'Battle of the Blades' returns as Canada stands a 'powerhouse' in figure skating

TORONTO — A lot has changed in the world of competitive figure skating since the CBC celebrity on-ice contest "Battle of the Blades" left the air nearly six years ago.

"Canada became a powerhouse in figure skating," world champion figure skater and former "Blades" co-host Kurt Browning said in a recent interview, pointing to a slew of medals at last year's PyeongChang Olympics, including gold for Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir.

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"We just dominated. And those names have retired from competition now, so we're into a new rebirth, regrowth area in that."

"Blades," too, is going through a rebirth.

On Thursday the Insight Productions-produced series will return with a new incarnation in which Browning is head judge and star hockey commentator Ron MacLean is back as host.

The concept remains the same as the original live-competition series, which ran from 2009 to 2013 and was a ratings juggernaut: Hockey players and figure skaters pair up to perform on-ice dance routines for an audience and judges, with the winners getting $100,000 in prize money that they donate to charities of their choice.

The first episode will be a special two-hour premiere. Guest judges throughout the season will include Virtue and Moir.

"They officially are the winningest skaters on the planet," said Browning, who was also head judge for the last season.

"Talk about intimidating for the hockey players, to know that the best of all time are going to be sitting there judging."

Browning said he didn't expect the show would return for a fifth season after being put on the shelf, and when he got the call asking him to be a part of a revival, he couldn't resist the opportunity to reunite with MacLean.

"It was such a happy place to work," said Browning, an Alberta native who lives in Toronto and skates with the Stars on Ice tour.

"Canada fell in love with those skaters and the stories and the charities, and the fact that it was live — nobody knew what was going to happen."

The CBC says the revival — along with the upcoming game show "Family Feud Canada" — are part of a goal to introduce "fun and entertaining" programming that is distinctly Canadian and will appeal to advertisers and sponsors.

"That's vital to us, that's vital to our sustainability in the future," Sally Catto, general manager of programming for CBC English Television, said in an interview when the public broadcaster unveiled its 2019/2020 season.

"There are a lot of bars that have to be hit when we order a series, but I think those two really nail all of them."

"Blades" hockey cast members this time around include former NHL enforcer Colton Orr, two-time Olympian Amanda Kessel, and former New York Islander Bruno Gervais.

The hockey competitors also include Natalie Spooner, Sheldon Kennedy, Brian McGrattan, and P.J. Stock, who is replacing the recently injured Colby Armstrong.

Stock will perform with world extreme pairs champion Violetta Afanasieva; Orr is paired up with pairs skating Olympian and season 4 winner Amanda Evora; and Gervais' partner is Ekaterina Gordeeva, who won season 2 and is a two-time Olympic Games gold medallist in pairs skating.

Other pairings include McGrattan with six-time French pairs champion Vanessa James; Kessel is teamed up with two-time Olympic Games medallist Eric Radford; Spooner's partner is three-time World Ice Dance medallist Andrew Poje; and Kennedy will skate with three-time World Ice Dance medallist Kaitlyn Weaver.

"When we're sticking hockey players in figure skates and sequins, we're having a lot of fun," said Browning.

"But at the basis of this show is a charity element, and each hockey player comes with their own story of why they chose this particular charity and why they're skating for that charity, and it becomes very personal.

"Also they've worked really, really hard. Hockey players are intensely competitive, so they take that aggression and competitiveness from the ice and they bring it to figure skating and they take this very seriously."

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