By Sonny Sachdeva in Etobicoke, Ont. | Photography by Paul Bolasco
By Sonny Sachdeva in Etobicoke, Ont. | Photography by Paul Bolasco
Part of a group of figure skaters-turned-hockey coaches pushing the NHL to new levels of speed and precision, Dawn Braid makes sure your favourite player doesn't fall behind

It’s a meticulous process. Observe, refine, observe, refine. Repetition after repetition. Hours invested in altering the most minute patterns of movement. But this obsession with the details within the details is Dawn Braid’s oxygen.

Standing at centre ice, arms crossed, Braid watches intently as NHL veteran Kyle Okposo moves through the sequence she’s choreographed for him. It’s just past noon on a mid-July day at Etobicoke, Ont.’s Ford Performance Centre, where the barked instructions from Okposo’s coaches reverberate off the walls and steel rafters as they reach the big-bodied Buffalo Sabres winger.

Okposo coasts through the fluorescent lights towards the far half of the rink, where pucks lay strewn about amid a thin layer of snow. A sheet of plywood stands in for one pane of the practice rink’s glass. He turns back towards the zones he’s been spinning through for the past half hour, resetting before another rep. With nearly 800 big-league games and a handful of 20-goal campaigns under his belt, Okposo is hardly new to getting from A to B on the ice. But it’s what’s playing out in the interim that has his brow furrowed beneath the brim of his navy Bauer helmet.

Posted up a few feet beyond Braid — who’s joined on the ice by her son, Mackenzie Braid, a former pro in his own right and now her co-teacher, and assistant Jeff Murray — Okposo takes off. He flies past the trio and into the offensive zone, pushing off with his right foot and hopping to his left as he cuts in front of the near post of a net placed ahead of the left faceoff circle, darting around it and sprinting to the left-side corner. A simple enough manoeuvre, for those who see only the result and not the blueprint. Braid is all about the blueprint.

Another trip back to centre ice, this time to convene with the Braids. Murray pulls up footage of Okposo’s rep on the iPad he’s been following the winger around with, the four huddling around to analyze the few seconds of work. This moment is where Braid thrives. This gap between attempt and understanding is where she’s built a coaching career that’s brought some of the game’s best — John Tavares, Taylor Hall, Matthew Tkachuk and many more — to her door. With this rink her lab and Okposo’s rep the latest experiment, Braid goes to work adding the proper doses of instruction and demonstration, hoping to eventually yield correction. Her blonde ponytail sways over the grey hood sticking out from the back of her black tracksuit as she talks Okposo through a series of subtle adjustments — a bend of the knee here, a turn of the foot there. The veteran, an eager student here, takes it all in.

“Why don’t they work on their skating as much as we do?”

Reset for another attempt. Okposo flies by again. He’s trying to be mindful of his ankles, his knees, his hips, of every single point in the chain of his movement. He’s straining to counter the technique he’s relied upon his entire life as he moves through the sequence: Whip past the Braids, swing a left at the net, head to the corner. Reconvene. Review. Refine. Reset for another attempt. It’s gruelling work, Dawn says afterwards — more mental than physical, methodically undoing a lifetime of habits; asking the body to do something foreign, uncomfortable, until it becomes familiar.

Sessions like this are the new norm in today’s NHL. A sport with a history of being set in its ways — hesitant to open its doors to diverse leaders or look outside for ways to improve something as fundamental as skating — is now undergoing a rapid evolution, forcing players to get faster and more precise with each passing season. Coaches like Braid, a national-level figure skater whose transition to hockey made her the first woman in NHL history to coach full-time, have been working behind the scenes to spur that speed-hungry transformation for nearly two decades. But, even though her ability to mesh figure skating’s rigid adherence to technique with hockey players’ insatiable need to advance their skill-sets has made her one of the most valuable resources in the game, bridging those two worlds was no easy feat.

In the off-season, Braid can spend upwards of 12 hours a day on the ice working with NHLers and elite prospects

Woodbridge, Ont., was “the country” when Braid was growing up there in the early ’60s, swaths of open fields still separating the clusters of houses. The local rink was the natural landing spot for kids in the area, and an easy place for Braid’s mother to keep an eye on all 11 of her offspring. Braid was two-and-a-half when she squeezed into her first pair of skates. Around age seven she truly fell in love with the rink and was ushered into ice dancing by a local coach.

