September 15, 2010
"Battle of the Blades" premiered on Oct. 4, 2009 with a delightfully harebrained concept: Take former NHL players, pair them with Olympic-caliber female figure skaters, and have them battle in a "Dancing with the Stars"-style competition in front of a live arena audience each week.
It was campy. It was sexy. It was also a ratings smash for CBC that altered the public perceptions of several of its competitors.
Suddenly, Ken Daneyko wasn't just an anonymous, blue-collar ex-defenseman for the New Jersey Devils; he was getting recognized on the streets of Vancouver during the Winter Olympics as a "Blades" star. Suddenly, Claude Lemieux(notes) wasn't just the most hated man in hockey during his NHL career -- he was a graceful soul who sang his own music for figure-skating routines.
With the show's popularity and its positive impact on the ex-pros who participated, those casting "Battle of the Blades" Season 2 must have been flooded with inquiries from prospective cast-members, right?
"Nope. Not inundated at all," admitted Kevin Albrecht, executive producer.
What, are ex-NHL players still allergic to sequins? Still unable to get past the stereotypical labels applied to male figure skaters?
Albrecht said it's just the opposite: The hockey alumni didn't think they were man enough to handle the reality TV figure skating grind.
"Everyone knew the show. There wasn't one hockey player I talked to who didn't respect the players on that show and the way it was produced. But most of the players will say, ‘I don't think I can do that,'" he said.
"They were nervous about it. It's not only a grind, but they other thing they said were that the last three pairs [last season] got so good, and they couldn't do that. I had Hall of Famers telling me they were in shock over it."
Albrecht and his production staff were able to scrape together a new cast of brave souls for Season 2, which premieres on Sept. 25 on CBC -- thanks in part to what can only be called "The Tie Domi Effect."
Albrecht still remembers pitching him the "Battle of the Blades" concept. "He didn't say a word for 15 minutes. I said, ‘So what do you think?' And he said, ‘You're joking, right?' And then he started looking around for the [hidden] cameras."
After convincing Domi that the training, and the charitable aspects of the show, were legit, he agreed to become the first cast member. That gave Albrecht some bait to lure his next choice for the cast: Bob Probert, at one point was the most feared fighter in the NHL with the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks.
Albrecht had to fight through the immediate cynicism about the show and eventually used Domi's participation to hook him.
"One thing Kev," Probert said at the time, "I have to beat Tie."
He didn't beat Tie, going out in the first elimination on the show. But he did endear himself to fans who only knew him as a controversial fighter in the NHL; a twist on his legacy that made his death at age 45 last July an emotionally stunning moment for his new admirers.
"People didn't know this guy had a big heart. That, at the end of the day, he did this show for his kids. It was a loving family," said Albrecht.
The second season of "Battle of the Blades" is dedicated to Probert's memory. Domi is also putting together a "Blades" golf tournament for the Bob Probert Educational Trust, which is a fund to help with his children's education costs.
Probert was a player who overcame personal demons during his playing days and mended his reputation later in life. The same could be said for the biggest name in the "Battle of the Blades" Season 2 cast: Former Calgary Flames star Theo Fleury(notes), whose bouts with substances abuse was overshadowed by the admission that he was sexually abused by his junior hockey coach in the mid-1980s.
"When we got involved with Theo, he [came off as] so competitive," said Albrecht. "To go through the hell he's been through, you have to be a battler."
Fleury will participate in Season 2 to promote The Men's Project, a "healing program" for sexually abused men. But Albrecht said it's also a chance for him to continue going through "a second childhood," reclaiming his life after his revelation.
Fleury was the first ex-player cast, and the "Domi Effect" once again started luring in others. Because who wouldn't want to do this for a few weeks on national television?
Once Fleury was locked in, others followed. Here's how the Season 2 cast was formed:
Brisebois played defense for the Montreal Canadiens for 15 years in a 17-year NHL career, winning one Stanley Cup and later becoming a NASCAR Canada racecar driver.
