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Recapping S5 ‘Battle of the Blades’ first episode

Season 5, episode 1: Spooner stays true to her roots; Kessel achieves altitude

Courtesy of CBC

“Battle of the Blades” has returned to Canadian airwaves this fall after a six-year hiatus, and the current season features two contestants from women’s hockey. So we thought we’d give it a look and, for a bit of fun, let TIG readers know what’s going on in the world of figure skating competitive reality television.

Being American, I had never seen the show during its previous run — but I had watched some video clips and was generally familiar with the concept. If you haven’t heard of “Battle of the Blades,” just imagine someone looked at “Dancing With the Stars” and said, “Do that, but make it Canada.” Hockey players are paired with experienced figure skaters and learn how to figure skate (yes, there were several complaints about the toe pick), then they compete as pairs in front of a live audience to win prize money for their chosen charities.

The current season of BotB features two women’s hockey players: Amanda Kessel of Team USA, the Metropolitan Riveters, and the PWHPA; and Natalie Spooner of Team Canada, the Toronto Furies, and the PWHPA.

The performances

In the premiere episode, the first pair to skate was Spooner with her partner, Olympic ice dancer Andrew Poje. Poje, in a Canadian tuxedo, and Spooner, in a flannel that I assume was custom-made by Roots, skated to Dean Brody’s “Canadian Girls.” (I had never heard this song before, and it is amazing.) Spooner showed off a vibrant energy in a routine that leaned heavily on footwork and did not ask Poje to lift the 5’ 10” Spooner too much.

Head judge Kurt Browning called their routine “fun.” Guest judge Colby Armstrong praised the precision of their matched footwork sequence, impressed at their synchronicity in just the first week. Guest judge Tessa Virtue praised Spooner for embracing the “performative aspect of the sport — the audience was so engaged!” and Spooner and Poje earned a combined 27.9 from the judges.

Host Ron MacLean introduced Kessel with a good(?)-natured chirp about her Olympic gold medal after she and her partner, Olympic pairs skating medalist Eric Radford, skated to Lizzo’s “Juice.” Kessel is clearly more athlete than artist. Or, at least, she doesn’t give the appearance of being a born dancer. But she does have a natural grace, notable especially by her positioning when Radford lifted her above his head.

Browning said they looked great together and noted they “brought [their] game up from practice, and that’s what a competitor does.” Armstrong confided that Kessel had been nervous during practices and said she “saved it for the big stage.” Guest judge Scott Moir said he suspected Kessel had the “biggest challenge in this competition” because of the wide contrast between what she does when playing hockey and her obligation to “fly” as a figure skater. But then he took on the role of “mean judge” and coached her how to finish with her free leg when stroking. Kessel and Radford earned a combined 27.7 from the judges.

Kessel and Radford on CBC’s Battle of the Blades
Courtesty of CBC

Should we also spend a bit of time on newly hired NWHL coach Colton Orr?

Orr’s partner, Olympic pairs skater Amanda Evora, was the winner (with Scott Thornton) of Season Four of BotB. Does that give them some kind of a leg up? After just one episode, it’s hard to say — but their performance showed that he does have the necessary strength to offer solid support for his partner, and the necessary focus to keep up with her.

Armstrong admired Orr’s edgework. Virtue said because Orr is so solid on his skates it allows for “a nice run of the blade.” Moir added that the team had performed “legitimate pair moves … on week one.” Browning coached Orr to think about moving his upper body more loosely. Orr and Evora earned a combined 27.4 from the judges.

The results

After the first episode, based on the judges’ scores, Spooner and Poje were in a tie for third place, Kessel and Radford were in fifth, and Orr and Evora were in sixth. In episode two, we’ll learn who earned enough fan votes to avoid elimination — and I’ll have my first opportunity to watch “the dreaded skate-off.”

[Can we get through the rest of this season without any more “The Cutting Edge” references? Do we really want to?]