BRANDON — Barb Underhill still chuckles when she thinks about her path to the NHL.
The former Canadian Olympic figure skater made her name on the ice by winning a world championship with pairs partner Paul Martini in 1984. When her husband, Rick Gaetz, bought the junior Ontario Hockey League’s Guelph Storm in 2006, Underhill found a reason to return to the rink after a decade away from it.
“I jumped on the ice, and it was like all of these light bulbs were going off,” Underhill said. “It was like, ‘Oh my gosh. This is where I need to be. This is home.’ "
For more than a decade, Underhill has continued to build on her impressive skating pedigree — which also includes a bronze-medal finish at the 1983 world championships — by helping hockey players improve their on-ice mechanics.
She has assisted the Lightning for the past 12 years, working alongside fellow skating coach Tracy Tutton to help players such as Brayden Point and Anthony Cirelli become the skaters they are today.
“Because I skate and because I’ve skated my whole life, I watch them skate and I can almost feel what they’re feeling,” said Underhill, 59. “I can almost feel if a player is all hunched over while skating down the ice and it looks really, really hard. I know that that feels like they have a refrigerator on their back.”
Underhill played a huge role in helping Point develop into one of the fastest skaters in the NHL. They worked on his form and explosiveness over the course of the 2015-16 season, when Point played for junior Western Hockey League Moose Jaw. Today, Underhill has about 250 videos, mostly game footage, of Point in a library of about 16,000.
Underhill spent four days at the Lightning’s development camp at TGH Ice Plex in Brandon last week, helping the next wave of NHL hopefuls.
She spent hours instructing players in small groups. She looked at their mechanics and used a tablet to record them skating. That allowed her to show a player something instantly.
“They all want to see themselves and what they look like so when I explain it, it just makes sense,” Underhill said.
When Underhill starts working with a player, she knows she has a small window in which to gain his trust. Even with her resume, it isn’t automatic, which is why she spends a lot of time in her first session with a player trying to get him to feel or see something differently.
Follow all the action on and off the ice
Subscribe to our free Lightning Strikes newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
As she watches video of the players skating, Underhill looks for the sweet spot on the blade. Together, they work through blocks or weaknesses that are preventing them from finding their stride.
“Sometimes it’s easy. Sometimes it’s really hard and there’s a big long process, but sometimes in one session I can get them there, I can get them to that place,” Underhill said. “And there’s a moment that I know.”
The 1-on-1 work is critical to a player’s development, which is why Underhill and Tutton over North America to work with players at all levels.
Last season, Underhill flew to Spokane, Washington, and Winnipeg to work with Jack Finley, the Lightning’s top pick (second round, 57th overall) in the 2020 draft. The 19-year-old forward split time in the junior Western Hockey League with Spokane and Winnipeg.
They worked on his speed and strength, facets of the game Finley wasn’t fully accessing especially coming off a shoulder injury that kept him out for much of the 2019-20 season.
“I got in a lot of really good work with her, and she’s helped me out so much,” Finley said.
The skating improvements helped Finley’s playmaking, too. He finished last season with 50 points in 60 games and is likely to make his pro debut next season at AHL Syracuse.
Fellow forward prospect Gage Goncalves, taken five picks after Finley in 2020, also credits Underhill with his improvement. Goncalves, who is coming off his first full season at Syracuse, worked with Underhill and Tutton last season to hone his stride and speed.
“Barb and Tracy have done an unbelievable job with everything,” Goncalves, 21, said. “Coming in early (on practice days), staying later on game days and stuff like that, breaking down so much video for us, they’ve been a big stepping stone in my development so far.”
Contact Mari Faiello at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @faiello_mari.
• • •
Sign up for Lightning Strikes, a weekly newsletter from Bolts beat writer Eduardo A. Encina that brings you closer to the ice.
Never miss out on the latest with the Bucs, Rays, Lightning, Florida college sports and more. Follow our Tampa Bay Times sports team on Twitter and Facebook.