Signal Boost: Barb Underhill, the woman who teaches the NHL how to skate

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Underhill working with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Photo from Tampa Bay Lightning.

** Cross posted on The Rabbit Hole.

The Pacific Standard recently wrote an article about NHL skating coach and consultant Barb Underhill.  I have been a hockey fan since I was six and I had never heard about this woman before.  After reading the article and watching a couple of YouTube clips I am inspired and want nothing more than for her to  add me to her list of pupils.  I don’t know how the world of sports has managed to keep Underhill such a well kept secret (perhaps its because NHL hockey remains a marginal sport in the US market?) but I think that proponents of women’s equality in sports should have her face plastered on every piece of marketing material possible!

Underhill, 51, is a former Canadian competitive pairs figure skater who skated in two Olympic Games and in 2009 was inducted into the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame.  After her competitive career ended she moved into television commentating but for the last eight years she has been back on the ice where she belongs teaching the best of the best how to be…even better!  While not a hockey player herself she has been surrounded by the game and really, it doesn’t matter whether or not she knows hockey because she knows skating.  As Underhill points out, figure skaters take private lessons for pretty much their entire skating careers but hockey is predominantly learned in a group setting and skating, oddly enough, skating is kind of learned incidentally.  So if you have done like I have and walked by the figure skaters practicing with your hockey bag on your shoulder shooting the toe picks a snide grin of superiority maybe next time it should be an inviting grin that will hopefully turn into a new friend and free skating coach!

Her first NHL contract was with the Anaheim Ducks and the rest was history as word of her talents spread through the league quickly.  Underhill has also consulted and coached the Tampa Bay Lightning and is currently working with the Toronto Maple Leafs along with a host of other individual players.  The Pacific Standard writes:

Brian Boyle is one of Underhill’s more notable success stories.  The 6’7″, 244-pound forward was a fringe NHL player a few seasons ago, before the New York Rangers sent him to work with Underhill.  With a new two-foot height difference between them, they struggled initially to find chemistry on the ice.

“He shows up and he’s looking at me, and I’m looking at him, and I’m sure he was thinking to himself, ‘What the heck is she going to teach me?’ But the next day he came into the rink and he couldn’t walk,” she laughs.  “His hips were so sore from our session that he knew there must be something to it.”

When you search Underhill’s name on YouTube a couple of skating workshop videos appear where she is giving some teaching points to the audience.  On second glance, I noticed that all of the people in the audience (that the camera pan could pick up) were men! Who knew that a fully clothed 4’11” woman in her 50’s could stand at centre ice, command the attention of an audience of men and teach them a thing or two.  Perhaps this is why in 2011 The Hockey News named Underhill one of the 100 most influential people in hockey.

Underhill working the Tampa Bay Lightning. Photo from nhlshout.com

In a sport as stereotypically masculine as hockey it is great to see that even though women on the ice and in the stands are still regarded as abnormalities and/or exceptions that one woman has earned the respect of these athletes purely with her knowledge.  Underhill’s success does a lot to refute the idea that women cannot coach because they have never played the game or that if you have never competed at that level you simply have nothing to offer a high performance athlete.  Her stellar technique enables her to out skate all of the guys; therefore, it’s not about power or speed per se, even though speed and power are exactly what any guy in a bar and his old high school football coach will tell you is what separates men sports from women’s sports.  Maybe we are a long way off from seeing women compete with the men in contact sports (save for Shannon Szabados) but that doesn’t mean that women should be relegated to the business offices of the arena.  She is one of only a handful of women who have ever coached in one of the four major North American leagues.  So let’s spread her story and hopefully the daughters of today will be the Underhills or tomorrow.

For more on Barb Underhill:

The Toronto Star: here.

The National Post: here.

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