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Figure skaters, former NHLers gear up for CBC-TV's 'Battle of the Blades'

TORONTO - "Hockey Night in Canada" loudmouth Don Cherry will be among the celebrity judges assessing the axel jumps and death spirals that former figure skaters and NHL players plan to unleash on the reality series, "Battle of the Blades," says "Blades" co-host Ron MacLean.

MacLean says his "Hockey Night in Canada" partner is a big fan of figure skating, insisting that Grapes has often lauded the sport's stars as some of the toughest athletes around.

He joked that Cherry himself probably wouldn't cut it as a competitor on the CBC series, though, suggesting that the former Boston Bruin coach may lack grace.

"He was always a big, stumpy-legged hockey player so I don't think he could participate," MacLean said Tuesday at Maple Leaf Gardens as competitors displayed their skills at an on-ice media event.

"But he'll have an eye for good dance and good choreography and obviously he's got a little fashion sense."

"Battle of the Blades" begins Sunday with the first of seven weekly performance shows live from Maple Leaf Gardens. Each week, teams made up of a female figure skater and a former NHL player will have to master a dance routine and win enough votes from a television audience to avoid elimination.

The last remaining pair will make a combined donation of $100,000 to their chosen charity.

The teams include Isabelle Brasseur and Glenn Anderson; Jodeyne Higgins and Ken Daneyko; Christine Hough-Sweeney and Tie Domi; Barbara Underhill and Ron Duguay; Shae-Lynn Bourne and Claude Lemieux; Kristina Lenko and Bob Probert; Marie-France Dubreuil and Stephane Richer; and Jamie Sale and Craig Simpson.

Each week, a celebrity judge will join figure skater Dick Button and coach and choreographer Sandra Bezic in assessing the performances. Former skating champ Kurt Browning co-hosts with MacLean.

Choreographer and former Olympian Doug Ladret said training for some competitors began as long as two months ago, noting that a few of the contestants had pretty much retired from the ice entirely.

Even though NHLers are steady on their feet, switching to figure skate blades can make stepping on the ice and maintaining proper posture a challenge, he noted. More than a few fell victim to the sharp spikey picks on the front of the blades that can pitch the uninitiated skater into the air.

After displaying their synchronized moves with a short lap around the ice, Lemieux and Bourne admitted that preparing for the series has been stressful. But Lemieux said he's always admired figure skaters for their impressive skill.

"I've always known that they had an amazing gift," said Lemieux, a four-time Stanley Cup champion known for on-ice brawls.

"I always hated the holes they left after their ice sessions because I had to go out there and try play with a flat puck.... And now I'm making them. Guys were giving me crap yesterday, going, 'That little move you made, you made three big fat holes down in that end!"'

Probert, another former NHL bruiser, said Maple Leaf Gardens brought back great memories of his tough days on the ice.

"It's funny because the last time I was in this building Tie was playing for Toronto so every time I came in here he was my biggest rival," said Probert, a former Detroit Red Wing and Chicago Blackhawk.

"But right now we don't really have any (rivals). We're just out here to have fun and do the best we can."

MacLean notes that the Gardens will offer a homecoming of sorts for him and Cherry, who used to host their "Hockey Night In Canada" segments there before it was mothballed after the 1998-1999 hockey season. The venue hasn't seen ice since then, he says.

MacLean says he's impressed with the work done to restore some of the building's former glory, noting that a portable refrigeration system had to be brought in to create ice at the rink since the original system had long ago been removed.

"I think Don's really pumped about the fact we're coming back to the Gardens," said MacLean. "This is where the Boston Bruins gave up 10 points to Darryl Sittler so maybe we can get him to explain what a crummy coach he was when he was here."

Built in 1931, the downtown rink features steep bleachers, cantilevered ceiling (eliminating the need for sightline-blocking posts), and an art deco facade. But MacLean noted that the building had fallen into considerable disrepair even during its use, joking that the old "Hockey Night in Canada" studio may not have been suitable for use.

"Really it was like a broom closet with asbestos hanging from the ceiling. It was a very unhealthy work environment but most of us seem to have survived. Don's a little crankier I think as a result of all those years in there."

"Beyond that, it's just neat to see the skaters. The heart of any rink is the skating, figure skating and the hockey. So you might say the Gardens has its heart back." "Battle of the Blades" airs Sundays and Mondays beginning this Sunday.


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