By Kevin McGran Star Staff Reporter – Fri., Nov. 12, 2021
She’s a world figure skating champion with two Stanley Cup rings, a trailblazer in opening doors for women in positions of hockey power.
But when COVID-19 struck and her first granddaughter was born, Barb Underhill’s priorities changed immediately. The baby, Maisy, was taken immediately to the Hospital for Sick Children and put on life support.
“Right away, our life just stopped,” says Underhill. “She was just the centre of my thoughts and our life every single day.”
Maisy is doing well now — “She’s our miracle baby” — and two more grandkids arrived during the pandemic.
“The perspective that gave me during COVID, just wanting to be with my family during (the pandemic), to just be there for them,” she says. “It really was a very difficult time, but it was also a time of great perspective for me.”
She’ll remain a coaching consultant with the Tampa Bay Lightning, who brought her aboard 11 years ago, but working for the Leafs as well — a combination that went from summertime work to year-round — was simply too much. Underhill and husband Rick Gaetz also recently sold their share of the Guelph Storm, the 2019 OHL champions.
“I’ve been struggling with this for a while,” she says. “When I started, it wasn’t a big deal because the job was mainly working in the off-season. But things have changed and the demands of the role have become greater. It got to a point where I knew I had to make a decision and I just needed a pullback.”
Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly is among those missing Underhill.
“I always looked forward to being on the ice with her,” says Rielly, one of Underhill’s prized students. “It was just cool to talk to her about other ideas that were rolling around in her brain, and other areas that she had in mind that players could improve on, and new moves that you could implement into your game.”
Rielly was already a good skater when the Leafs drafted him fifth overall in 2012, but Underhill got him to work on his core and balance, and change to a more upright posture: “To be more on top of his skates versus, like, bending so far forward. I remember looking at the video with him and he said, ‘Wow, I look so much taller.’”
Watch how Rielly carries the puck along the blue line during a power play. Underhill would suggest “a different way that you could change direction, or you could evade a defender,” says Rielly. “Or be deceptive when you’re going back for a puck into the corner. Different ways you could use your edges to beat that first forechecker.”
Underhill’s work with some slow-footed prospects is also well documented.
Mason Marchment, now with the Florida Panthers, is a prime example. And Frederik Gauthier, now in New Jersey, might not have made the NHL without her skating smarts.
Her journey from figure skating to hockey started with a part share of the Storm. Then-coach Dave Barr invited Underhill to work with his teenage players.
“I remember getting on the ice and it was like a lightning bolt, just realizing that that’s what I wanted to do,” says Underhill. “I wanted to be back on the ice. I’d been off the ice for 10 years and I wanted to be back on the ice.
“I became obsessed with figuring out the science of it, figuring out what principles I could take from figure skating and apply them to make them better hockey players.”
Hockey players generally accept that figure skaters are better on blades. Sabres forward Jeff Skinner, one of the best skaters in the NHL, started out as a figure skater. Leafs centre John Tavares had long worked with Dawn Braid, a national-level figure skater, as a personal coach. She was later hired by the Arizona Coyotes.
First the Lightning, with Steve Yzerman at the helm, came calling for Underhill, then the Maple Leafs under Brian Burke. Dave Poulin — then Burke’s assistant general manager, and a smooth skater himself as an NHLer after starting out in figure skating — loved the idea.
“Her energy level was so great,” says Poulin, now a TSN hockey analyst and contributing columnist for the Star. “It’s about making people better. And she brought all the energy and all the enthusiasm, but she also made people better.”
Underhill credits all of them with being ahead of their time, bringing women into prominent roles in the world’s top men’s league. At the job interview, she says he expected to walk into a “stuffy boardroom” with men in suits.
“It wasn’t at all like that,” she recalls. “This was a very forward-thinking room, and the way they brought me in and embraced me and gave me whatever I needed to do what I wanted to do, they supported me 100 per cent all of the way.”
Poulin says there were no qualms at the time about hiring a woman for the job.
“We had different females in different roles at that time. Certainly Dana Sinclair (a psychologist) was a significant part of the group. But from a coaching standpoint, that was another step. But it was across the board on (Underhill). There was no hesitation in terms of doing something different like that at all.”
Rielly says Leafs players have never had an issue with gender.
“As far as her being a woman, that had nothing to do with it,” he says. “Her knowledge for her sport, and the way that she translated that knowledge into what we were trying to accomplish, was very seamless.
“Right from the first time you talk to her, you can tell that there was a wealth of knowledge coming your way and it was coming fast. The expectation was that you were going to work hard, you were going to try to be a sponge and take it all in and improve every time you spent time on the ice with her.”
Underhill officially left the Leafs a week ago. She’s been mentoring her replacement, Randi Milani.
“I taught her my principles and taught her all my methods,” says Underhill. “She’s really taken all of my teachings and put her own spin on it. I was watching her actually with Austin Matthews when he was returning from his (wrist) injury, and I was blown away right at how far she’s come in a very short time.”
Underhill’s legacy is more than getting players to work on their edges. Prominent women such as Hayley Wickenheiser and Danielle Goyette — now player development executives with the Leafs — have followed through the door she helped open.
“I do know that things have definitely opened up for women,” says Underhill, “and I also know that the two worlds of figure skating and hockey have really come together. And obviously, the NHL and hockey players are much more open to working with figure skaters. So it’s really changed dramatically.
“I kind of just happened to be in the right place at the right time, and had a passion for it.”