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Wolf Pack's Skating Specialist

October 13, 2010 - American Hockey League (AHL) - Connecticut Whale News Release

The Hartford Wolf Pack added a fourth coach this week. Nothing permanent, just another person trying to help the New York Rangers' top prospects win a Calder Cup and reach their ultimate goal.

Barb Underwood, a former Canadian and world pairs skating champion with Paul Martini, worked with the Wolf Pack players on Tuesday and Wednesday, observing and filming their every move while providing guidance to help enhance their technique, speed and strength.

"I'm a technical specialist who helps by tweaking things and finding little areas where players can improve," said Underwood, hired by the Rangers this summer. "I just try to show them better and more efficient ways to do things. Hockey players don't necessarily learn technique. They just get on the ice and chase a puck. In the beginning, they don't learn how to turn, how to stop, how to start, so a lot of guys just pick it up without really learning the actual technique.

"I just want to try to show them different ways of doing things, and most of them are very open to it. If they don't like it, then they don't need to use it. But they can try it, and if works better for them, then that's great."

Underwood works with the Rangers and Anaheim Ducks, along with individual skaters. They included Rangers center Brian Boyle, Wolf Pack left wing Justin Soryal and recent Rangers draft picks Christian Thomas, Ethan Werek and Dan Maggio this summer.

During her stay with the Wolf Pack, Underwood evaluated practices and then worked with players in groups of three, videotaping their skating and offering advice and drills before reviewing the videos frame by frame. She stressed upper-body posture, balance and glide, trying to keep players from bending over too much and/or turning on their heels.

"Players tend to lean over too far so you can't get all the power in your glut muscles," Underwood said. "If you get too far forward, it just changes your balance, so the first thing I teach them is what the right posture should be. If the posture isn't right, you can't get to the muscles that you want to get to.

"The upper body has to be under control. It has to be so still. The lower body is what does all the work and where you get all the power from. The guys who are swinging that upper body and going side to side are wasting energy, so what I try to do is help them to be more efficient skaters so it takes less energy."

Underwood also likes to focus on having strong core muscles.

"If the core isn't engaged, then the upper body is moving side to side, and you just can't move as fast and generate the right power," she said. "A lot of the guys are kind of choppy up the ice, and when you hit that inside edge, you're not going to have the glide. Once they feel that glide, it's so much more effortless."

Underwood said Hockey Hall of Fame right wing Mike Gartner, whose 20-year pro career included four seasons with the Rangers, epitomized what she looks for in a skater.

"He had perfect technique, such a good stride that was so effortless," Underwood said.

Underwood got into the strength-skating business reluctantly eight years ago because she felt she already had enough to do as a Canadian Broadcasting Company commentator and raising five children in Toronto. But her husband became an owner of the Guelph Storm of the Ontario Hockey League through coach Dave Barr, whose 16-year pro career included 30 games with the Hartford Whalers in 1986-87.

"I thought my husband was crazy because how were we ever going to put it in our life," Underwood said. "I wasn't too pleased, but I went along with it."

But when Underwood started going to games, she immediately wondered why players turned the way they did.

"I told my husband that I could teach the players to be better skaters," she said.

Barr asked Underwood for help just after future Wolf Pack and Rangers standout Ryan Callahan left the Storm. She soon got involved in using video, studying different strides and finding out how players skated and where their power came from.

"I came up with the idea for video after my husband had his golf swing analyzed," Underwood said. "I looked at it and said, 'I can do that with my skating.' And that's what I did. I went out and got the video analyzer software, filmed Mike Gartner and few others and analyzed it."

Underwood then got on the ice and learned about what she wanted to teach.

"I just felt so excited," Underwood recalled. "I need to be on the ice, and at the time, I was working for CBC."

Underwood joined CBC after ending her professional career in 1998. She skated with Martini in international competitions from 1978 to 1984, winning the Canadian national title five times and the world championships in 1984. She then performed in skating shows for 15 years, doing double duty as a commentator the last few years.

A year ago, Underwood came out of retirement to skate in the popular "Battle of the Blades" show in Canada with flamboyant former Rangers center Ron Duguay.

