“What is it about figure skating that is so unique? It’s the use of edges, it’s how we use our body to change direction on the ice. It’s something that makes all hockey players go ‘oh’.” — Four-time world champion Kurt Browning
What is the NHL’s new secret weapon to better, faster, more efficient skating? Figure skaters.
At the beginning of the 2014-15 NHL season, the Edmonton Oliers hired former Olympic Gold Medalist pair skater, David Pelletier, as their skating coach.
Over the summer, then New York Ranger and now Tampa Bay forward Brian Boyle found former pair World Champion, Barbara Underhill.
After a disappointing season in New York, Boyle was sent to Underhill to improve his skating. Though he was skeptical at first, he could barely walk at the end of the session, “I knew by the end of the session I got him. He felt something different. He felt like, ‘This is easier,’” Underhill said of Boyle.
“I think that was the kicker. He realized, ‘Maybe she can teach me something,” Underhill continued.
Boyle ended up calling Underhill after the Rangers training camp in a panic. He told her that he was speeding by opponents with a far less effort – feeling strange and unnatural.
“That means you’re doing it right,” Underhill reminded him.
Living in San Jose, California I have seen this art of ‘power skating’ become a huge part of hockey training for younger skaters.
In the same summer Underhill worked with Boyle, former figure skater, Cathy Andrade (coach and owner of Cathy’s Power Hour) worked with San Jose Sharks forward, Joe Pavelski, who finished third in the NHL last season, with 41 goals, and is now among the NHL’s most consistent goal scorers.
“I was pretty nervous. He was my first official NHL player,” Andrade said, “We stepped on the ice and he was just ready to work. He wanted to make his skating as efficient as he could. We worked on stride mechanics and quick feet and he did it all. He worked very hard.” Andrade has now become a fixture in Northern California’s emerging hockey community.
“I remember walking into a rink and visiting a team and the dads looking me and shaking their heads going, ‘This is going to be a waste of time,’” Andrade said, “By the end of the time, those are the ones chasing you in parking lot going, ‘Hey, can you give me a private lesson?’”
This movement of hiring figure skaters isn’t just a recent phenomenon, it’s a movement pioneered by Laura Stamm. Stamm was a former figure skater who was still wearing figure skates when she started working with the Rangers in 1972, after being discovered training in their practice facility.
In the early 1980s, Laura Stamm started working Bob Nystrom, a New York Islanders prospect, who eventually became a key contributor to that dynasty, and won four straight Stanley Cups with the team.
Stamm kept the arrangement hush-hush as a courtesy to Nystrom, “I never told anyone about it. At that time, you didn’t have a girl coaching a pro hockey player,” Stamm said. “He went on the tell everybody that if it wasn’t for me he wouldn’t have made it in the NHL.”
In the years to follow, she ended up working some of the best players in the NHL. Hall-of-Famer, Luc Robitaille, Ken Daneyko, Doug Brown, Eric Desjardins, Adam Graves, Larry Murphy, and Scott Niedermayer are just some examples of the talent she trained.
In 2011, at age 19, Jeff Skinner became the youngest rookie to ever win the Calder Trophy. Skinner started playing hockey at age 3, and at 6, he started figure skating. He won the bronze medal in juvenile boys at Skate Canada Junior Nationals in 2004.
“He was a talented skater all around. He had a lot of speed and was also very artistic,” says Tracey Wainman, Skinner’s figure skating coach of six years,“It’s interesting because he was also in hockey, both complemented each other.”
Skinner, who was 13 when he decided to choose hockey over figure skating, explains, “I think you see little bits of figure skating in the way I skate in hockey. I think it helped me a lot. Just being on the ice that much as a kid helps you be comfortable on your skates. It’s obviously given me a unique skating style that is sort of different from other guys. From my experience, it definitely helps.”
Skinner isn’t the only one that took to figure skating before deciding to take the hockey route. Former and current NHL players, including Paul Kariya, Dave Poulin, Colby Armstrong, and 2011 Winnipeg draft pick, Zachary Yuen all started out in figure skating.
With that precedent, coupled with proven results from Stamm, Underhill, and Andrade, it is now becoming more inspiring to NHL teams to keep a figure skating coach on call.
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