Twelve years after her first on-ice spin, 14-year-old Braid was headed to Calgary for her first national figure skating championship. She competed in two more over the next few years, but soon after made the difficult decision to walk away from the competitive side of the sport. “I didn’t love what I was doing or who I was skating with at the time, and that’s a hard thing to do when you’re going to the rink the number of hours that we do in a day,” she says. Not content to give up those hours on the ice, though, she transitioned into teaching younger skaters at the suggestion of her coach.

Braid was surrounded by hockey from a young age, having grown up with a pair of brothers who played and a father who was a fairly prominent member of Ontario’s junior hockey community. She recalls watching local players spin around the rink after she finished teaching. “I remember, as a young kid, thinking, ‘Why don’t they work on their skating as much as we do? It’s such a big part of their game, why are they not making the corrections to their skating? If they did, they’re just going to elevate their game.’”

Her father felt the same way. He’d put both of Braid’s hockey-playing brothers in figure skating and when he purchased an expansion Junior B team, the Vaughan Raiders, in the mid-’80s, he decided it was time for a bigger experiment. “He made a decision that that team was going to work on their skating,” Braid says. “One practice a week was going to be devoted strictly to skating for one hour of the practice, and the second hour of the practice they would then implement that skating into their drills. So I ended up working with that team, and that sort of started the ball rolling.”

It didn’t go as smoothly as it sounds, though; there was some pushback against the 18-year-old coach. “That first Junior B team, I’m not going to tell you they were very receptive,” Braid says. “There was a lot of eye-rolling and ‘What the heck is she doing out here?’ But you know, you’d have the odd one, they got it, they understood it. My brother was one of the better skaters because he had done figure skating, and he was six-foot-four. And so I think there was some respect there because [they were thinking], ‘Okay this is her brother out here and he does skate better than all of us.’”

Getting through to that first group may have been like trudging through waist-deep water, but Braid saw enough on the horizon to justify the effort. “I thought there was a niche there to figure out,” she says. “‘How we can make this work, that hockey players would start taking figure-skating lessons?’”

As a young figure skater, Braid wondered why the hockey players at the local rink didn't focus on skating technique the way she and her peers did

With a rink this close, there’s a slim chance you’re getting Braid’s full attention. Fresh off the ice, she’s leaning against a wall on the main concourse, midway through a conversation about the path that led her to these NHL off-season sessions. As she speaks, her eyes drift back to the ice, where an endless parade of kids careens around the pad Okposo just finished marking up. She chuckles as gravity gets the best of a couple youngsters, their miniature, puffed-out hockey equipment going vertical to horizontal, before she turns back to finish her thought.

The game has always exerted a gravitational pull on Braid’s attention, one she had to fight off at times. After that first year working with her father’s junior team, she opted to transition back to teaching figure skating, believing the hockey world wasn’t quite ready for this new-school thinking. She left the ice entirely in the early ’90s after the birth of her two sons, Mackenzie and Taylor, and stayed away for nearly a decade, her attention focused on her family. But that pull was always there, and eventually she felt it again.

The setup was a familiar one: Watching through the glass, hockey players spinning around the ice. But this time it was six-year-old Mackenzie out there, Braid having sent him off to the same power-skating and skills programs that his young teammates enrolled in. She couldn’t help but feel irked by what she was seeing. “They weren’t working on the technique, they were just putting them through drills,” she recalls. So, Braid took matters into her own hands. “I started working with my sons, and then that just elevated to more and more; other parents coming to me and asking if I would work with their team or their son.”

The bridge between that initial return to hockey and her now-established routine of 12-hour days — 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. — on the ice with the game’s best came in the form of veteran strength and conditioning coach Matt Nichol. The two met during the 2004–05 lockout; Braid’s foray into the NHL beginning just as that world stopped spinning on its axis.

“The overall hockey player as an athlete is improving.”

While the lockout ground things to a halt for most in the league, for Braid it opened a door. Nichol, who was working through his usual off-ice training with a group of NHL clients, met Braid through a mutual friend. Frustrated that the work stoppage was barring his guys from getting on the ice with team personnel, Nichol saw an obvious solution in Braid. “I asked her if she’d ever work with an NHL player and she said she’d be happy to, but she wasn’t sure. She was very humble, and didn’t feel like, maybe, she had that level of expertise,” Nichol says. “I just said, ‘Okay, well you’re certainly going to be better than right now — [right now] they’re not doing anything. And it’s certainly better than anything I could ever do.’” Braid was eventually convinced to take the life-altering opportunity, joining Nichol and working primarily with players returning from injury, who needed guidance in recovering the basic patterns of on-ice movement.

