Photo: Courtesy CBC

For retired Canadian ice hockey player Jessica Campbell and Asher Hill, a former Canadian junior ice dance champion, their “Battle of the Blades” pairing was a match that was meant to be.

Campbell became involved with the show through her connections with Sheldon Kennedy and Natalie Spooner. After graduating from Cornell University with a degree in communications and her subsequent retirement from professional hockey in 2017, Campbell, a dedicated mental health advocate, joined The Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre as its communications director.

“At the end of my career I did lots of work in the community on the communications front,” said the native of Moosomin, Saskatchewan who subsequently transitioned into a career as a power skating coach. She now teaches full-time and runs her own business, which takes her all over the world.

“I am super lucky. It has been awesome with my business and my clientele,” Campbell said. “I am working with several NHL players and females at the elite level. My goal is to not just work with female players but to work with all hockey players and to work at the highest level. I am working toward that every day since transitioning from playing into coaching fulltime. I work internationally as a pro coach for the men’s team in the SHL and after the show I go to Sweden. My job allows me to travel and work with different players, at both the female professional level and the men’s professional level. My ultimate goal is to be a skating coach in the NHL.”

The former forward for the Calgary Inferno has no background in figure skating, and said that when she was growing up it “was the ‘f’ word in our household.”

“This is my first time ever wearing figure skates so every day is a learning experience. I am leaning on Asher and the coaches and I am learning every day — not only for here but also for my professional life. It is awesome. We are doing Waltz jumps, dancing and jumping and all kinds of fun things.”

As with all the hockey players on the shows throughout its six seasons, mastering the toe pick has proven to be one of the biggest challenges for Campbell. “It is funny because it is all good when we are skating, but when we are talking and laughing and not thinking about it — that is when it haunts us. It catches me off guard,” she said with a laugh.

“Actually, I think Asher and I might have the blooper of the season, where I am skating toward him and I just fall on my face. Hockey players are fast and reckless and I am used to being covered in equipment so falling is not a problem. Figure skating is the opposite, so the toe pick serves its purpose. But when you don’t know how to use it and you are used to training recklessly, it is terrifying.

“But we (the hockey players) are all facing it every day and we are all in and out of the treatment room. The toe pick seems to be the common denominator between all of us.”

Though Hill was initially hesitant to return to skating on any platform, he is happy to be competing on the show. “It is good and I am excited to be part of this experience, the 29-year-old said. “When I was first put in contact with Sandra Bezic she asked me if I had thought about performing or skating in shows. At the time, I was pretty disillusioned with what I was going through with Skate Canada and other things, and when she asked if I would consider being on ‘Battle of the Blades’ I said, ‘I don’t know. Maybe.’ I just did not want anything to do with skating at that point. We had a few more conversations and eventually I reached a better place and finally said yes.

“At first I was leaning toward being a coach or choreographer because I still did not actually want to perform, but after a few more conversations I agreed. And now I am very happy I did.”

Campbell and Hill are working with 2006 Olympic ice dance silver medalist Ben Agosto and choreographer Katherine Hill. Both said they love the experience. “Ben and Katherine are incredible, such a dynamic force,” said Campbell. “It is so fun because they can demonstrate everything they are trying to teach and are great communicators. Ben is really passionate about the sport and teaching and they both have so much passion and energy … we are all just having a blast.”

Hill had previously met Agosto on the set of the Cirque du Soleil show ‘Axel’ when it was rehearsing in Montréal. “I wanted to visit a friend and while he was practicing I got to talk a little bit with Ben who was choreographing my friend’s program, so we had a little bit of rapport,” Hill recalled. “He is such a lovely man, very positive, and a go getter. He has great vibes.”

He is also enjoying the creative process and described his partner as ‘amazing.’ “She is just as quirky as I am, which is good, and she does not roll her eyes at me when I say stupid things, which is every 10 minutes or so. We get along famously,” Hill said. “I think we are learning from each other. We are both competitive athletes but this is a completely different medium for her, so I have had to adjust my way of thinking to make the cross over from hockey to figure skating understandable for her. Learning her story and why she is supporting the charity she is has been really great.”

The duo has been training a combination of lifts that they plan to bring to the ice in the coming weeks. They started doing lifts in a park during their first week of training, which included cartwheels and spinning lifts. “When we were watching it back on video, Jessica was like ‘I have never seen my body do anything like that.’ It was pretty wild and crazy,” Hill recalled with a laugh. “She was telling her mother how she was upside down and stepping on me with her skates and her mother said ‘wear a helmet!’ This is like learning a foreign language for her.

“I try to make funny faces at her, which is kind of hard with masks on, but we are having a lot of fun right now. Barely five minutes passes without any laughter so I think that really relaxes Jessica and it relaxes me as well. I think she is really open to this and has done an amazing job at being more vulnerable with movement and things like that.”

For Campbell, everything about this experience is a new adventure. “The cartwheels, standing on him and the waltz jumps and twizzles — they are scary,” said the 28-year-old. “Stabilizing on one leg is really challenging as is spinning. You would never see a full rotation — let alone two or three in a row — in a hockey game. Spinning and jumping have been the hardest of all.”

To add to the challenge, Campbell is wearing figure skates, albeit with toe picks that were tamed down. “I am wearing ice dance skates and Jessica is wearing figure skates, but we shaved off those dangerous killer toe picks,” Hill explained.

“We are doing dance lifts – pretty much nothing overhead – step ups, rotational lifts and different things like that. I think a lot of the hockey men will be lifting overhead. Where our advantage comes in is that they cannot rotate because of safety issues but we will be doing cooler lifts because of our smaller statures. Jessica is going upside down a lot.”

When asked what he and Campbell will bring to the show that will be different than the two other highly experienced ice dancers, Hill replied with a laugh, “Dance moves! I think our energy is what is going to set us apart and our choreographers are really working not only on the elements, but also on weaving them with difficult transitions. A lot of complicated choreography is going on that is really pushing us. We are doing transitions at a level that I would say a good novice team would be doing.”

The duo was a hit with the judges in week 1. Elladj Baldé said the intricate routine was “incredibly well executed” and Spooner loved Campbell’s edgework and her fashion transition from hockey uniform to halter-top. Campbell and Hill earned a combined score of 16.4 from the judges for their debut performance to “Purple Hat.”

Hill’s charity of choice is FreedomSchool – Toronto, which is a youth and parent initiative that empowers black children and fights against racism in the school system. Campbell’s charity — Do It For Daron — is a program focused on raising awareness about youth mental health, which was started following the death of Ottawa native Daron Richardson who committed suicide at age 14.