Maclean’s Interview: Claude Lemieux

How a tough guy broke the figure skating barrier, won over Canadians and sang his heart out

He may have finished second, but a creative, downright sensual Claude Lemieux was the big revelation of Battle of the Blades, the CBC show pairing retired NHL players with female figure skaters. He spoke to Maclean’s between practices for the finale.

Q: I hope you won’t be offended when I tell you I never associated you with graceful skating.
A: Hey, that’s fine. I’ve always been an underdog in some way. I believe people in hockey underestimated my skill level and my physique. I’ve read a few comments, you know: “This guy’s got a short little choppy stride,” and I knew that wasn’t the case—that I could skate pretty well.

Q: As a player did you ever give much thought to how you looked as you moved across the ice?
A: No, most of us players actually don’t like how we skate. Only a few enjoy watching ourselves play. We can always see something we could do better. There weren’t a lot of hockey players in my family background, and we never had the financial capability for me to take any special power-skating clinics the kids get today. It was just something I picked up and went with and loved.

Q: You did have a 18-season career in the NHL, though. That suggests a certain aptitude.
A: I was solid, really strong on my feet and I was always in balance. Sometimes that’s even better than having a graceful, straight-up kind of skating style.

Q: You were best known, of course, as an agitator, and sometimes a dirty player. You were routinely described as the most hated man in hockey. Was signing up for Battle of the Blades an attempt to show people another side of your personality?
A: That was one of the reasons. I thought it would be a fun experience, a journey, but I definitely did think this could be an opportunity to show the Canadian people, really, who I am. In hockey, you put on this suit of armour, you go out on the ice in your equipment and you perform as well as you can with the gifts you’ve got. But most of the tough guys are great people off the ice, real soft-spoken and sensitive guys. It’s the complete opposite of what one would expect.

Q: I think up until now—at least outside of Montreal—you may have been best remembered as the man who caved Kris Draper’s face by shoving him headlong into the boards. Have you ever spoken to him about that?
A: No, I’ve really never spent any time with him. People have said I should call the guy and apologize. But if something really bad happens to you, and the next day the person who did it calls and says, ‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ you’re like, pfffft. You know what I mean? Maybe two or three years later, when it’s more sincere. But I can show you 5,000 hits that were worse than that. I played 1,500 games in the NHL and you remember me for one hit?

Q: You were also known as a relentless competitor. How has that aspect of your personality played into this contest?
A: When you’re a dedicated, focused, zoned-in type of person, you’re just going to do whatever it takes—within boundaries. In hockey, we pushed those boundaries further because we were physically confronting our opponents. Here, there is no mental or physical game against your opponent; you’re really competing against yourself. I’ve asked my partner and our coach David Wilson to push me as far as I can go. When the lights go up, it’s about your mental strength.

Q: Who first asked you to do the show?
A: It was [goaltender] Sean Burke, a former teammate of mine, who had committed to it. He’d gotten an opportunity to move into a full-time assistant coaching job with the Phoenix Coyotes, so he bailed out, and asked me if I’d be interested.

Q: What was your reaction?
A: [Laughing] ‘Uhhh, no. I think I’m busy.’ To be honest, there was fear about how good the quality of the production would be, and how the producers would try to portray us.

Q: What changed your mind?
A: I found out Tie Domi had committed. He’s been here in Toronto a long time and has a good image in the city, so I figured he would know whether it was going to be a good production. As it turned out, the producers have been great, allowing us to voice our opinions on how we felt we should present ourselves to the viewers. I think that’s part of the reason everyone from little kids to grandparents is enjoying the show. It’s fun, it’s entertaining, at times it’s sensual. But it’s all been done with a lot of class.

Q: What was your wife’s reaction?
A: She was very positive. We’ve had our ups and downs because the show’s been so demanding time-wise. She’s had to spend a lot of time here, and the kids have been back and forth a few times from our home in Phoenix.

Q: You did play hockey in China last year to prepare for an NHL comeback. Maybe this looked reasonable by comparison.
A: China was a crazy idea, but it was basically hockey with different people, and that was within our comfort zone. This was completely outside our comfort zone.

Q: Were you one of those players who admired figure skaters?
A: Yes, I always watched it during the Olympics—especially the pairs. I thought it was beautiful how they could be in such perfect sync and move so elegantly.

Q: Why do you think you’ve taken to it so naturally?
A: You have to have a good ear for the music, and I’m very musical. It’s all about the beat and when the stride happens. I’ll know, for example, if I’ve missed a step just from listening to the music; I don’t need my partner to tell me.

