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No rules, no limits to ABC's "Thin Ice"

Just serve us up some entertainment, say judges

Iconic skater Katarina Witt serves as one of the judges on ABC's "Thin Ice."
Iconic skater Katarina Witt serves as one of the judges on ABC's "Thin Ice." (Getty Images)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(03/10/2010) - Dick Button just wants to have fun.

Button -- still the only man to win the Olympic men's figure skating title twice (1948 and 1952) -- watched the action at the Vancouver Games and is a bit crotchety about the International Judging System (IJS), which he thinks puts too many limits on skaters and choreographers.

"You can be creative anywhere," Button said. "Of course, we saw some elements of creativity at the Olympics . . . we also saw repetitive moves like pulling your foot over your head again and again, and not doing it very well."

Maybe that's why Button, who pioneered professional skating competition with his annual World Professional Championships ("Landover") in 1973, is trying his hand as a judge for ABC's upcoming Thin Ice, to be broadcast Friday, March 19th, 8 - 9 pm ET and Saturday, March 21st, 7 - 8 pm ET.

Along with fellow Olympic gold medalists Kristi Yamaguchi (1992) and Katarina Witt (1984 and 1988), Button will critique five unlikely pairings: Shae-Lynn Bourne and John Zimmerman; Marie-France Dubreuil and Michael Weiss; Jamie Salé and Patrice Lauzon; Elena Berezhnaya and David Pelletier; and Shizuka Arakawa and Stéphane Lambiel, making his pro debut here following a fourth-place finish in Vancouver.

Elizabeth Hasselback of The View and four-time Canadian world champion Kurt Browning will co-host. The judging will be split between viewer votes via www.abc.com (50%) and the judging panel (50%).

Choreographers for the couples range from David Wilson, creator of Yu-Na Kim's Olympic-winning programs, to Mark Ballas, who partnered Yamaguchi during her winning stint on Dancing with the Stars, and Fatima Robinson, hip hop choreographer for groups including the Black-eyed Peas. Eight-time British champion Steven Cousins will choreograph for real-life partner Berezhnaya and her (temporary) on-ice partner, Pelletier.

"The surprising and striking thing for me is how competitive the skaters are, and how seriously they're taking everything," Terry O'Neil, Thin Ice's executive producer, said.

"They've come to win and compete, and the creative juices are really flowing. The judging is simple; the criteria is, entertain us."

O'Neil added that Button told him that while researching for his latest commentary gig, he came across a 300-page ISU judging manual.

"No, it was 3,000 pages," Button tartly corrected.

Despite the lack of red tape, all three judges say Thin Ice isn't a lark; prize money is at stake, and they expect to be wowed with some unique performances.

"This is an avenue where skaters can freely express themselves," Yamaguchi said. "We could see moves they would never do at the Olympics, whether that means back flips, or just being a couple on the ice and playing off of each other and letting their personalities shine through."

When Yamaguchi competed on Dancing with the Stars, lifts were not permitted until the final performances. With no such rule for Thin Ice, the teams with male pair skaters Pelletier and Zimmerman seem to have an obvious advantage.

"We're not expecting Stephane Lambiel to lift Shizuka Arakawa over his head," Button said.

"If Pelletier and Berezhnaya do something really entertaining, then of course the wow factor is going to play into it," Yamaguchi conceded.

"[But] Lambiel and Arakawa may do something amazing, with a wow factor, as well," Button added.

Vocal music, spotlights and colored lighting, anything goes. Button pointed out the skaters are even permitted to "die" on the ice, which prompted a few reflections from Witt, who famously expired at the end of her Carmen free skate in 1988.

"It's a different [judging] system today," Witt, who worked in Vancouver as a commentator for German TV, said. "It's four minutes of connecting points, one to another, and different levels [of difficulty]. One thing, I wouldn't get any points for interacting with the audience, the way I did [in Carmen].

"I always say it is a different time, and you cannot compare [skating] now with the 1980s. I never compared the 80s to the 60s. This year, for the first time, I felt like the system was working, but somehow yes, you do lose a little bit of creativity."

Witt, Yamaguchi and Button insist they won't be swayed by the live audience into giving crowd favorites higher marks. And skaters beware: Button sounds like he might be the Simon Cowell of the panel.

"Certainly, I have every intention of communicating what I think is right, and what is wrong," he said. "I'd like very much to be able to be honest with what happens, and not sugarcoat it."

Yamaguchi, not surprisingly, sounds like she might be a tad less acerbic.

"There are two nights of competition, so certainly the first night, I want to saw something constructive they can think about for the second night," she said.

"We have a very high level of skaters here; I'm sure I'm not going to have anything too terrible to say about them."

Witt said that while she planned to "call it the way she sees it," she's glad she's not the one on the hot seat.

"I think I might enjoy skating, but I wouldn't like to sit in the middle and get comments," she said. "I would just like to be the one sitting down and enjoying the performances."

Asked for early favorites, the judges had diverse opinions.

"I have high expectations for Berezhnaya and Pelletier because they share a [pairs] gold medal [2002], although they competed against each other," Yamaguchi said.

"Another one is Marie-France Dubreuil and Michael Weiss. They look amazing together; it will be fun to see what they come up with."

"Don't count out Lambiel and Arakawa," Button said. "Each of whom has his or her own distinct, rather elegant style. I'm really looking forward to see what they do. It's an original combination."