"It was a nice connection," Underwood said with a smile. "And it was pretty funny because we did our first routine in hockey skates because I could skate in hockey skates and none of the other girls could."

But the couple didn't fare too well, going out in the third round as Duguay struggled a bit in figure skates.

"We didn't get enough preparation, but it was fun," Underwood said. "It's exactly like 'Dancing With the Stars,' only with hockey players and figure skaters."

Duguay wasn't involved with Underwood hooking up with the Rangers. She was working with Kyle Stephan, son of Rangers scout Peter Stephan, who liked what she was doing with Kyle and some of the Ducks in Toronto. He recommended her to the Rangers, and she went to New York to show officials what she did and worked with Boyle, Soryal & Co.

Rangers assistant general manager and Wolf Pack GM Jim Schoenfeld told Soryal about Underwood and said the team wanted him to work on his skating. Soryal met with Underwood in mid-June and began working with her at least once a week for three months.

Soryal said the biggest benefit of Underwood's teachings is concentrating more on the actual skating.

"When you're practicing and working on your skills in the summer, you just go out there and start skating and don't really focus on your skating as much as you should," Soryal said. "But once you go back to the basics and really thinking about it, it has to become like a muscle memory thing and just the things that she's working on technique-wise.

"I worked on everything, especially with the stride, getting longer and more efficient, and keeping the core active and tight so you're not all over the place. I definitely feel faster now. I was a little banged up for the first weekend, but I feel good now and feel it coming back. I definitely feel more in control, so I have better balance as far as more battling and getting in and out of turns quickly. It has helped me big-time in all aspects of my skating.

"It's crazy how fast she can turn. It's like a magic show. But when we're doing those turns coming out with speed is such a huge thing. If you've done something the wrong way for 20 years, it's tough to correct, but with her staying on you and coming here a few times during the season, it's nice to have to refresh yourself. And she'll give us some things to work on on our own, so I definitely think you'll see the benefits. You'll be able to tell who's doing it and who's not."

Underwood enjoyed her second visit to the XL Center much more than the first in 1981 for a second appearance in the World Figure Skating Championships. She and Martini were only seconds into their short program at full speed when Martini stepped on the back of Underwood's leg, sending the couple flailing across a wet ice surface and into the boards.

"It was like one of those bad dreams," Underwood recalled with a smile. "We were spinning out of control and tried to collect ourselves, though we completely missed our first lift."

They ended up ninth in the short program, and Underwood said she felt like calling it a career.

"I remember desperately just wanting to quit," Underwood said. "I didn't want to do it anymore. It was too hard, too much pressure."

But Underwood and Martini skated a clean long program, rallying to finish seventh behind gold medalists Irina Vorobeva and Igor Lisovski. Scott Hamilton and David Santee gave the United States a 1-2 finish in the men's singles, and the legendary Jayne Torville and Christopher Dean won the ice dancing with numerous perfect 10s.

Underwood said she feels she has won over often macho hockey players, some of whom have transformed their skating with the proper attitude and work ethic.

"I haven't yet come across someone who hasn't accepted me," she said. "So far, everything has been fantastic. They all know that skating is the name of the game right now as far as quickness and speed. If players do things right, they can start beating people they never beat before.

"But it's up to them. I can give them the information, and it's up to them to do it. Some guys do it, and others don't, but you have to commit to it and put the effort in. It's a process. It's not going to happen overnight."

Wolf Pack captain Dane Byers agreed.

"I usually do a skating camp every summer, and a lot of this is the same theory," Byers said. "But it's the first time I've worked with Barb, and she knows what she's talking about and it's not going to hurt. You can always improve your skating no matter what level you're at. And that's the game nowadays. It's a lot about skating and keeping up. She gives you the tools, and now you've got to work with them on your own. She's not going to be there every day, but if you take something from it and learn and practice it, it's probably going to benefit your game."

Gernander appreciated Underwood's presence.

"It has been very well received," Gernander said. "Just like any of us here, she's here to help the players. It's not an immediate, overnight transformation. It's going to take some work and exercise, but as long as the guys are open and receptive to it, it should be beneficial."

If the Wolf Pack/Connecticut Whale wins a second Calder Cup this season, they might want to add a name to the ring list.

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