Canadian long track speed skating team starts season this weekend

Cindy Klassen of Winnipeg isn’t the only notable absentee from the Canadian long track speed skating team that heads to Europe for the World Cup season opener this weekend November 8-9 in Hamar, Norway.

Klassen, the world all around champion last year and the 1,500-metre World Cup champion, is out until at least January after being involved in a freak training accident that required extensive surgery on her right arm.

However medal hopes for the Canadian women’s team are still high in the middle and distance events (1,500, 3,000 and 5,000 metres) with veterans Clara Hughes of Winnipeg and Kristina Groves of Ottawa, both coming off the best seasons of their careers. Hughes won gold in the 5,000 at the world all around championships last season and took second spot in the World Cup 3,000/5,000 metre standings.

"Cindy’s absence doesn’t put more pressure on the rest of us," said Hughes, who retired from cycling this year to focus solely on speed skating. "We’re certainly going to miss her. But the season is just starting, it’s a long year and we’re a long way from the Olympics. Right now we’re ready to skate fast and skate hard."

Groves, 26, posted a fourth place finish overall at the all around worlds, the best performance of her career.

"The last few years, I've been progressing very steadily," Groves said. "Not by massive jumps, just slow, steady improvement. But last year, I learned how to be more of a racer. I’m a little more confident this year."

Also skating for the women are promising youngsters Tara Risling of Medicine Hat, Alta., and Tiffany Hughes of Kingston, Ont.

The men’s middle and long distance team (1,500, 5,000 and 10,000 metres) team will have a different look.

Kevin Marshall of Coquitlam, B.C., a medallist at the world all around championships last year retired while Mark Knoll of Regina has taken a year-off to focus on cycling and marathon speed skating. Dustin Molicki of Calgary, a two-time World Cup medallist, is working on his fitness and plans to race in the second half of the season and Olympic team member Arne Dankers of Calgary is out with a knee injury.

Steven Elm of Red Deer, Alta., and Jason Parker of Yorkton, Sask., both international medallists, are joined in Hamar by Philippe Marois, 23, of Charlesbourg, Que., and national development team members Jay Morrison of Fort St. John, B.C., and Jeff Kitura of Calgary.

"We’re going to miss those guys so we have a big challenge ahead," said Elm, 28, a two-time Olympian. "Jason and I will definitely have a role in trying to help the younger guys out. Personally I’m feeling very strong and I’m confident that I can skate fast and perform."

Other World Cup events for the middle distance and distance skaters are November 14-16 in Erfurt, Germany, November 21-23 in Heerenveen, the Netherlands, February 20-22 in Inzell, Germany and February 27-29 in Heerenveen.

The all around worlds are February 7-8 in Hamar and the world single distance championships March 12-14 in Seoul. The Canadian championships are January 2-5 in Calgary.

The Canadian long track sprinters featuring World Cup and world champion Jeremy Wotherspoon of Red Deer start their World Cup season December 6-7 in Calgary.

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