition will test the athletes in a different way. Performing in an empty arena will deprive the skaters of the crowd energy they normally feed off. But the show is going on, and they are troupers, as recent months demonstrate.

For many top skaters, this season began abruptly with the end of the previous one, as the 2020 world championships in Montreal were canceled a week out.

Veteran ice dancers Madison Chock and Evan Bates had been looking forward to competing in the city that has been their training base since mid-2018.

“The pandemic took us off the ice for the longest time since we started skating,” Chock said. Both began competing as young children and have since been selected for two Olympic teams together. (Bates made a third with an earlier partner.) “Not having that build and release and letdown after the competition — we were so ready and primed to compete, and to have to go into lockdown right after that was very strange. Our bodies were a bit confused.”

During the three months she and Bates were unable to access ice and unsure of when they might compete again, they found themselves relying on their longtime choreographer and dance coach at the Ice Academy of Montreal, Sam Chouinard, for technique and inspiration.

“Sam is the most energetic person I’ve ever met,” Bates said. “He’s like, “HEY GUYS OK WE’RE GONNA DO THIS.” The couple laughed.

Chouinard, who said he learned an enormous amount from teaching remotely, has since treated himself to what he calls a “Britney mic” — the same type of cordless headset favored by Britney Spears in concert — so his exhortations can be heard above music on a video call. His attitude helped Chock and Bates through some tedium as they danced in the entryway near their kitchen, or practiced lifts in a space thankfully high-ceilinged enough not to endanger her head.

“Prior to COVID we would have said that’s kind of silly, but we just got used to it,” Bates said. “Our norms have changed so much.”

While Chock and Bates elected to stay put in Canada, fellow ice dancers and Montreal academymates Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker moved in with her family in Buffalo. They began working on new programs almost immediately in Zoom sessions with Chouinard and their main coach, Marie-France Dubreuil.

Two-time U.S. bronze medalists Hawayek and Baker caught a break with ice time when a Buffalo rink was allowed to reopen early in order to convert one ice sheet into a daycare center for children of essential workers. The team was able to rent ice while staying sufficiently distanced from others in the building. Still, they faced the issue of being physically separated from their coach and choreographer and communicating exclusively via Zoom.

“Usually the cycles of feedback we go through, we’re always incorporating what other people want to see in our programs. We haven’t dealt with that, so everything we’ve put into this is us. Which I think is a really cool thing.” Michael Parsons, ice dancer with partner Caroline Green

Working on their own and consulting frequently with their coaches, Hawayek and Baker gradually built confidence. It was the first time they’d ever had that much input in a competitive program, although they had choreographed their own exhibition numbers.

They had a useful tool provided by the federation — an auto-follow camera system called Move N See, which can be used with smartphones or tablets that sync with a watch worn on the ice. The system tracks from multiple spots around the rink and enabled Dubreuil to give the skaters feedback in real time from the big screen in her living room.

“We would record ourselves doing the same movement three different ways, from different angles, and be inspired by the work we did in Zoom on the floor and try to make it ours on the ice,” Hawayek said.

She and Baker moved back to Montreal in June and, after an obligatory 14-day quarantine, reunited with Dubreuil on the ice in early July — properly distanced, of course. The result? A modified version of their previous season’s disco-themed rhythm dance (2 minutes, 40 seconds) and an entirely new four-minute free dance program skated to the music of Philip Glass and Blondie.

“What you can see on video sometimes is deceiving, sometimes it’s great and sometimes it’s not,” Hawayek said. “Marie-France was very happy seeing only a two-dimensional view with this camera, that it worked out well in a three-dimensional way when we got here.

“We got to bring our own flair and creativity to the work. We kind of took the reins a little bit in our career in a way.”

Green and Parsons echoed that sentiment.

“I think it’s made these programs more ours, if that makes sense,” Parsons said. “Usually the cycles of feedback we go through, we’re always incorporating what other people want to see in our programs. We haven’t dealt with that, so everything we’ve put into this is us. Which I think is a really cool thing. These programs feel very genuine.”

Cain-Gribble and LeDuc livened up their at-home training with help from husband-and-wife skaters Robin Johnstone and Andy Buchanan, who have performed with Cirque du Soleil. With their instruction, Cain-Gribble and LeDuc incorporated walkovers — where Cain exits a lift by putting her hands on the ice and flipping over into their new programs.

