There was a touching moment recently, after Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe called for a skills practice instead of a drills practice.
That meant using two ice sheets at the Ford Performance Centre. The forwards would have to skate through the one they normally use, then walk across the hall to the one often reserved for the American Hockey League’s Marlies.
As Mason Marchment went from one to the other, he stopped when he saw skating coach Barb Underhill. They hugged and chatted.
The 24-year-old Marchment, a late bloomer among late bloomers, had just played his first three NHL games and picked up his first point. He wanted to thank her.
“Just appreciate all the work that she’s done for me,” said Marchment, “what she helped me accomplish and do. She’s definitely done a lot for me. We’ve definitely talked about a whole bunch of scenarios.
“Playing in the NHL … she’s always said that I would get there one day, so it was special to see her for the first time after my first games, my first point.”
It echoed another moment in the spring of 2018, when Marchment was on the ice celebrating a Calder Cup championship with the Toronto Marlies.
“After we won … she came right on the ice and gave me a big hug,” said Marchment. “That was like a cool moment. I got to introduce her to all my friends and family after that. So she’s definitely been a huge part of my life and my development.”
While there’s a salary cap on players, there is no payroll limit for scouting and player development. The Leafs have bought in big on development, with Underhill their secret weapon — taking players with all sorts of other skills and turning them into better skaters.
Speed is paramount in the NHL these days, and some Leafs say they wouldn’t have made the big leagues without Underhill’s guidance.
“She’s done a great job for me,” said Leafs centre Frédérik Gauthier. “Since I got here, I’ve been working with her and have improved my skating a lot.”
Marlies forward Jeremy Bracco is working with Underhill to change his side-to-side stride.
“She takes what you’re good at already and she adapts,” said Bracco. “She tries to get the best out of you. She’s a great person, she’s a great mind. She’s very detailed. She’s a pleasure to be around, whether you’re sitting at breakfast or on the ice. She’s awesome.”
An Olympian and former world champion pairs skater with Paul Martini, Underhill has worked with the organization for a long time. Leafs from the past who might not have made it without her help include Colton Orr, Mark Fraser and Greg McKegg.
Under the current regime, the four-foot-11 dynamo on skates is not allowed to give interviews about her role with the team. But in 2012, she spoke to the Star about what drives a figure skater to coach hockey players.
“I love being on the ice,” Underhill said then. “I love sharing my knowledge. I love seeing guys improve. That’s the biggest kick for me.
“When I see a guy make the NHL for the first time, a guy that has been in the AHL for six years and then gets the call — or when I see a kid get drafted and I know that maybe in a small way I’ve helped that kid achieve his dream — that’s the biggest rush, to feel you’re a part of that.”
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It’s doubtful that opinion has changed.
Among current Leafs, Gauthier’s growth as a skater is perhaps her most visible accomplishment. Slowness afoot was always Gauthier’s weak spot on an otherwise impeccable resumé. His defensive acumen made him a first-round pick in 2013. He also won gold with Canada’s world junior team in 2015, went to the Memorial Cup with the Rimouski Oceanic and was key to the Marlies’ 2018 AHL championship.
But he needed to prove he could skate with other NHLers to get a real chance. Underhill helped him get there.
“She taught me how to skate again,” said Gauthier. “I’m skating more compact, not using your body all over the place. You’re not wasting as much energy. Use your glutes, your core, your stride, push through your toes — I think a little bit of everything. She helped me get it all together.”
Marchment, now back with the Marlies, might be her next big achievement.
“We do a lot of edge work and making sure I’m feeling comfortable on both feet, then my turns and stops-and-starts and being able to accelerate very fast,” he said.
Marchment wasn’t much of a prospect until he turned 18: never drafted in junior hockey or by an NHL club. Still, the Leafs saw something in the son of former Leafs defenceman Bryan Marchment and brought him aboard as a free agent — grooming him in the East Coast league, then the AHL.
He made his NHL debut at 24, long after teammates from his 2014-15 season with the OHL’s Erie Otters — Connor McDavid, Travis Dermott, Dylan Strome, Alex DeBrincat — had made their marks.
“At a personal level, we’re pretty close,” Marchment said of Underhill. “We’ve spent a lot of time together the last couple years, so if I ever have anything on my mind or anything like that, she’s always there to listen.
“She’s just been a huge part of my development and my growth as a person, not only as a player. I owe her a bottle of wine, that’s for sure.”