He was a little mop-haired kid who was good enough to win the bronze medal at the juvenile level at the 2004 Skate Canada Junior Nationals.
That was 11 years ago. So where is he now? Jeff Skinner, who used to take lessons at the York Region Skating Academy, now plays for the Carolina Hurricanes of the National Hockey League. He’s racked up all sorts of important hockey milestones: the youngest (18) to play in the NHL All-Star Game and winner of the Calder Trophy for the league’s top rookie in 2010-2011.
Best of all, there is the famous hockey video of Skinner ripping off a single Axel in hockey skates to avoid a hit at the red line during a game.
See what CanSkate can do for you?
You see, CanSkate isn’t just for figure skaters who want to learn spins and jumps and Russian splits. The CanSkate of today teaches skating for all – for recreational skaters, or for anyone who straps on a pair of blades to cruise around an ice surface: hockey players, short track speed skaters, long track speed skaters, all of them.
It’s not out of the pale to see that some of Canada’s finest ice-sport dynamos have had their start in Skate Canada’s CanSkate program. And with the revamping of the system – to focus on efficient, fun skill development at the proper stages of life – CanSkate will become the go-to source of skating skills in the country in years to come.
Yes, Marie-Philip Poulin, currently Canada’s most formidable women’s hockey player and a star at the past two Olympic Games got her start as a figure skater at a little club in Beauceville, Quebec at age four. By five, she was playing hockey. But in that one year of instruction, Poulin said the most important thing that skating lessons taught her was balance. “It’s a good way to start, without pucks,” she said. “I think just being coordinated in figure skating, that’s the main part. To learn how to stop and start and stay on your feet, that’s key for sure.”
Currently, Poulin is probably one of the most agile skaters on the ice, thanks to all the lessons on skills and edges and crossovers. She progressed through all the levels very quickly.
“I think I was lucky to learn to skate right away instead of having to try to figure it out on my own,” Poulin said. “I’m always impressed with how skate, but as a hockey player, just turning, quick stops and starts, there’s a lot behind it. It’s not just your legs. It’s your whole body that needs to be stable and just being able to be quick on your feet.”
Olympic short-track speed skater Valerie Maltais took CanSkate lessons for two years at a tiny club near La Baie, Quebec, before she started school.
“I think it helps me with my agility just on the turns and the edges and the straightaway,” Maltais said. “The first thing you learn in short track is just to stay on your feet and crossover,” she said. However, short trackers skate only in one direction, so skaters tend to become more agile on one side of their bodies than the other. But Maltais is a little different from most: her skating lessons taught her to continue to train and turn and do cross-overs on both sides, which helps maintain muscle balance. And one added bonus: she knows how to skate backwards, too.
“I learned really good basics for skating,” Maltais said. “If one day, I have kids who do short track, I think I will introduce them with figure skating. It’s a very good base to learn.”
There is an impressive list of the members of Canada’s men’s hockey team in Sochi who learned their early skills in a CanSkate program: Duncan Keith of the Chicago Blackhawks, Nathan Mackinnon of the Colorado Avalanche ( he has speed to burn); Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings (started skating at age two); Marc-Edouard Vlasic of the San Jose Sharks (known as a good skater); Matt Duchene of the Colorado Avalanche, (has impressive speed); Troy Brouwer of the Washington Capitals; and Cody Hodgson of the Buffalo Sabres.
It only made sense that a hockey parent one day asked Olympic pair champion David Pelletier if he would help his son improve his skating skills. The dad told other dads. Soon, Pelletier started working with a novice hockey team in Edmonton, and then last April, the Edmonton Oilers came calling, asking him to focus on player development, mainly with the farm team and draft players.
Hockey coaches tend to focus on system passing and shooting and only a little bit on skating, Pelletier said. “There are parents out there who have the time and desire to help out, but they might not have the qualifications to teach skating.
“We [figure skaters] spend every year until we retire to perfect skating,” Pelletier said. “Patrick Chan spends the first 10 minutes of every practice on skating skills. It teaches balance, change of direction. I find a lot of hockey players, even the big guys, don’t know how to use their upper body to make the feet do what you want them to do.”
These days, Pelletier said, you cannot be a great hockey player without being a good skater. The game moves faster than ever before. Now the demand for proper skating skill training is growing.
Pelletier says 1984 world pair champion Barbara Underhill inspired him to take this new course in life. He’s never talked to her about it, but he knows her path. “I could see when she talked about it at “Battle of the Blades” the first year, there was a spark in her eye,” he said.
Underhill now works on improving the skating skills of hockey players for the Anaheim Ducks, the New York Rangers and the Tampa Bay Lightning. In 2012, she began to work with the Toronto Maples Leafs, too, using Dartfish technology to analyze strides and body movement to improve efficiency, speed and balance. In 2011, The Hockey News ranked Underhill as one of the 100 most influential people in hockey.
“Sometimes I shake my head and I can’t believe it,” Underhill said. “I wake up every day and can’t wait to get to the rink and see who I’m working with.”