TORONTO – Georges Laraque(notes), all 6-foot-3 and 270 pounds of him, dropped the gloves more than 140 times in his fight-filled NHL career, brutally battling his way to the top of hockey's heavyweight rankings.
Anabelle Langlois, who represented Canada at the 2010 Olympics in pairs figure skating, is under five feet tall and weighs less than 100 pounds. But she's got Laraque wrapped around her (very) little finger.
"I knew he was an NHL enforcer, but I'd never seen any of his fights," said Langlois, who looks like she could just about fit in Laraque's pocket. "After meeting Georges, my boyfriend showed me his fights on YouTube and I was shocked. I was glad I didn't see him fight before we met because I would've been scared.
"He was so rough, so mean. But he's really a teddy bear."
No kidding. Just listen to Laraque wax poetic about toe picks and free lifts.
"This is dangerous, but she gives me confidence I can do it," he said. "She gives me her life in my hands, she has faith in me that she'll be alright.
"That's touching, that's love. The bonds we've created in a short time, that's the best thing in the world."
Yes, folks, that's Georges Laraque, one of the most feared fighters in NHL history, talking about his newfound "love" of figure skating. Such is life on the touchy-feely set of CBC's 'Battle of the Blades,' last year's ratings smash that saw ex-NHLer Craig Simpson and Olympic gold medallist Jamie Sale skate away with top honours.
"Honestly, I didn't think it would happen last year," said CBC front man Ron MacLean, addressing the show's runaway success that saw a weekly average of more than three million Canadian viewers. "We didn't know what was going to happen."
That success has spawned high expectations for Season 2, with the pressure on this year's cast to deliver dramatic moments and scintillating performances. Laraque is joined by fellow former NHLers Theo Fleury(notes), Russ Courtnall, Valeri Bure, P.J. Stock, Patrice Brisebois(notes), Kelly Chase and Todd Warriner, with gregarious Jeremy Roenick(notes) on hand as a judge. Each player is matched with a figure skating icon, including Langlois and the return of Sale – partnered with Fleury – as well as Canadians Shae-Lynn Bourne (with Brisebois), Christine Hough-Sweeney (Courtnall), Isabelle Brasseur (Warriner), Russians Ekaterina Gordeeva (Bure) and Violetta Afanasieva (Stock) and Japanese-American Kyoko Ina (Chase). The winning pair receives $100,000 to donate to the charity of their choice; the other seven pairs each get $25,000 for their charities.
"They know they're coming into a show that was a success last year," said Kurt Browning, the retired figure skating champion who's again working alongside MacLean as a co-host.
"Yeah, they haven't reminded us daily or anything of the pressure (to live up to last year)," said Stock, mostly in jest. "At least I know my partner is amazing."
It goes without saying that the female participants in 'Battle of the Blades' are world-class; however, a quick tally of figure skating experience among the old NHLers resulted in a lot of "No," "Never" and "This is my first time" replies.
"I was nervous at the beginning, but he was so steady, so balanced, so careful with me," said Langlois of the hulking Laraque. "He's truly a gentle giant."
"My family and friends weren't surprised I decided to do this," Laraque said. "They know my personality, they know I love to put myself out there."
For Laraque, the reason to "put himself out there" is simple: It's a chance to raise money and awareness for Hockey For Haiti, an initiative of the NHL Players' Association and World Vision Canada that's helping to raise money to rebuild the Grace Children's Hospital in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
"The only motivation has been for charity," said Laraque, whose parents were born in Haiti. "Haiti has been out of the news for a while...I want to help bring it back. There was a lot of attention after the earthquake (in mid-January), but they're going to need help for the next five or 10 years."
"Nearly 300,000 people died and just as many were displaced. So it was easy for me to swallow my ego and do this."
There's been an unexpected bonus in Laraque's foray into figure skating, too.
"I've fallen in love with it," he said. "I'm going to keep going after this is all over and do adult pairs figure skating. "What I like the most is the lift. If I could, it'd be the only thing I'd do. I love the harmony of it, it's unbelievable. It's an amazing feeling.
"I love the beauty of pairs, it's more beautiful than singles. It's poetry on ice. If I could trade in my hockey career to do this, I would."