TORONTO – When CBC’s “Battle of the Blades” debuted nearly two years ago, the dare-devil premise of pairing former NHLers with figure skaters seemed destined for disaster.
The weekly competition made clear from the get-go it would not shy away from dazzling on-ice tricks, as beefy hockey players including Tie Domi and Stephane Richer performed tricky feats such as two-handed press lifts.
The danger of such stunts was driven home at the beginning of the inaugural season when Richer’s partner, Marie-France Dubreuil, slipped from his sweaty hands—head first—during rehearsal. She seemed to recover quickly enough to proceed with the show, but later said that fall resulted in a concussion with effects that lingered for months.
After skipping out on Season 2, Dubreuil said she’s eager to be part of Season 3 this September, although with some conditions.
“I will do lifts, but (nothing) head down,” Dubreuil said this week, admitting to having qualms about risky tricks.
“There are so many elements that we can choose…. And with head down (elements), you have the skirt upside down and it’s not always pretty so I’m just not going to do it,” she added, laughing.
Dubreuil, who had a baby with ice dancer husband Patrice Lauzon during her break from the show, said it took a long time for her to recover from the fall, which was not televised.
“I suffered a massive concussion and I felt it for nine months,” she said.
“It was pretty dramatic… but I also learned a lot about that experience. These guys are so athletic and strong that I felt very safe doing all these lifts but they don’t know how to recover a bad situation. If it goes wrong, they don’t know how to save it so that’s something that the girls have to keep in mind.”
Last year, too, had its share of mishaps—Anabelle Langlois accidentally kicked partner Georges Laraque in the head during a rehearsal, and Theo Fleury dropped Jamie Sale during a televised performance.
Co-host Kurt Browning said the show is wary of pushing things too far as it heads into a third season.
“We are a little bit more cautious,” Browning said.
“I think there’s more off-ice lifting than there was in the first season. It’s really easy to make it look easy, because these guys are super strong and in our sport it’s not dangerous until something goes wrong…. We have to respect the ability of these guys but also respect the fact that something could go wrong. And no upside down stuff.”
“Battle of the Blades” returns to CBC on Sept. 18 with new contestants including former Calgary Flame and Nashville Predator Cale Hulse and ice dancer Tanith Belbin. Browning said the full cast has yet to be set.
Hulse said he expects to embarrass himself on national television when he debuts on the competition series, which typically makes light of macho skaters with kitschy outfits and tongue-in-cheek routines.
He’s much more worried about being responsible for an injury.
“I don’t want to hurt anybody, that’s my biggest fear,” said Hulse.
Browning said no lifts will be attempted if it requires the skater to turn or move backwards. He said that’s a rule the show implemented from the very beginning and is key to keeping competitors safe.
“It’s when the blades are turning that the blade can get sideways and clip the ice and that’s where the falls take place,” Browning explained.
“When they lift the girls there’s only gliding and that’s the rule that we set in place. It takes years to learn how to do what we call footwork to a level where you can pick up a girl and turn. Even if I picked up one of the girls and turned I would be super aware of what my feet are doing. And I’ve been doing this for a long time.”
Returning judge Sandra Bezic, who will be joined by Jeremy Roenick and a rotating series of guest judges, notes that Dubreuil and Lauzon did some advance preparations for Season 1 in Montreal and may have been over-confident going into the competition.
“I think they were a little too ambitious in what they were asking Stephane to do,” Bezic said, adding that sweat was actually the biggest factor in causing the accident.
“It was a new situation where he wasn’t actually making a technical error, it was a situation where he slipped. That was the same thing with Georges and Anabelle—in their first accident it was because of perspiration and they just slipped. That’s an accident that can almost happen anytime.”
Bezic said “Skating 101” for the players begins mid-July and training starts at the end of August. Bezic said the priority is everyone’s safety.
“We’re just getting better at explaining things to the players, perhaps, but there’s always risks,” she said.
Despite the dangers, Browning said that doesn’t mean performances would be scaled back.
“If anything, it’s going to be even crazier,” he said, noting that the athletes are competitive by nature.
“Last year (Ekaterina Gordeeva) was doing a throw double flip and a throw double flip is not super-hard but we had a hockey player putting a girl up into the air—she’s flying 14 or 15 feet across the ice and he has to put her straight.”
“Maybe somebody might try a triple (this season) but I kind of hope not.”
“Battle of the Blades” returns Sept. 18 on CBC-TV.
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version stated that Shae-Lynn Bourne, Violetta Afanasieva and Anabelle Langlois were confirmed to return in Season 3.