A bit of a common theme for some of the prospects and draft picks for the Tampa Bay Lightning is the scouting report comment “needs to improve his skating”. This is something that the Lightning organization isn’t too worried about, as they employ two of the top skating consultants in all of hockey, Barbara Underhill and Tracy Tutton. This tandem has been responsible for much of the skating improvement for many players in the organization, as well as being pioneers for women having a greater role in the coaching ranks of the NHL.
From Figure Skater to Power Skating Coach
If anybody understands how important it is to navigate that thin blade on the bottom of a skate, it is Underhill. At the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, Underhill and partner Paul Martini were one of the favorites for the gold medal in pairs skating. However, during their short program, she lost an edge and fell, taking out her partner in the process, ending any hopes for the duo to medal and something that Underhill referred to as “beyond devastating at the time.” Fortunately, the pair did rebound later in the year to win the World Championships.
Fast forward to 2006 and Underhill and her husband Rick Gaetz have become part owners of the Ontario Hockey League’s Guelph Storm. It was at that time that the head coach asked her to help improve his players’ skating. Without a hockey background, it took a lot of trial and error for her to figure out what needed to be done to help hockey players improve their skating skills. After immersing herself in the task, she was able to put together a program and within a year, NHL teams were reaching out to her for help.
Underhill became involved with NHL teams such as the Anaheim Ducks and the New York Rangers before ending up as the skating consultant for the Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs. Head coach Jon Cooper has had a long association with her, going back to his days in the American Hockey League. In the fall of 2012, while she was working with the Lightning’s prospects in Syracuse, Cooper called her into the locker room for a player meeting before practice. It was at that time the team presented her with a Calder Cup championship ring, recognizing her efforts in helping them win the title in Norfolk the previous season.
Among her many success stories involves current Lightning player Brayden Point. The Lightning had drafted him with the 79th selection in the 2014 NHL Draft, knowing that he dropped in the draft due to his skating skills, along with his smaller stature. After his first Lightning Development Camp, the team sent Point to work with Underhill. She identified the flaws in his technique and showed him where he could make improvements using slow-motion video, so he could see where he was going wrong. Point took all of the information in, worked on his skating, and became what Cooper described as “Going from an okay, decent skater to an exceptional skater.”
Point is just one of the many Lightning players that Underhill has helped. Cooper pointed out that “Barb has helped Brayden, but she’s helped numerous players on our team, the (Anthony) Cirellis, and the (Cedric) Paquettes. She gives you the fundamentals to do it, the players work with it, and guys like Pointer benefit because of it.”
The other part of the buying-in piece is having hockey players willing to get skating advice from former figure skaters. When Underhill was hired by the Maple Leafs in 2010, there was just a little skepticism from the Toronto board room, but that quickly went away after witnessing her results.
“Barb is a pioneer,” Maple Leafs executive Hailey Wichenheiser said. “She made an impact on a lot of players. The No. 1 skill in hockey outside of thinking about the game is to be able to skate the game. Barb left her mark and re-invigorated a lot of their careers. Pick a lot of names with the Leafs or others across the league, she probably worked with them” (from ‘Barb Underhill leaving her skating instructor post with Leafs’, Toronto Sun, Nov. 5, 2021).
Underhill Recruits Tracy Tutton
It was a chance encounter on a vacation in Mexico that led to adding longtime friend and former figure skater Tracy Tutton to the mix. It was a little poolside chat that led Tutton to become a skating coach and eventually join Underhill in working in the Lightning organization. The pair have known each other since the seventh grade, going to the same school as well as being up-and-coming figure skaters with the same coach. 50 years later, the duo was instrumental in helping the Lightning win back-to-back Stanley Cup championships.
Underhill, Tutton, as well as fellow skating coach Dawn Braid, have been instrumental in adopting cutting-edge techniques that have helped players on the Lightning and others in the NHL become better skaters. They have helped deepen the relationship between figure skating and hockey, taking the tools of one sport and injecting them into another with such aspects as smoothing skaters’ laborious strides and helping with injury prevention.
In developing her power skating techniques, Tutton’s program includes such features as t-spine rotation (“the ability to rotate your rib cage around your spine without affecting your balance”), counter-torquing, and triple extension (with the hip, knee, and ankle open), and hockey terms such as mohawk turn and crossover. In the process of trying to help all of the players, she will often employ three to four video monitors, keeping an eye on the players during games and cutting up video clips to show what they’re doing right and wrong.
As Underhill has worked with Point, Tutton has worked a great deal with Lightning forward Anthony Cirelli since he was 17 while playing for the OHL’s Oshawa Generals. One example of why she has grown to love this profession is summed up in her statement on “how much of a difference it can make to a hockey player to be able to do what we can do.”
It could be argued that offering Underhill and then later Tutton may have been one of the best moves that former general manager Steve Yzerman has made. Not only has it given the chance for women to have larger roles in the NHL, but their ability to improve players’ skating skills has been a major factor in the Lightning’s success in recent years.
Jim Bay writes about the Tampa Bay Lightning for THW. A retired Special Education Teacher, Jim enjoys writing about hockey and all sports when he is not slashing his way around local golf courses. For interview requests or to provide content info, follow Jim on Twitter. (https://twitter.com/baysports007)