There is more to hockey then having the ability to score from the hashmarks like Austin Matthews or to go one-on-five like Connor McDavid. Possessing advanced skating techniques is a big advantage when it comes to playing hockey.
Now, teams and players from house league all the way up to NHL are building these skills through figure skating techniques taught by former figure skaters.
When one thinks about hockey, they often see it as a highly completive game with huge hits, physical plays and powerful goals. When someone thinks of figure skating, it is almost the opposite — beautifully choreographed moves with spinning jumps all set to whimsical music.
On the surface, hockey and figure skating couldn’t be farther apart but if you watch closely a lot of figure skating techniques are used in almost every single play in the NHL and are now being taught to hockey players at a young age.
Barb Underhill, former Canadian Olympic figure skater who worked as a Skating Consultant for the Toronto Maple Leafs for 10 years before leaving the club in November of 2021, is often recognized as a pioneer of translated figure skating techniques to the hockey arena.
Underhill said the best part about her job was seeing players improve and reach “that next step” and then receiving those texts after a game thanking her. She says she is just “one small piece to the puzzle.”
Ashlea Jones, a competitive figure skater for 15 years, has spent the past seven years developing her passion for skating and teaching these figure skating techniques to hockey players.
Jones started figure skating when she was only three-years-old and began competing at a national level at 13 before retiring from competitive skating when she was 26.
She decided to become a hockey skating coach after watching her brother’s hockey games.
“When I’d be at their games, I would identify things like ‘Oh, that kid’s skating’s a little funny, if he did this, then it would make them better’, ” said Jones on what pushed her from teaching figure skating to coaching hockey players.
“Figure skating is such a technical sport. Every turn you do in figure skating is marked — your entry to a turn, your exit to a turn it, whether it be an inside edge outside edge. How you do it, your speed and execution, everything is so precise and so technical, it is what makes figure skating coaches good skating coaches for hockey players.”
Jones, who operates Ashlea Jones Athletes in Training across rinks in southern Ontario, said that figure skaters must be very detailed in every movement.
“Not only because we’re launching ourselves in the air, doing three rotations, and hopefully landing on that little one eighth of an inch blade, but you’ve got to hit the proper (skate) edge on takeoff and land on the proper edge,” said Jones.
When translating that precision over to hockey, it makes players more efficient and “makes their jobs easier”.
“We teach players how to pull their body in proper position,” Jones said. “We go over anatomical movement patterns, edging and understanding edge manipulation, and how to hit pivots and turns and we take the technical aspect of the figure skating and implement it into the hockey.”
She says that teaching those techniques to hockey players is difficult to to do because figure skating is known to be more “balletic” and “rhythmic” than the power and speed of hockey. Over the years she has learned how to combine the two sports together to create something that the hockey player can understand and not just use in a game but when to use each technique.
Jones says her program focuses the most on edging control balance, edge manipulation, weight, position on the blade, alignment of the body and making sure that the player is getting proper triple flection and extension.
Jones has worked with players from house league all the way to NHL players such as Ty Dellandrea of the Dallas Stars, Michael Carcone of the Arizona Coyotes and the Edmonton Oilers’ Warren Foegele.
“I’ve also have some guys that got drafted to the NHL, to teams like Seattle, Florida, Carolina, and Minnesota,” said Jones, who also works with a lot of OHL players — the next generation players — who she has worked with since they were four years old.
“It’s fun. I get to see the evolution of these kids that go from minor hockey all the way to the NHL. It’s kind of cool,” said Jones, who was hired by the OHL’s Oshawa Generals in August of 2021 to help improve the club’s overall skating.
Throughout the development of her program, there have been kids and parents who think that figure skating techniques won’t help them. Jones says overcoming this mindset is all about education.
“I get it all the time. ‘Oh, we’re doing the figure skating stuff again?’ and I just say, ‘Let’s knock that down. It’s skating, and at the end of the day, this is where you’re going to apply it.’ I’m very educational in my approach to my clients. I’m okay if they say things like that. I always open my sessions with ‘Ask me questions’. It may seem like you’re not going to use these techniques in a game, but I promise you, you will,” said Jones, who always demonstrates each drill to her students.
She came up with everything she teaches on her own based on experience as well as trial and error.
Jones said she has “100 per cent” seen a benefit to each player she has worked with.
“I was just on the ice with an athlete this morning,” Jones said. “He’s a very gifted hockey player and he’s had four or five sessions with me and I am proud of how quickly he’s adapted and how his mechanics have changed to better his stride, mechanics and his explosiveness. His first three steps are crazy now. Usually, athletes don’t adapt within five sessions. Sometimes it takes longer, you’re breaking old habits and you are introducing new skill acquisition.”
Next time you’re watching the Olympic figure skaters or you’re watching the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs, remember that these worlds aren’t so far apart as you might think. If you look closely, NHL players are using figure skating techniques to better their own game.