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Tie Domi and Christine Hough-Sweeney skate together in practice for the CBC presentation of Battle of the Blades. (Peter Power)
Tie Domi and Christine Hough-Sweeney skate together in practice for the CBC presentation of Battle of the Blades. (Peter Power)

Television

Battle of the Blades: faceoff on figure skates Add to ...

From the huffing and puffing Tie Domi is doing as he skates off the ice at Upper Canada College - and is that a black eye? - one would think the former Toronto Maple Leafs enforcer had just dropped the gloves and gone another round with his former NHL nemesis, Bob Probert.

But the person responsible for Domi's fatigue and bruises is nothing but a slip of a thing - former Olympic figure skater Christine Hough-Sweeney - whom he's been hoisting and twirling for the past three hours, trying to nail a routine the pair hope will ensure them a spot in the finals in CBC's brand-new reality show, Battle of the Blades. The show debuts Sunday night, with voting episodes to air Monday nights for seven consecutive weeks.

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"Yeah, it's much harder than I thought," said Domi ruefully of his unfamiliar turn as a member of a figure-skating pair. "Yesterday, I got a shiner. Our feet got tangled and we fell. My elbow is killing me, but luckily she fell on me. The back of her head hit me right here," he adds, pointing to a tender spot above his right eye. "Everything's so different - just getting the timing down, the routine down. When you play hockey, you just chase the puck and bash into people," said the long-time Leaf, who, in his career, amassed an amazing 3,515 penalty minutes.

"Luckily, I've had many shiners in my day. I iced the eye pretty good last night. I didn't want it to get too big. Too purple. How to explain to people, yes, I have a shiner with figure skates on?" chuckles the bruiser.

Despite Hough's diminutive size, the native of Waterloo, Ont. (who now lives in Boston with her husband, former Boston Bruin Don Sweeney, and their twin boys) is not fragile. Hence, her nickname - Tuffy. Hair in pigtails and dressed in black Lululemon tights and a long-sleeved undershirt, she looks more like a lissome teenager than a mom with two 10-year-olds. And like Domi, she says it's been a real education learning how to match her stride to a hockey player's. "Everything they've been taught is the opposite of what we've been taught. They skate more bent over their skates, and we are straighter. Their strides are shorter and choppier so they can get to where they have to go. Ours are longer," says the 5-foot-2 skater, who partnered for years with Doug Ladret (a coach on the show), competing five times at the World Figure Skating Championships and twice at the Winter Olympics.

The brainchild of veteran sports agent Kevin Albrecht and Olympian skater/coach/choreographer Sandra Bezic, Battle of the Blades has been 21/2 years in the making. Albrecht says he got the idea after seeing Dancing With The Stars, reasoning that the combination of hockey players and figure skaters would produce the same kind of magic as dancers and celebrities - particularly for a Canadian audience.

The winners get to donate $100,000 to the charity of their choice, and each week's cast-off team gets $25,000 to direct where they choose.

But as Domi and Hough can attest, the preparation has been no cake walk, with the teams practising 60 to 100 hours in cold arenas around the country since the end of August.

Watching the pair rehearse, you can see the challenges. Domi, looking like the bulldog he's always been in his sweats and Helly Hansen sweatshirt, is careful with Hough, raising her easily up in the air over his head, and later, slipping (well, fairly gracefully) through her tiny legs.

Several times, though, he grimaces - once when he accidentally hits his partner in the chest. It's clearly hard work for a hockey guy used to throwing muscle around the ice, not a breakable woman. For her part, Hough's a sport - although the odd look of terror does cross her face when Domi's trying to get the hang of a one-legged spin with her head a few scant inches from the ice.

Domi says he's gained a new-found respect for the athleticism of figure skaters - and for the time they put in.

"Our routine is 3 minutes. In hockey, your longest shift is a minute. Halfway through, you start to get fatigued and the first thing that goes is your concentration. It's at that point you have to bear down because if your brain ain't going, you can screw the whole thing up," says Domi, one of three hockey players on the show who have opted out of wearing skates with picks for fear of doing a face plant. "Before this, the closest thing I came to figure skating was taking my youngest daughter, Avery, to her lessons," says Domi, laughing. (He has two other children, and son Max has Type 1 diabetes; his and Hough's money will go to the Diabetes Hope Foundation.)

Albrecht says most of the skaters, both male and female, are "covered in bumps and bruises. … I don't think some of the hockey players realized how dangerous some of it is. We did an off-ice lifting class where Ladret told them about a horrible accident he had [with Hough]in the eighties. He had her in a high lift, hit a rut and knew she was going to go down and hit her head. The first rule is get yourself between the girl and the ice, which he did, and fractured his skull," recounts Albrecht. "Doug told that story and the whole room went silent.

"We also had to give them a class on how-to-grab-a-girl 101. To teach them that if they're in a situation - and they're going down - to grab the girl anywhere. It doesn't matter because they've already been grabbed everywhere before. All the guys were mulling that over when Ken [Daneyko]chimes in, 'Well, does that work in reverse too?'" In addition to the two regular judges, Bezic and two-time gold medalist Dick Button, the show features weekly guest judges such as Kristi Yamaguchi and Don Cherry, and is hosted by broadcaster Ron MacLean of CBC's Hockey Night in Canada and Kurt Browning, four-time figure-skating world champion.

"Every hockey player who watches it might have a smile on their face, but they'll also think, man I don't think I could do that," predicts Albrecht. "When Ken - who won three Stanley cups with the New Jersey Devils - walked into the Gardens [the show is taped at Maple Leaf Gardens] he said it was the most nervous he's ever been in his life. You have to have guts to do this."

Plus, Albrecht hopes Battle of the Blades breaks down some stereotypes. "I got a letter from a mom in Kingston, thanking whoever created the show. She has an 11-year-old son who plays hockey and is in a skating club. But he gets teased for the figure skating. She wrote that as soon as he found out Domi was figure skating, he felt great about it. I hope that thinking spreads 100-fold across the country."

As for Domi, his immediate goal is to simply make it through Round 1. "My daughter said to me, 'Dad if you go out first, that's just embarrassing."

Battle of the Blades premieres tomorrow at 8 p.m. ET on CBC-TV.

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