Last week marked the season premiere of “Battle of the Blades” (“BOTB”), a Canadian competition show that pairs figure skaters with hockey players. This year’s cast is the most diverse in the show’s history with four Black athletes participating. Professional hockey player Akim Aliu is skating with three-time Olympic pairs skater Vanessa James. They received high praise for their first performance.

“I’m really pleased with how he skated and how he performed,” said James.

“Vanessa is a great leader and obviously I kind of follow her footsteps. She was really cool and made me relaxed in taking it step by step and not overthinking it,” said Aliu.

This is James’ second season on the show and Aliu is not the first Black hockey player to participate (that was Georges Laraque in season two), but this is the first “BOTB” partnership between two Black skaters. “It’s a beautiful statement to the world to have two Black athletes coming together and doing beautiful things,” said James, who made history in 2010 with Yannick Bonheur as the first Black pairs team on Olympic ice.

“For me, it’s beyond sports; it’s more of a life societal thing that we’re doing, allowing kids that look like us to believe that they can achieve anything,” said Aliu. “It’s a historical and cool thing.”

A huge component of “BOTB” is raising money and awareness for charities. James and Aliu are both representing The Time to Dream Foundation, which aims to make youth sports, including hockey, more diverse, inclusive, affordable and accessible. Both have been outspoken advocates for greater diversity in their sports, so coming together on “BOTB” and representing the same charity gives their partnership greater depth.

“There aren’t many things in life that teach you as much as competitive sports—teamwork and perseverance,” said Aliu, who founded The Time to Dream.

To finetune their skating and create their programs, James and Aliu are working with coach/pairs skater Dylan Moscovitch and choreographer David Wilson. Although James announced her retirement from competitive skating last month, people have still been asking her if Aliu will be her new partner. At this point, he’s planning on returning to professional hockey, so this partnership is focused on “BOTB” success and making an impact.

“For us to be able to do what we love and make a difference for…something close to our hearts, so we feel very lucky,” said James. “Hopefully, people enjoy what we’re doing.”