Nichol was the Maple Leafs’ strength and conditioning coach at the time. When the lockout ended in July of 2005, he helped arrange for Braid to work the club’s development camp. “[He] had a big role in me being where I am today,” Braid says, “because he believed in what I was doing.” That belief didn’t wane, and training camp eventually gave way to the pre-season, and then the regular season. “It was extremely exciting,” she says. “I had always dreamed of going there. Part of that came from my father, and part of it was just a passion that I had. … It was an awesome feeling, but I knew it could go further, I knew there was more to this. But it was going to take time. It was going to take a lot of work.”

Frustration at the level of instruction Mackenzie received as a young player drove Braid into coaching, where he now works alongside her

If you closed your eyes on NHL hockey in the ’90s and opened them in 2019, you’d have a tough time believing what you were seeing play out on the ice. The evolution of the game has been rapid and radical, with a combination of rule changes, coaching adaptations and natural growth making the league more dynamic, creative and flat-out fast than ever before.

“There’s no question that we see the evidence, and can probably look at a lot of data, that shows the game getting younger and getting faster,” says Toronto Maple Leafs captain and 10-year NHL veteran John Tavares. “And just the overall hockey player as an athlete is improving.” Calgary Flames winger Matthew Tkachuk is fresher to the big leagues, having just entered his fourth season. Even within that short span, though, the pressure to keep his head above water has ramped up. “You just feel like the guys who keep coming into the NHL, everybody who’s playing now, is a great skater. So you have to be able to keep up with it,” he says. “You have to continue to get faster and faster if you want to continue to make an impact.”

The key isn’t simply breakneck, straightaway speed, which has always been in the league in some form. It’s the moments that fall between those end-to-end sprints, the moments in which NHLers rely more heavily on overall mobility and agility. “It’s become so much more of a transition game, where it’s bang — from one way to the other,” says Mike Peca, who saw this transformation begin at the tail end of his 14-year NHL career. “So being able to pivot, use your edges, maximize speed, I mean all that little stuff in transition zones has become so important. And I think having that foundation of how important your edges are, how to transition from one side to the other, and keeping your body in alignment at the same time, is so important.”

The pressure’s now on every player — from the heralded prospect about to break in, to the established all-star maintaining his place among the elite, to the old-school mainstay forced to adapt — to immerse himself in the details and fine-tune his movement. “You need that combination of, obviously, that strength and that dynamic speed, but you also need to be able to manoeuvre and flow through this game,” Braid says.

Adapting a bit of figure-skating technique into hockey has helped some players better keep up with the game’s ever-quickening current. Foundational figure skating techniques once only used sparingly in hockey have now become staples. Take crossovers for example. “If you go back years ago, a player might’ve been screamed at by his coach for using as many crossovers as they use today,” Braid says. “But I always knew — ‘This is crazy. Why don’t they use it? This is how we generate momentum [in figure skating]. This is how we move faster.’”

Edgework is another example — think of the now-widely used heel-to-heel technique, pushed further into the league’s mainstream by Sidney Crosby, Braid says. “They call it ‘the 10-and-2’ or ‘open-the-hips.’ It has a completely different name in figure skating and it’s used differently, but it was a move that allowed players to buy time, create a lane, create space, visually see opportunities — whether it was shooting opportunities or passing opportunities — that definitely was not in the game in 2005 … And I think it evolved [through] more and more players being open to trying different things that skating coaches were offering.

“And now, that’s allowing us figure skaters and skating coaches to help elevate this game, to improve this game.”

Braid jokes with Taylor Hall, who started working with her the off-season before winning the Hart, that some part of that trophy is thanks to her. "He’ll say, ‘Yeah, of course!’”

More and more NHL organizations are embracing that previously untapped well of knowledge, with ex-figure skaters earning coaching roles across the league. “They’re looking to people like myself and Barb Underhill and Tracy Tutton — both of whom are very dear friends,” Braid says. Underhill, a former Olympic figure skater and world champion, has served as a skating consultant for the Maple Leafs since 2012. Tutton, who logged 25 years as a figure skating coach, works in a similar role for the Colorado Avalanche. Ten NHL clubs now employ former figure skaters in skating-related roles.

