There are times when making a television show can seem like a life-or-death struggle. Then, suddenly, tragedy strikes and puts everything in perspective.
The death of Wade Belak drove that message home to everyone associated this season with "Battle of the Blades." The popular CBC series returns Sunday night at 8 p.m. ET.
The skating competition is a challenge to pull together at the best of times. Just finding an ice surface from year-to-year has been a struggle; the Mastercard Centre in Toronto's west end (a Maple Leafs practice facility) is the third venue in three seasons.
Then there is wrangling former NHL athletes to give up three or four months of their lives to dedicate to pairs figure skating. Bad knees, family commitments and homes in foreign countries can keep big hockey stars out of the lineup.
The producers believed they had a prize recruit this season in Belak. The one time Toronto Maple Leafs enforcer was a crowd pleaser, bringing the kind of edge to the series Tie Domi or Georges Laraque brought in past seasons. Everyone wants to see if tough guys can dance.
Belak, six other NHL veterans and, for the first time, one female hockey player—Tessa Bonhomme—committed to this third season and already attended two weeks of prep skating.
Then, on Aug. 31, 35-year-old Belak was found dead in a Toronto hotel room, an apparent suicide.
"That day and moment for all of us was very surreal," says Kevin Albrecht. He was at his downtown Toronto iSport Media office with producing partner and on-air judge Sandra Bezic when word of Belak's death arrived. The original plan that night had been to attend the Gemini Awards (where "Battle of the Blades" would win in the best variety category), but thoughts of triumph were wiped out by the tragedy.
Cars were sent to the various training areas where the athletes were preparing for the series. Participants, coaches and choreographers were brought to the downtown office.
Some of the participants were getting bits and pieces of information through mobile devices. By the time they all arrived at the home of iSport and Insight Productions, the full horror of what had happened was beginning to sink in.
"Essentially, we were in a state of shock," says Albrecht. "Nobody could believe what we were reading."
The first thoughts went out to Belak's wife and two young children.
"It was very important for us to honour Wade's family and do the right thing for them," says Bezic. The next thought was for the show, and how to "present Wade in a way that celebrates out short experience with him."
On a practical level, Bezic, Albrecht and Insight's John Brunton had to determine quickly if the series could move forward with just seven pairs of skaters and if the premiere might have to be delayed.
"One of our first sentiments was we didn't want to lose Kim from our cast," says Bezic, referring to Belak’s partner in the series, U.S. World Team skater Kim Navarro. "She wanted to continue too. She wanted to share in this process."
That meant somebody—a "hero" to use Albrecht's phrase—would have to step in at the 11th hour, a tough position under the best of circumstances. How that will be resolved will be answered on Sunday's opening episode.
The other hero this season is shaping up to be Tessa Bonhomme, part of Team Canada’s Gold medal-winning women's hockey team at the 2010 Olympics.
"Tessa is the perfect guinea pig," says Bezic, who always wanted to work female hockey players into the "Battle of the Blades" mix. "She's game, willing to try anything and her height is manageable for a male figure skater."
Bonhomme is paired on the competition with Olympic pairs champ David Pelletier, who acted as a coach the previous two seasons.
Albrecht reports that the female figure skaters on the series, who know best the tough spot Bonhomme is in, have "really taken her under their wings."
In seasons past, the graceful female champions have helped the hockey players skate past any stumbles. That burden will now fall on Bonhomme.
As Bezic says, "we don’t know if it will be an advantage or a disadvantage."
Bezic singles out former NHL defenceman Todd Simpson as someone who will help keep things light on and off the ice as Season Three unfolds.
He showed up to one practice already wearing a T-shirt which reads, "Craig Simpson, Valeri Bure, Todd Simpson"—a reference to his projected place among the past two champs.
For Bezic and the others, it was a welcome joke in what has already been a tough season.
Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.