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Reality show pairs jocks with figure skaters

Underhill, Brasseur, Sale, Hough to skate with ex-hockey stars

Jamie Sale (left) will be pairing with a new partner in the upcoming reality series <i>Battle of the Blades</i>.
Jamie Sale (left) will be pairing with a new partner in the upcoming reality series Battle of the Blades. (Getty Images)

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By Laurie Nealin, special to icenetwork.com
(08/12/2009) - Canada's first ladies of pairs figure skating, two of its retired queens of ice dance, and a veteran of Britain's Dancing on Ice, will all be skating with new partners this fall -- although only temporarily.

Jamie Salé, Barbara Underhill, Isabelle Brasseur, Christine "Tuffy" Hough-Sweeney, Jodeyne Higgins, Shae-Lynn Bourne, Marie-France Dubreuil and Kristina Lenko could have their work cut out for them as they pair up with eight former pro hockey players from various NHL teams -- who may or may not be wearing hockey skates -- when CBC-TV's on-ice, reality show Battle of the Blades debuts October 4.

Over the course of seven weeks, viewers at home and a panel of judges headed by master choreographer Sandra Bezic will decide which of the women has done the best job of molding her former stickhandling, shoulder-pad wearing hockey jock into a lithe, if not graceful, skating partner capable of lifting and spinning in tandem and generally sashaying across the ice to music. The shows, hosted by Kurt Browning and veteran CBC sportscaster Ron MacLean, will be performed in a Toronto area arena for a live audience.

The winning couple in the elimination-style competition earns $100,000 for the charity or charities of their choice. Each eliminated pair receives $25,000. The winners will be crowned November 16.

In the country where almost every Canadian-born youngster laces on skates -- with or without picks -- sometime during their elementary school years, CBC is counting on the figure skater-hockey player match-ups to grab the public's attention as the Olympic season gets underway.

Bezic admits that the first question the men asked when they were approached to participate was: "Am I going to look like an idiot?"

Understandably, none of them wanted to risk ridicule by agreeing to trade their hockey jerseys for something a little more stylish -- and perhaps sparkly. Bezic points out none of the women were interested in looking foolish either.

"That's not what this show is about. It's not about making fun of them, or skating...I've assured [the men] that we won't ask anyone to wear something they don't want to wear or have to skate to anything they don't want to. It's just not where we're coming from," said Bezic, who has been tasked with developing the concept in conjunction with sports agent Kevin Albrecht, who came up with the idea for the show.

"We were coming at it from a more sports kind of approach and figuring athletes are usually up for a challenge, and we would chose people who came at it with that kind of attitude," added Bezic, who will again join NBC's Olympic figure skating broadcast team for the 2010 Games.

"Since they found out about it, they've all started training to get into shape and decide which skates they are going to use. So, it's three or four months of their time, energy and nerves."

Some of the BotB participants had their first chance to test out the show concept last month at a one-day boot camp in Toronto where Underhill's and Hough's respective real partners Paul Martini and Doug Ladret helped the men adjust to the foreign toe-picks on their blades.

Ladret, who coaches national competitors in Scottsdale, Ariz., also borrowed a pair of Martini's son's hockey skates to demonstrate that figure skating moves could be done wearing hockey footwear. To prove his case, Ladret and Hough exhibited small lifts, death spirals and the showstopping headbanger spin -- which is not allowed in regulation competition -- while he was wearing the borrowed skates.

Ladret believes some of the men will elect to stick with their hockey skates while others, who did not come to hate their toe-picked blades, will make the switch to figure skates. For some at the boot camp who complained the toe-picks kept tripping them up, the obliging Ladret filed off the bottom pick to solve that problem.

Bezic, who won five Canadian pairs title with her brother Val in the early 1970s, said she would love it if the men stuck with their hockey skates. "I know there are limitations with lifting and so on, but I think it opens up a whole new way of skating to music and interpreting ideas. To me that's the most fun and the most challenging, but [the choice of skates] is completely up to them and their partners."

Official training for BotB begins in September, although the hockey players vowed to work on their figure skating game in advance of that start. Who is paired with whom will be announced in September, although it is known that those decisions will be based on geography to make it easy to schedule practice time. For example, Montreal-based Dubreuil would be paired with a player who lives in that city, while Sale's partner will likely be Edmonton-based.

Bezic reports that some of Canada's best choreographers, coaches and sports trainers are available to the eight couples, but she cannot predict how difficult their programs ultimately will be.

"This has never been done before so we have no idea. They were able to do some pretty cool things [at the boot camp], but we really don't know. The bottom line is everybody can skate so they can fly across the ice. That will be fun in itself but it's really going to be this huge experiment.

"We also want to see the connection between partners. I think that's what the public really loves most about ice dancing and pairs skating and something that these guys have never experienced...Their entire DNA is set to react to the situation [in a game], and now, this will be trained and rehearsed and repeated with someone," said Bezic, noting that the players were impressed with the strength and power of the diminutive women they met at boot camp.

"They all came off the ice saying, 'We don't want to let our partners down. We have to really work now.' Every single one had such incredible respect for the women and what they do."

The hockey players participating include legendary enforcers Bob Probert and Tie Domi, who was once spotted in the audience at an Elvis Stojko tour show in Winnipeg, player-turned-hockey-broadcaster Craig Simpson, six-time Stanley Cup winner Glenn Anderson and double winner Stephane Richer. Three others were to be announced today.

"You know, under all these tough guys' armor, they're a bunch of pussycats," Bezic chuckled.

"I think it's so cool that these guys are willing to go out on a limb and put themselves in a vulnerable place. The women are spectacular. I think it's inspiring. They're not all young. They have fully-baked lives, so they're interesting people...We, in production, don't want to stand in the way of what their potential is."

The performance shows on Sundays will be one hour or longer, while the Monday results broadcasts are a half-hour. What impact being up against Amazing Race on Sundays and Dancing with the Stars on Mondays in some markets will have on viewership remains to be seen. Both American shows are extremely popular in Canada and air on rival Canadian networks.