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Underhill giving hockey players the edge

Renowned pair champion achieves success in that 'other' ice sport

These days, former world pair champion Barbara Underhill hits the ice in hockey skates.
These days, former world pair champion Barbara Underhill hits the ice in hockey skates. (courtesy of CBC)

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By Lois Elfman, special to icenetwork.com
(05/19/2011) - It's been an amazing and exhilarating few years for former world pair champion, Canadian champion and world professional champion Barbara Underhill. After 16 years as a TV commentator, she stepped away from the microphone following the 2006 Olympic Winter Games in Torino and allowed an entirely new phase of her career to begin.

She had always spent a good deal of time on the ice with sons Matthew and Scott helping them hone their skating skills for hockey, but when husband Rick Gaetz became part owner of the Guelph Storm, things came into focus. She'd watch the Ontario Hockey League team play and find herself studying how the players skated.

"I'd think, 'Why do they turn like that?' or 'Why are they bringing their shoulders around?' I started studying the technique. I said to him, 'I can make these guys skate better,'" Underhill says.

The coach brought her on board to help develop the young players, who dreamed of making it in the NHL. Being on the ice gave Underhill a rush and she became intent on doing a great job.

She knew she needed some background, so she went to Edmonton and worked with Stephanie Hanlon, who runs a power skating school called Quantum Speed.

"I realized then how much I really knew about speed and power," Underhill says. "That's what I've always loved most about skating. I've always loved the power and the speed and the ability to fly across the ice. I needed to understand the science of it, especially on a hockey skate."

Gaetz's golf DVD which enabled him to analyze his swing beside Tiger Wood got Underhill thinking that she could do the same in hockey. She purchased Dartfish software and filmed players that had been known for having great strides, one being Mike Gartner.

"I studied it and I studied it and I studied it," says Underhill. "I pulled it apart. Then I would film my players and I would match them up. I'd say, 'What's he doing that he's not doing? What muscles is he using? What muscles isn't he using?'

"It's the software and the studying of that stride that opened up this whole world to me," she continues. "I can break down a player's stride frame by frame and understand why they're not as fast as they should be or how they can get faster. What areas need to be improved. It's amazing what I can see by them just skating down the ice once.

"Once I break down their stride and analyze it, then the work begins. That's when you have to get on the ice and you have to reprogram. It's very difficult to change a player's stride, but I know for sure now that it's possible."

Underhill says she's constantly trying to think of different ways of finding power and turning.

She loved working with the young players on the Guelph Storm. Being part of a team was especially rewarding, but her teaching is always one-on-one. She considers herself a personal skating coach for hockey players, something which most of them have never had.

"The technique of skating is never really taught to them," she says.

When her success with the developmental players became known, NHL teams came calling. Underhill began working with the New York Rangers and the Anaheim Ducks and, this season, has added the Tampa Bay Lightning to her client list. She does everything from going to the teams' prospect camps and working with prospective players to helping current players get better. Right before the NHL playoffs started, one of her players on the Ducks asked her to fly to California for a "tune-up." Then she went to New York for another player.

In addition to the teams, she has some individual clients.

"It's kind of exploded beyond what I ever thought it would," says Underhill, 47, who was named in The Hockey News as one of the 100 most influential people in ice hockey.

"I never want it to get too big because I feel if it gets too big I can't get the results," she notes. "It's very individual. I have to be on the ice one-on-one with the player to determine what that player needs. That's the most exciting thing -- when I get on the ice with a new player for the first time and try to figure it all out. It's like a puzzle.

"I look at the skating. I break it down. I analyze it. Then I try to figure out how I am going to make this kid better. Every player is individual, so I make a plan for each individual player."

One of her great success stories in New York Rangers center Brian Boyle, who is 6-foot-7. Mostly a fourth-line player, his career was kind of stalled. Underhill found his height caused him to be out of balance and he wasn't using all the right muscles. After she found a way to get him in balance with his feet underneath him, he became incredibly powerful. Boyle is now one of the top players on the team.

During the summers, players come to Toronto to work with her. During the season, she travels to them. She involves the teams' trainers for strength work and also consults with the people involved with the skates, making sure a player's skates fit correctly and the blades are properly profiled.

"It's a very interesting career change," Underhill says. "I love when players call me and something great has happened. You feel you're a part of something."