Novi — Two nights of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics will feel a bit like skate night in Metro Detroit.
Nine ice dance couples competing in South Korea were either born and raised in the area or have spent considerable time training in the figure skating hub.
The local skating clubs began resonating internationally in the sport at its highest levels in the 1960s when Gary Visconti of Detroit won the U.S. Championship twice, and Tim Wood, of Highland Park, won two World Championships and the silver medal at the 1968 Grenoble Winter Olympics.
Visconti and Wood trained at the Detroit Skating Club.
“Well, the programs were great before our generation,” said Madison Hubbell, who met her Olympic ice dance partner, Zachary Donohue, at the club in 2011, at its site for the last 40 years, in Bloomfield Hills.
Hubbell of Okemos, who now lives in Ann Arbor, and Donohue are the 2018 U.S. champions .
“There aren’t that many schools of coaches, and it takes really dedicated teams to make athletes in figure skating,” Hubbell said.
“Unlike other sports, where it seems like there’s a lot of different training centers that are amazing and so many choices, and most people don’t train with their rivals, skating is a little different.
“We go to wherever we need to, to get the best attention. And for whatever the reason, it seemed like for the last two decades, Detroit was really the hot spot.”
Much of the lure of the local figure skating centers, including the Artic Edge Ice Arena in Canton and the Novi Ice Arena, is the coaches.
When two outstanding coaches from Russia, Marina Zueva, a former Olympic ice dancer, and Igor Shpilband, decamped to Michigan in the 1990s, they set up operations and have remained.
“We’ve been based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for the past 10 years,” said Maia Shibutani, who trains with her brother, Alex, in Canton.
“A lot of what drew us to the state was the coaching, and we’ve been with our head coach Marina Zueva. We have a really great setup with our coaches, the rink we are at, and it’s led to the growth and success for us, over the years.
“There’s great history of ice dance in the Michigan area, and that was definitely one of our initial draws,” Shibutani said. “It’s exciting that as a state it’s continuing it.”
Defending Olympic champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who also live in Ann Arbor and trained in Canton with Zueva, announced last year they will not defend their gold medal.
Despite a stumble by Maia at the U.S. Championships last month, Zueva said her longtime students are ready for their second Olympic performances.
The coach certainly knows the Shibutanis, and the hours of training at the Arctic Edge in her International Skating Academy.
“Well, almost 11 years, that’s a lot,” Zueva said of their abiding relationship, which included great achievement at first, before a developmental lull eventually yielded to more medals the past few years.
“It’s been a little up and down. But it’s made them stronger and it’s made them smarter.
“Like, you learn the way you go from cold to hot,” she said. “They grew stronger from that.”
Zueva has lived in Michigan for nearly 30 years. Her son, Fedor Andreev, also a figure skater, attended the University of Michigan, where Davis, White, the Shibutanis and another Olympic ice dancer, Evan Bates, all have been students.
Andreev and Davis are engaged.
Zueva will coach a second ice dance team, representing Japan, in the Olympics. They train in Canton, also.
Shpilband and Zueva were partners until 2011.
In Novi, Shpilband coaches five teams of ice dancers who will compete in PyeongChang, including Madison Chock and Bates, representing the United States, and teams from Great Britain, Ukraine, the Czech Republic and South Korea.
Hubbell and Donohue, the Shibutanis, and Chock and Bates all finished within a half-point in San Jose at the U.S. nationals, and Shpilband said the Olympics will be fascinating.
He likes Chock and Bates’ chances for a medal.
“This Olympic cycle was a really great experience for them,” Shpilband said. “After skating in Sochi, the following year they won the U.S. title. And they were second in the world, they were third in the world, they were gold medalists a couple of times (in other international events).
“So, they’ve become one of the top teams in the world. It’s put them in a little different position, now, going to these Olympic games.”
Three Olympic games ago, before 2010 in Vancouver, Zueva and Shpilband both also coached the outstanding Canadian couple Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir in Canton.
Four years later, Virtue and Moir announced they were leaving Zueva to train in Montreal with coaches Marie-France Dubreuil, Patrice Lauzon and Romain Haguenauer at the Montreal International School of Skating.
It is where Hubbell and Donohue also now train.
The recent moves to Montreal set up a close international competition with the Detroit area schools.
After Davis and White broke the Olympic record to edge Virtue and Moir for the gold medal in Sochi, Virtue and Moir hope to reclaim gold, which they won in the event in 2010 in Vancouver.
Their competition with Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France, who train in Montreal, has determined the recent events in which the two teams have entered and is considered likely to determine the gold and silver medal winners in PyeongChang.
The Shibutanis, Hubbell and Donohue, and Chock and Bates are likely to skate for bronze.
Watching the top two teams, it is evident, in part from their easy grace, they are a step above the other competition.
“I think that whenever Gabby and Guillaume take the ice, there’s such a purity to their skating,” Chock said, who lives and trains in Novi, after growing up in California.
“It really embodies what I feel skating should feel like. It’s so effortless and they have such fun, and they are so at ease when they skate. To watch them skate is always just breathtaking.
“And then you have Scott and Tessa. I mean, legendary. Their connection and their ability to portray characters and portray the music is just phenomenal. I can’t say enough good things about them because I’ve had the pleasure of training with them for many years when I was younger, and when we all skated in Canton together.
“And their work ethic is just phenomenal. They are two of the hardest people I have ever met, and that’s really inspiring.”
For Bates, the separation among the teams is clear, but the contest remains to be skated.
“Those two teams have really established themselves as the best of the best and the elite of the elite,” said Bates, who was born in Ann Arbor and graduated from Huron High School and, in 2013, from Michigan. “They’ve separated themselves from the rest of us.
“It’s going to be really interesting,” he said. “It’s going to be really exciting, to see what happens in South Korea.”
Live at 6 a.m. at NBCOlympics.com
Rebroadcast at 8 p.m. on NBC