TORONTO — Two-time Stanley Cup winner Craig Simpson has a new title to add to his name — figure skating champ of “Battle of the Blades.”
The former NHL’er and his partner, Red Deer’s Olympic gold medallist Jamie Sale , emerged victorious in the inaugural season of the CBC-TV hit Monday after earning the most viewer votes in the elimination-style reality series.
“I don’t think we ever thought we’d be standing here right now, we all wanted to be (in the winner’s position) but it’s definitely hard to believe right now,” Sale said backstage after winning cheers from an enthusiastic audience, which included movie star Rachel McAdams.
“I think the focus for us was to just try to skate well every week and try to do something that I learned new each week and do something different and challenge ourselves,” added Simpson, a former Edmonton Oiler and currently an analyst for CBC’s “Hockey Night in Canada.”
Simpson, 42, and Sale, 32, were fan favourites from the very beginning, with Simpson earning special praise for being the only male to make a waltz jump in the kitschy competition.
The couple, both Edmonton residents, beat out fellow finalists Claude Lemieux and Shae-Lynn Bourne and Stephane Richer and Marie-France Dubreuil with a quick-paced number that, like all three teams, earned perfect scores from the judges in Sunday’s performance episode.
They win a $100,000 donation in their name for northern Alberta’s Spinal Cord Injury Treatment Centre Society, for which Simpson has been a strong advocate for 21 years. He said the money would be used to set up a chair at the University of Alberta for spinal cord research.
The glitzy show featured a reunion of legendary skaters Barb Underhill and Paul Martini, while Sale skated with her husband and skating partner David Pelletier and Dubreuil took to the ice with husband Patrice Lauzon. But skating fans in Toronto with cable service from Rogers were met only with a black TV screen when they tuned in at 8 p.m. ET. A signal problem prevented the show from being aired in Canada’s most populous city until an hour later than scheduled.
Monday’s finale marked the end of a stellar debut season for “Battle of the Blades,” which paired retired hockey players with former figure skating stars in weekly dance competitions.
Strong ratings throughout its seven-week run have producers musing on the possibility of franchising the series to other countries, in addition to pursuing a second season.
Lemieux, 44, said there are plenty of hockey greats that would make good candidates if the show continues.
“There are so many guys that are unbelievable athletes that retired in the last few years that could do the show, it’s been a big success, I think the show must go on,” Lemieux said when asked last week about the prospect of another season.
“I could see Luc Robitaille doing this, Mark Messier and on and on. It’s just about their will and what they want to do with their retirement life, it’s time consuming, it’s a big sacrifice.”
The show’s co-host, Kurt Browning, said in the same interview that the show has legs for another season. But if it continues, he’d like to see the challenges get even harder for the guys.
“I personally would like to see some individual skating from the hockey players next year,” Browning said.
“I think that’s what I will pitch for but who knows if they’ll listen to me.”
Sale said she’d love to be a part of a second season if the show returned.
Simpson said he’s amazed by the show’s popularity with both the general public and hockey colleagues, noting he’s been bombarded with texts and emails from other NHL players throughout his appearance on the show.
“That’s what’s been amazing… I’ve had everyone from ex-teammates to Glen Sather my ex-GM and coach every week watching and texting and calling,” he said.
But perhaps the most stunning outcome is that he is now being recognized on the street as a fine figure skater, rather than a hockey hero, he said, breaking into laughter while recalling a recent fan encounter in Toronto with “Battle” coach David Pelletier.
“David and I were walking across the street and the one lady just looked at me and said, ’Hey, nice footwork last night,’ ” Simpson boasted.
“Get used to it,” Sale said.