Nichol, who co-founded BioSteel and now trains crews of top-flight pro athletes each summer, has seen every stage of this recent evolution on and off the ice, and how it’s made coaches like Braid invaluable resources for today’s NHLer. “Anything you can do to set yourself apart from the person you’re competing with for a [roster] spot is going to be essential,” he says. “There’s a premium on skating, and being a big, huge, strong, sturdy guy — which might’ve been pretty valuable 15 or 20 years ago — is not valuable anymore if you can’t move. You have to be able to move out there.”

For a whole host of veterans like Okposo, the game’s changes have meant the sport they grew up playing seems an antiquated relic at this point. The world has sped up around them, forcing them to start from scratch. “As a late-20s professional athlete, a guy who’s been skating since he was five years old, to have to completely re-learn how to do it, that’s tough. That’s really hard,” says Nichol. “For a lot of guys, they have to battle their pride and their ego, and be willing to admit that they don’t have expertise in something that’s so fundamental to their game. To go back and be willing to be uncomfortable, be willing to be awkward, be willing to fail, be willing to struggle with something that should be second nature to them. I think [for] a lot of guys, it’s hard for them to do when they’re already established as pros.”

From her earliest days coaching Junior B, Braid's faced pushback from players who didn't want to learn from a figure skater. Having now worked for five NHL franchises, closemindedness is a lot less of a problem these days.

Braid has assessed players of all different skill levels, from the top names in the sport to minor-hockey players just picking up steam. Regardless of who comes through the door, though, the philosophy of her approach remains unchanged — back to the fundamentals. Back to the blueprint. “Take the basic elements of skating,” she says. “Your forward and backward skating, your crossovers, your edges and your turning … You look at that in a player and pull out ‘Why do they not do them well?’ and, ‘Have they ever been taught correctly how to do those basic elements?’” The key is body alignment, she explains — ankles, knees and hips. “If the alignment is off there, then the whole kinetic chain of movement is going to be incorrect. So, when I say ‘foundation,’ that’s what we’re looking for first.”

In 2008, Braid was working out of a facility called the Athlete Training Centre in Mississauga when a local kid with all-world potential came through the door looking to improve his foundation and everything built on top of it. “It was the summer before my last year of juniors, so my draft year,” says John Tavares, “and I knew coming off the season I had — and, I think, just in general with the development of my game and where I was at — I knew skating wasn’t my strong suit.”

With the stakes high as ever as Tavares aimed to become 2009’s first-overall pick, the centreman asked Braid to attack the biggest weakness in his game. The results, in that first year and since, speak for themselves — he’s become a walking, Hart Trophy-nominated advertisement for Braid’s expertise. The key to the progress he’s shown lies in the coach’s signature approach, he says, allowing him to implement high-level technique without overthinking things. “She breaks things down on the ice to the very fundamentals and builds from there,” Tavares explains. “When you’re playing in a game, the last thing you want to think about is [your] ankle or, ‘Is my stride in the right position? Do I have the proper posture out there?’ I think you want those things just to become instinctive, and that just comes from plenty of repetition and just working on what you need to do to make that natural.”

It was Tavares’s year-over-year improvement that inspired Taylor Hall to reach out to Braid in 2017. The quick-footed New Jersey Devils winger presented a different kind of challenge for the coach: Having already establishing himself as one of the top skaters in the NHL over the previous seven seasons, he came in looking to take an already-renowned skill-set to the next level by focusing on a few hyper-specific elements of his game. That wasn’t what Braid had in mind, at least not on Day 1. “We can’t just jump on those elements, we’ve got to peel back a bit here, peel back a few layers and look at the biomechanics and the alignment and the foundation,” Braid recalls telling Hall. “And if you just want to trust me on this, there’s going to be a process, but by the end of the summer, I believe we’ll be where you want to be.”

Braid's father was a fixture in Ontario's junior hockey community. Her son Mackenzie coaches with her.

Braid’s approach — and Hall’s willingness to embrace it — helped the winger net his first MVP nod the very next season. “I’m not going to take too much credit for that Hart Trophy,” Braid cautions, though she isn’t above a playful jab here and there. “Sometimes I will joke, and I’ll go, ‘I was a little part of that Hart Trophy, wasn’t I?’” she says with a laugh. “And he’ll say, ‘Yeah of course!’”

