Brian McGrattan gets new dance partner on Battle of the Blades

Former Calgary Flames forward Brian McGrattan has found a new dance partner on the reality show Battle of the Blades. (Jason Franson/CP)

CALGARY – Flipping through video after video on his phone in search of an angle that shows his finest form, Brian McGrattan’s grin widens.

The clip he’s excited to show isn’t vintage footage from or Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Hockey.

It’s iPhone footage from a friend of the six-foot-four, 240-pound retired winger figure skating as he prepares to compete in CBC’s re-born Battle of the Blades.

"I’ve done 1,000 Mohawks in the last two weeks — before that I had done none," chuckled the retired enforcer of a move in which skaters put their heels together, pointing their toes out to carve a turn.

"Unbelievable. I should go back to playing."

The delicious irony of the scene is that the man who actually wore a mohawk at times to intimidate opponents wasn’t exactly known for his skating over the course of a rugged, 10-year NHL stint.

Retiring in 2017 as arguably the NHL’s last heavyweight champion, the 38-year-old McGrattan was known for throwing rights at his dance partner.

As the video demonstrates, he now prides himself on coveting his dance partner, Vanessa James, holding her high above his head like he long envisioned raising the Stanley Cup.

"You’ve got to be gentle, graceful," he said of the technique employed to repeatedly toss James, a six-time French pairs champion. "I’ve basically bench-pressed Vanessa about 400 times with her over my head and around my shoulders."

"The ice dancing part has been real educational," he added. "How your feet have to be and how straight up and aligned your body has to be for your feet to work… the whole thing has been eye-opening.

"I like how much longer the blades are. Power-wise Vanessa would blow the doors off any of the Flames. They are far more elite skaters than NHL players in terms of how they can use their mobility and power of their legs and edges.

"Man, if only I had done that as a kid. (His four-year-old son) Gabe started hockey this year and I’m going to put him in figure skating next year and if he wants to stay in that, great."

Starting Thursday night with a live show in his native Hamilton, McGrattan and James will face off against six other couples, which include Natalie Spooner and Amanda Kessel, as well as former NHLers Sheldon Kennedy, P.J Stock, Bruno Gervais and Colton Orr, who have all teamed with top figure skaters. The winners of the reality show get $100,000 for the charity of their choice, so the competition will be fierce. The shows will be live.

Orr has a long history of going toe-to-toe with McGrattan.

Now they’ll go toe-pick to toe-pick.

"We’ve had some epic fights," smiled McGrattan of the former Leafs enforcer he fought five times, including this beauty.

"He’s one of the toughest guys I ever played against, but at the end of our career we got pretty close as friends. To do something like this with him is pretty cool."

All of it, he insists, is pretty cool, which is why he agreed right away to join the cast and take on something completely out of his comfort zone.

As a recovering alcoholic who famously broke free of the chain of substance abuse to prolong his career more than a decade back, he’s well-versed in venturing outside his comfort zone.

It’s a history that made agreeing to the popular show – which is returning after a five-year hiatus – easy.

"The ability to promote mental health and addiction with the in-depth interviews on the show I thought ‘what better way to be a face for that?’" said McGrattan, who needed permission from the Flames to miss time from a player assistance gig with the organization that has him providing support and guidance for those in the organization battling anything from stress and fatigue to alcohol or substance abuse.

"There could always be someone watching who is struggling and it could really help them. So I said ‘I’m in.’"

Just because there are no fisticuffs doesn’t mean there isn’t the constant threat of injury, pain and potential humiliation.

"You’re always mindful the toe-picks are there," said McGrattan who has done most of his daily two-and-a-half hour training sessions in Calgary. "All the hockey players have bailed on the ice. You don’t have to lean forward much, but if you do you’re going straight down.

"I was watching Sheldon Kennedy on the ice with his partner and he was humming around the bottom circle a little too fast and toe-pick, face-first into the boards. I saw Colton go down pretty hard too.

"Vanessa said she and her normal partner fall a lot too when we’re training and they’re tough. They pop right back up. What scares me is I’m not only responsible for myself but for her. If a lift doesn’t work I just bring her right down and give her a bear hug."

A different kind of bear hug than the type he employed from time to time to end a fight.

"Vanessa asked me, ‘do you ever get nervous when you go out for games?" said McGrattan, who has been working tireless on a 1:40 routine that will amount to the longest shift of his life.

"I had over 200 fights in my pro hockey career and I’ve never thought once before those. I will definitely be a little nervous before this."

Kurt Browning will be the head judge on a show hosted once again by Ron MacLean.

Olympic pairs champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir will be guest judges throughout the elimination series, which kicks off with a two-hour premiere.

"My composure has been good – if you miss a step in the routine you just keep going," he laughed.

"I’ve watched it in the past and knew how hard it was. You’ve got to work on your breathing the whole time."

And be mindful of those pesky toe-picks, which could drop an enforcer quicker than any right hook.

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