"I called him. One of the things I do is regional representation, and I obviously wanted someone from Quebec," said Albrecht, who said Briesbois was friends with Season 1 competitor Stephane Richer. "He's in fantastic shape, retired in '09, fully bilingual, and a great looking guy for the female audience."
When asked why he wanted to be on the show, Albrecht said Briesbois replied: "To win."
Bure played with five NHL teams, most notably the Calgary Flames, and is married to former "Full House" star Candace Cameron Bure. He's the first non-North-American-born competitor on the show.
"What we want is personality but also a good mix of skill-sets in the NHL. The skill-sets of Georges Laraque(notes) and Kelly Chase are different than that of Valeri Bure," said Albrecht of the speedy former forward.
Chase, a former St. Louis Blues tough guy, earned the 1998 King Clancy Memorial Trophy for helping those with developmental disabilities participate in organized hockey. He's also a broadcaster, which made him a natural for "Blades."
"He's just a classic Western Canadian guy. We interviewed his mother, and she said all he ever wanted to do was be in the NHL," said Albrecht. "When he wasn't drafted, it didn't even deter him one bit. He was a walk-on."
He played 15 NHL seasons with teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens. Upon receiving an invite to the show, he called someone for advice: Wayne Gretzky, who encouraged him to sign up for the fitness aspect and for the exposure.
But Courtnall was still on the fence until a chance meeting in an LAX airport lounge ... with Pam Anderson, fresh off her "Dancing With the Stars" stint.
When Albrecht asked for a decision, Courtnall told him: "Gretz told me to do it and Pam Anderson told me to do it."
He'll skate to bring attention to the Archie Courtnall Centre, the mental health and addiction services centre at the Royal Jubilee Hospital named after his father, who took his own life when Russ Courtnall was 13, according to Albrecht.
Albrecht assumed he'd be too busy to participate. "I was surprised when I called and he accepted, because I thought I was calling to set up for next year," he said.
But Laraque felt the show would be a good platform for his causes, even if he was intimidated by the challenge, saying: "The only time you grow is when you're outside your comfort zone."
Speaking of challenges: Equipment was one of them. The skate-makers for the show felt the large frame of Laraque would snap the blades, so they had to make special Size 13.5 figure skates for him.
The former Boston Bruins tough guy was recommended by hockey reporter Christine Simpson, whose brother Craig Simpson won the first season of "BOTB."
Albrecht calls him "hilarious" and that he'll give "100 percent all the time."
A first-round draft choice in 1992 by the Quebec Nordiques and a former Leaf, Warriner offered the producers a surprise when they started digging into his past: His mother was a pro figure skater back in the 1960s, who toured with ice follies.
So Warriner has the figure skating gene. He also has a bad back, but is considered a main contender this season.
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Albrecht said the competition is already intense, with this Season 2 group doing things now that last year's group wasn't doing until Week 6.
The stakes are also raised for "Battle of the Blades" as a pop culture phenomenon. Last year's audiences were larger than expected, and demographically shocking: Forty-three percent of the audience was male, compared to typical figure of 16 percent for televised figure skating. In male viewership, "Battle of the Blades" defeated Sunday Night Football on TSN on a weekly basis.
What about conquering the U.S.?
Season 1 of "Battle of the Blades" was unable to be sold, despite interest from NBC, because the producers didn't clear the music rights outside of Canada. Season 2's music will be cleared for North America, so "Battle of the Blades" could be on American television; Albrecht said he would be "very, very surprised" if it wasn't.
So the franchise continues to grow, as the stereotypes have been overcome and the audience embraced the format. If there's a Season 3 or Season 4, does Albrecht have any dream-casting?
"Mike Gartner and Paul Coffey," he said, citing two fleet-footed Hall of Famer ex-players.
"At the end of the day, it's the product you put on the ice."