That ability to better a player’s skating regardless of the starting point has created demand for Braid across the NHL, and landed her on the staff directories of five franchises at different points in her career. Her reputation has always spoken for itself through the performance of the players she’s worked with, but it reached historic status in August 2016 while working with the Coyotes, when an increase in her role with the club made her the first woman in NHL history hired to a full-time coaching position in the league. Even so, Braid is quick to shift attention to others who’ve helped transform the league alongside her. “I’m proud of it, and I hope it helped a lot of women, but there’s a lot of other women out there that deserve a mention,” she says. “So if I could collectively take them all together [to full-time NHL positions], I would.”

Braid opted to pull back from the full-time role after a season, preferring Toronto as her home base. Her sole NHL affiliation these days is with the Flames, a team she first started working with back in 2014. The current setup has her focusing on Calgary once the NHL season kicks into gear, leaving her summers free to dedicate to Tavares, Hall and her other clients. “I wasn’t willing to give that up for an NHL team,” she says. “I wasn’t willing to give up working with players like John and Taylor, and even the young kids that I work with. I love working with those kids as well, and taking some of them from their minor-midget year and watching them grow all the way through to their NHL Draft. You know, I have a passion for this.”

“It might be a deciding factor in whether or not you play in the NHL.”

The Flames crop has put yet another novel challenge in front of Braid: How to help today’s generation of young NHLers, who grew up knowing only this brand of high-octane hockey, adjust to the big leagues. Her philosophy of how best to get them there hasn’t changed. For Flames cornerstone Matthew Tkachuk, who came to the NHL straight from the OHL’s London Knights in 2016, Braid’s approach has been key to staying afloat. “All the details that she looks at, whether it’s arm swing, whether it’s body positioning, the way your stick moves in and out, the way you skate with the puck, without the puck, crossovers, you name it. Everything to do with skating,” Tkachuk says of how Braid’s influenced his game. “She’s taught me a lot — the way I skate now is really, really different from the way I skated the year before I met her, when I was in London. I feel a lot more powerful now.”

That early guidance helped the 21-year-old as he earned three years of consistent offensive progress since debuting in the NHL, culminating in a 34-goal, 77-point campaign in 2018–19 that set him up for a hefty $21-million contract in September. He credits Braid’s impact on his skating as key to him taking that leap — the big-picture step forward a direct result of that small-picture focus on each and every minute aspect of his on-ice mobility.

Braid has helped players at all stages of their careers add power, speed and agility

The results continue to pile up, with stars both young and established singing Braid’s praises. But that sterling reputation didn’t come easy. It’s the product of hours spent watching film each day; of noting every aspect of the game’s transformation; of a steadily built understanding of what the sport was missing and what figure skating could offer it. “You can’t just go from figure skating and jump in and become a great skating coach in hockey. There’s a process to it,” Braid says. “We skate differently — there’s pieces to the foundation that are the same and pieces that are different. And I think, like any job, you need to do your work, you need to study it.”

Fourteen years in, decades longer if you count those pre-NHL days, Braid’s passion hasn’t waned. Twelve-hour days on the ice, a tumultuous ascent to the big leagues, the stakes of working with the sport’s best — none of it has sapped her desire to log hours upon hours studying the game. “That’s what I do,” she says. “I watch the best players. I watch so much video on hockey — yesterday, I think I started at seven in the morning and it was maybe midnight when I stopped watching video.”

Hockey’s had to grow with Braid, too. The doors have had to be pushed open. “I would say if you take it back to the very beginning and working with that Junior B team to the players [today], it’s more acceptable. It’s more acceptable within the league, with coaches, because it’s a focal point of the game. It’s going to be what elevates your game. It might be a deciding factor in whether or not you play in the NHL,” she says. “Going from that first day, working with those NHL players back in 2005, to where I am today, it’s everything that I dreamed of. But there’s still a lot more that I want to do in this sport.”

Nichol doesn’t doubt she’ll do it, not after seeing the mettle she’s already shown to this point. “I know how passionate she is about what she does,” he says. “I know how hard she’s worked at it. I know how many years she’s grinded away. And it wasn’t always an easy road for her. I think there were a lot of people that had a lot of, you know, sarcastic comments when she wasn’t in the room, about a figure skater, and girls teaching guys how to skate and play hockey.

“I’m sure she dealt with a lot of nonsense. But she’s persisted.”

Designed and edited by Evan Rosser.

Photo Credits

Paul Bolasco