Two-time Stanley Cup winner Craig Simpson and his partner, Olympic gold medallist Jamie Salé, have been crowned champions in the inaugural season of the CBC-TV hit show Battle of the Blades before a live audience at Maple Leaf Gardens.
The winning pair received a cheque for a $100,000 donation in their name to northern Alberta's Spinal Cord Injury Treatment Centre Society on Monday night after earning the most viewer votes in the elimination-style reality series.
They beat out fellow finalists Claude Lemieux and Shae-Lynn Bourne, as well as Stéphane Richer and Marie-France Dubreuil, with a quick-paced number that earned perfect scores from the judges in Sunday's performance episode.
Simpson called the competition "an amazing experience," particularly the opportunity to skate with Salé and "to learn something new every night." Salé thanked "everyone back home for their unconditional love and support."
The competition was quintessentially Canadian, she added. "It's so Canadian, you've got great hockey players and great figure skaters. The two most popular sports in Canada."
Simpson, a former member of the Edmonton Oilers, said he has new respect for figure skaters. "They're fearless, they're incredibly hard-working, they're charismatic. I just got a real appreciation for the expertise they bring to the ice every day."
Monday's finale opened with a group performance featuring the eight original couples in the competition, including: Isabelle Brasseur and Glenn Anderson; Jodeyne Higgins and Ken Daneyko; Christine Hough-Sweeny and Tie Domi; Kristina Lenko and Bob Probert; Barbara Underhill and Ron Duguay.
The last show also included a guest performance by former figure-skating champion Kurt Browning, who co-hosted Battle of the Blades with Hockey Night in Canada host Ron MacLean.
A ratings winner
CBC-TV scored a ratings winner with the reality show, which paired retired National Hockey League players and accomplished figure skaters.
The first episode drew nearly two million viewers and was the second-highest premiere for a homegrown series since Little Mosque on the Prairie.
Tickets for Battle of the Blades were initially priced at a modest $5 to ensure anyone could afford them. But as the show's popularity skyrocketed, tickets were snapped up by scalpers and others with the intention of selling them for big profits.
At one point they were sold for up to $145 each on Canadian and U.S. websites, including a controversial reseller owned by Ticketmaster.
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.
'The show must go on'
Lemieux 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," Lemieux said when asked last week about the prospect of another season. "It's been a big success. I think the show must go on."
"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."
Browning said 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."With files from The Canadian Press