Q: One of the things the show has demonstrated is how important athleticism is in figure skating. Why do you think hockey players regard the sport as effeminate?
A: I think it’s been portrayed that way, and that’s wrong. We’ve done a lot of good with this show by bringing the two sports closer together, and I think Hockey Canada should be all over the opportunity to go recruit some of the Figure Skating Canada coaches who might have been viewed as people who don’t know hockey skating. I truly wish I’d done this 20 years ago. I would have been a better hockey player, and if a guy like me can improve his skating at 44, imagine if you could get this kind of education at a young age.

Q: Are there lessons for figure skating, too? I’ve long thought international skating could use, to be blunt, some bigger, stronger men.
A: Yes. I think we’ve broken the barrier, this belief that big, tough guys could not be figure skaters. Maybe we’ve brought out of the closet—so to speak—a lot of guys who wish they could just go out and be comfortable as figure skaters. Hopefully figure skating in Canada will be better because they will have bigger, stronger men who have been hiding, not making themselves available, not wanting to take on the figure skating world, because of their size.

Q: Speaking of masculinity, who makes your wardrobe selections?
A: I’ve really not had much say. The designers and wardrobe creators have been great at keeping it pretty basic.

Q: Any puffy pirate shirts get left on the dressing room floor?
A: Well, one time they did want me to wear a see-through shirt. I said, “Um, no. That’s not going to happen.”

Q: You were one of the first players in the competition to switch over to figure skates from hockey skates. Why did you do that?
A: I knew that as a fan watching the show, I would not be that impressed with a hockey player doing a few spins and carrying girls around in his hockey skates. I would be impressed with a guy who’s learned to make those turns, who’s learned to get comfortable with figure skates.

Q: What’s the principal difference?
A: A figure skate throws you forward right away. And your radius is different—it’s built to turn, so it allows you to get much better at that. It’s actually got two flat spots under the blade, one at the front and one at the back, because there are some moves you do on your heels and some on your toes. That really creates a different feeling from a hockey skate, which has one flat spot in the middle.

Q: What about those toe picks?
A: Oh, I did a couple of face plants right off the bat. My right knee still hurts.

Q: You lucked out with your partner. Shae-Lynn Bourne is one of the best ice dancers in the world. How does the dynamic between you two work?
A: I thought she lucked out with me [laughing]. No, the fact I’m older—I’ve got a good 10 years on her—has helped, because she’s been more like my little sister. The fact that she’s single, not married, could have been uncomfortable. But she’s very driven in her work and she’s got a good head on her shoulders. Somebody who leaves home at the age of 11 to go skate, living with other families so she can compete at the top of her sport, is going to be tenacious.

Q: People were floored last week when you skated to the sound of your own voice, a recording of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. Are you a closet karaoke hero?
A: I do like karaoke. Usually we’d end up fighting for the mike. I grew up in a very musical family. My grandfather was a really good singer, and my sister won a music contest in Quebec when she was 12. I’ve sung in public, but before last week the highlight of my singing career was to sing to my wife at our wedding—Have I Told You Lately that I Love You, by Rod Stewart.

Q: In this case, there was a delay getting the rights to broadcast k.d. lang’s version of Hallelujah. How did the job fall to you?
A: They wanted a duet, featuring a male with a deep voice. My wife and I were out for dinner and she said, ‘Why don’t you do it?’ I was like, you’re crazy. I didn’t even know the lyrics. So I got home that night, and I was, like, [sings]: “I heard there was a secret chord . . .” It’s a difficult song in some ways, but it was a good register for me, and I think it showed we were willing to do that little bit extra.

Q: Was that your first recording session?
A: It was, and that was my first take!

Q: I heard that you are pretty good friends with Wayne Gretzky. Does he know you’re doing this?
A: I haven’t spoken to him lately, but he wouldn’t be surprised. He knows me. He’s even heard me sing.

Q: You should know you once put my father and me in grave danger. We’re Montreal Canadiens fans and in the late ’80s we went to see you guys play in Vancouver. You cross-checked Rich Sutter, and since the Canucks fans in our section couldn’t get at you, it looked like they were going to take out their anger on us.
A: That was in their old building, right? Are you sure it wasn’t when I suckered Stan Smyl in front of their bench?

Q: I thought it was Sutter, but I could be wrong.
A: Well, sorry, but I was lucky to get out of there alive myself.

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