Skating coach Barb Aidelbaum helps Canucks players keep their edge

From Canucks stars David Booth and Mike Santorelli to economically disadvantaged kids on Vancouver's east side, former figure skater Barb Aidelbaum can turn any hockey player a better skater.

Former figure skater Barb Aidelbaum has worked with hockey players from across the province.

When Mike Santorelli met Barb Aidelbaum for the first time he didn’t know what to think. The teenager was a budding prospect who was great with the puck but lacked quickness. Santorelli’s father Vince told him and his brother Mark that they should meet with a power skating guru. When they arrived at the rink, they didn’t expect to meet a blonde woman whose greatest success as an athlete was winning figure skating titles.

“They looked at me like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’” says Aidelbaum with a laugh.

Aidelbaum wasn’t sure that Santorelli would ever make it to the NHL, but over the years she saw him develop his technique and build his fitness level to the point where he's a legit top-six forward with wheels as good as his hands.

Santorelli isn’t the only Canuck who has learned a thing or two about balance and edging from Aidelbaum. Defenceman Dan Hamhuis has trained with her since he was in minor hockey. Then there’s David Booth, who credits part of his recent resurgence to his work with the former Skate Canada champion.

Aidelbaum works with NHL players on other teams as well as young prospects. In her spare time, she volunteers with younger skaters as part of the HEROS charity she helped found. Add in her experience working with players at the BCHL, WHL, CIS, NCAA and AHL level, and you have a body of work that cuts across a huge spectrum of B.C.’s hockey community.

While the term “power skating” is often used to describe what she teaches, she refers to it simply as “hockey skating” with an emphasis on the power and explosion that the game requires.

“A race car has six gears,” she explains. “The power is in the fifth and sixth gear. In the NHL I tend to work on the first, second, or third gears--that acceleration and quickness to the puck.”

Trying to get millionaire NHL players into gear may sound like a tricky task, but she says pros tend to be hard workers who are always looking to improve, precisely the kinds of traits that lead them to the NHL in the first place.

“Working with an NHL player is much easier than working with a junior player,” she said recently, after a training session with a Canucks player at Rogers Arena. “To them, it’s a business. If they think a nutritionist can help build their body to compete or if a physiotherapist can give them treatment that can lengthen their career, they’ll do it. They’re businesspeople. They know what they want and they know what it takes.”

So how does a former figure skater become a hockey skating guru? Aidelbaum grew up in Vancouver playing hockey in the garage with her three brothers. At the time, there were no avenues for young girls to play organized hockey so she set her sights on figure skating, eventually becoming a Skate Canada triple gold medallist.

While at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Aidelbaum had a chance meeting with “Badger” Bob Johnson, the legendary American hockey coach who won two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 1990s.

Having heard that she was a figure skater and a hockey fan, Johnson--then the coach with the Wisconsin Badgers--asked her opinion of some players’ technique and she quickly analyzed their form. Johnson suggested she should think about coaching. Her technical knowledge--built over years of training for compulsory figures--combined with her passion for hockey might make her a natural.

She eventually started teaching in Kamloops and later returned to Vancouver where she worked at the Arbutus Club alongside her mentor Pam Greenslade and future VANOC CEO John Furlong.

Over time, Aidelbaum worked with players of all ages, from peewee to junior players to pros. And how has she learned to thrive as a woman in a business dominated by men? “Three brothers, that’s all I can say,” she says. “I don’t think a hockey player or a male coach has ever intimidated me.”

She also thrived for same reason anyone else does: hard work and dedication to the craft. At the beginning of her career, she would tape hockey games on her VCR and analyze player’s skating styles, looking for the smallest details. Years later, she can look at a skater and assess various factors--physiology, injury history--to improve their performance.

“Let’s say you have a defenceman, 6’2”, with a left shot and another defenceman who may be the same height but weighs 20 pounds more, shoots right and has a knee injury or a shoulder injury. He has to take a different approach. I have to be a lateral thinker to make it work.”

Aidelbaum doesn’t just apply her knowledge to the game’s elites. She also helped found HEROS, a non-profit that aims to teach hockey to economically disadvantaged children. Started in Vancouver by Aidelbaum and Norm Flynn, HEROS offers programs in every NHL city as well as outposts in Dublin, Ireland and Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Earlier this month, Aidelbaum attended the HEROS Christmas party at the Britannia Rink, where she came across a pair of young boys who were playing minor hockey thanks to funding from HEROS. She asked them if they knew how to do backward crossovers. When they said they didn’t, she offered an impromptu skating lesson.

“In 15 minutes, they were doing backwards crossovers,” she says. “That’s fast. That’s David Booth material. He can learn how to do an intricate move in 15 minutes and then use it in a game. That’s not the norm, but they were so determined.”

It was a scene that may not have been too different from her first meeting with the Santorelli brothers years ago. The two at Britannia may not make it to the pros, but Aidelbaum seems content to teach the two young men how to move on the ice and see where it takes them.

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