The pairs took advantage of sunny spring weather in Dallas to try some lifts and throws in a grassy yard, and posted one Instagram video of Cain-Gribble spinning airborne over LeDuc’s outstretched arms on a concrete sidewalk outside their home.

Indoors, “we were on a hardwood floor in our socks so we could kind of shoosh around and do our best to fake ice-skate,” LeDuc said. “Everything on ice relies on speed and how we’re using the space that we have. On the floor, you can’t predict how many pushes you need, how long it will take. When we finally got back on the ice, there were times it was like, ‘We’re gonna have to retool this.’ Other parts we predicted perfectly.”

As assiduous as they’d been about trying to simulate skating, cold reality awaited when their rink reopened. “You’re super excited and you have all this adrenaline to skate, and you’re doing your jumps and everything feels good,” Cain-Gribble said. “Then a week went by. My body hurt, everything’s hurting. We had no idea what was coming next. You train, and you don’t know what you’re training for.”

Charlie White, the 2014 Olympic ice dance champion and 2010 Olympic silver medalist with his partner Meryl Davis, has choreographed programs for all levels since he retired but stepped back from the sport in this strange year. “I would want to be able to be present,” he said. “There’s nuance that comes from the physical participation of the choreographers. I really feel for those who are pushing through this.”

The 2020-21 international figure skating season keeps shrinking as the pandemic continues its global spread.

The Grand Prix series, normally six events that winnow the field for a final, is down to four after the Canadian and French skating federations canceled events in those countries. Skaters will compete in just one event apiece on their home continents in North America, Europe and Asia. Chinese officials have indefinitely postponed the Grand Prix final originally scheduled for Beijing in December. The U.S. championships in San Jose, California, in mid-January and the world championships slated for Stockholm in March are still on.

Chock and Bates never stopped trying to make the best of their situation, but karma didn’t always cooperate. An injury to Chock sidelined the duo for two weeks this past summer, and they had to retreat to their home for another two weeks of total quarantine after learning they had been exposed to COVID-19. (Neither tested positive or became ill.)

They had made good progress on their free dance for the 2020-21 season, but didn’t feel it was competition-ready this month — and traveling to Las Vegas for Skate America would have meant yet another 14 days of quarantine back in Montreal when they returned. Chock and Bates withdrew and will continue training with the goal of defending their national title in January. They also decided to table their new free dance and compete with the same two programs as last year.

“Being an athlete at this level means being adaptable and being comfortable with discomfort — the difference here is managing not knowing,” Bates said. “The unknown is greater than it ever has been. It takes a lot of commitment and faith to continue to put everything into the preparation with that unknown looming. But we still feel very motivated.”

Top U.S. skaters had a dress rehearsal of sorts for the closed-door competition at Skate America, in the form of a virtual event held by U.S. Figure Skating last month. More than 100 junior- and senior-level athletes performed programs in their home rinks and sent videos to a judging panel. Prize money was awarded and the placements factored into slots at Skate America and the national championships. In videos posted on the federation’s website, a single clap is sometimes the only reaction.

Skaters are used to doing run-throughs in near-vacant rinks, but it’s the absence of facial feedback, even from their coaches, that affects them most.

“You don’t see much when the face is covered,” Baker said. “I understand it’s for safety and that’s great, but it was very different for us. You look at them and smile and try and perform, and you’re not getting anything back. It’s something we need to work with and learn from, and imagine a smile underneath.”

Artistic and theatrical elements are a major part of figure skating. Part of the job description is to emote, tell a story through a program and project energy — unlike football, baseball and basketball players who have the luxury of executing without having to worry about their expressions or staying in character.

“What I told them is even if we can’t see them, know there’s a lot of people watching,” Chouinard said. “‘Dig into your memories of previous competition. Look at YouTube. Picture that feeling before you go on the ice. You’re backstage, you hear the crowd … be led by that feeling.’ But that’s easy to say, and not easy to do.”

Parsons said he always tries to perform in a way that will reach “the farthest audience member in the arena. Now, that will be anyone online.”

His partner is also looking for the upside on their end of what has become a season of remote learning. “It almost encourages us to be twice as big and twice as bright on the ice, because if you aren’t super expressive, some of that might not translate through the camera,” Green said. “We’ll have to step up our game.”


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