Season six of the Canadian competition show “Battle of the Blades” (“BOTB”), which pairs figure skaters with hockey players, concluded last week. Pair skater Vanessa James and partner Akim Aliu finished fourth, and ice dancer Asher Hill and partner Jessica Campbell were second. Both appreciated the representation of Black skaters on the show and the opportunity to discuss issues of race.
“Having these conversations on ‘Battle of the Blades’ is a big steppingstone for diversity and inclusion in figure skating and hockey,” said James. “We have started the Figure Skating Diversity & Inclusion Alliance. It’s not just a strategy to help kids with funding, it’s also a safe place for these kids to talk about their experiences and to meet people just like them that have gone to the Olympics or are professional show skaters or coaches.”
Each skater on “BOTB” earns money for charity. With their fourth-place finish, James and Aliu collectively received $25,000 for the Time to Dream Foundation, which aims to make youth sports, including hockey, more diverse, inclusive, affordable and accessible. Aliu is also part of the Hockey Diversity Alliance.
“It’s going to be an ongoing battle, but I feel like people speaking up and standing in solidarity is going to be a big step for us moving forward,” said James. “Akim and I were given such a beautiful platform to share our stories.”
For Hill, “BOTB” marked his return to performing. After finishing his competitive career in 2016, he has focused on coaching and choreography. He initially didn’t want to participate, but “BOTB” creator Sandra Bezic convinced him.
“The smile that people saw was very much real, genuine joy and excitement,” said Hill. “Jessica and I would feed off each other’s energy.”
It is not easy for hockey players like Campbell to transition to figure skating, but Hill made Campbell look like a natural. They even incorporated sections of compulsory ice dances into their programs.
Hill received $17,500 for his charity, FreedomSchool–Toronto, a youth and parent-driven initiative that fights anti-Black racism in the school system (Campbell earned $17,500 for Do It for Daron, a mental health organization).
“It’s important to speak openly and freely,” said Hill, who has spoken about racism he’s experienced. “There’s no more time for pussyfooting around the truth. We can’t use the truth anymore as an inconvenience, but a tool for change.” Change begins through open dialogue, and Hill said it was great to be able to do that on “BOTB.”
“For me, on a national platform, to skate for a charity that is tacking racism in the school system…and speak truth to power on national television in Canada was…so important,” he said. “[The show] was healing in a way I never thought it would be.”