Newsmakers '09: Power couples

Figure skating & hockey

“Raw power” was the phrase Dick Button invoked repeatedly this fall as he co-judged Battle of the Blades, CBC’s hit reality show pairing female figure skaters with retired NHL players, and the words took some getting used to. Yes, Craig Simpson, Claude Lemieux, Stéphane Richer and others oozed testosterone as they cut into the ice, effortlessly hoisting their partners through the seven-week contest. But since when was rawness a virtue in figure skating?

Say all you want about TV ratings. Or the softer side of hockey players. Battle’s real accomplishment was to show the benefits of playing up virility on the male side of an ice-dancing duo. For too long, the sport has been held hostage to a faux-arts aesthetic, in which sequin-encrusted men act more like ladies-in-waiting than impassioned lovers. Battle of the Blades, refreshingly, treated viewers to more exposed biceps than rhinestones, and the unabashed masculinity helped expand the audience. “We wanted the men to look like men,” says executive producer John Brunton, “and the women to look sexy.”

During the penultimate episode, Shae-Lynn Bourne lay like a broken angel over Claude Lemieux’s head, creating a vision both poignant and seductive. We all knew Jamie Salé could delight, but who knew she could be raunchy? And the players furnished revelation after revelation. Turns out Tie Domi is a creditable skater when he’s not chucking haymakers. Ron Duguay—whose rock hair was legendary during his time on Broadway playing for the Rangers—is now Canada’s official answer to Mick Jagger. And who could forget Lemieux skating to the sound of his own voice singing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah? “That was my first take,” he later smiled. “I come from a very musical family.”

By the Nov. 16 finale, the show could boast a checklist of entertainment coups. Not only did it get men watching figure skating (more than 40 per cent of Battle’s 1.7 million or so weekly viewers were males), it got the rest of the world interested in something Canadian. The New York Times wrote a glowing story about the program, while Insight Productions, the company that delivered the show into the CBC’s grateful hands, has been fielding queries from as far away as Sweden and Russia from networks interested in replicating the format. Here in Canada, planning for a second season has already begun.

More important to Canadians, the program brought together worlds that have remained separate while living side by side in arenas across the country. Bourne, for one, admits she more or less ignored hockey while growing up in Chatham, Ont., and had scarcely heard of Lemieux when told the former agitator would be her partner. “It’s not that figure skating and hockey have been enemies,” she says. “They just haven’t always worked together.” Bourne points to Russia, where she has witnessed hockey skaters and figure skaters working together to improve. “How great would it be if our skating coaches and hockey coaches teamed up in Canada?” she asks. “Both sports would be better, and the athletes on both sides would benefit. We should be on the same team.”

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