Paul Matheson hopes to literally give Toronto Maple Leafs an edge in their skating.
A specialty coach dealing with edges, power and skating technique, Matheson recently joined the Leafs as a skating consultant with the National Hockey League team’s development staff.
The Mariposa School of Skating’s co-owner and a nationally certified coach, Matheson has broken skating down to a science.
“The way the game has trended now and with the speed of the game, skating has become arguably the most important aspect that they (players) need and without it you can’t play,” he told BarrieToday.
“It’s not just speed. That’s something that probably is almost overrated at times. It’s the agility and the balance. Skating encompasses so many things. It’s a lot of the subtleties that are now highlighted even more," Matheson added.
Matheson said most hockey players have a skating coach these days, or access to one, and to help with those subtleties he speaks about in such detail.
“It’s being able to use your edges, like the use of your outside edge is critical to be able to do crossovers and to be able to manipulate small spaces on the ice and escapes along the boards,” he explained. “Acceleration is so huge and it’s something that every player needs to get better at. There’s very few players out there that you would say are great at acceleration. It’s something that every player needs to work on.
“If you can be better in your first two or three steps and accelerate, you’ll notice a huge advantage over the course of a game,” Matheson added. “There’s not a lot of long distance races in a hockey game. Most of the races are short distance, and even if it is a longer distance race, if you win the first three steps, you’re in first place. There’s not a lot of players who are just gifted with it.”
But there is one obvious example — Connor McDavid, captain of the Edmonton Oilers and the NHL’s scoring champion again this past hockey season.
McDavid is arguably the game’s faster player, and he can handle the puck at that same blinding speed.
“McDavid would be at the top of the list,” Matheson said. “He does so many things well in skating, but he can get going full speed so quickly it puts the defending player in a tough situation and that’s his advantage, over and over and over throughout the course of a game.
“Honestly there are players out there that are as fast as McDavid,” he explained. “The difference is McDavid can process game information at that top speed and that is a huge, huge differentiator. He can be going at that speed and be able to process where his players are with him, what the defence is doing, where toes are pointed on the ice, to try to exploit those players and any mistakes that they might make in their footwork.
“That’s what sets him apart. A player will make a subtle defensive misstep and McDavid will process that and take advantage of it immediately.”
Matheson has more than a quarter-century of experience with skating instruction, but when he and David Islam bought Mariposa from Doug Leigh five years ago they found a new direction for the school — a destination for hockey skating as well.
Today, Matheson and other coaches work with mite and tyke minor hockey players all the way up to junior hockey, colleges, universities and professionals, including the NHL.
He says the challenge in hockey is to skate well while still handling the puck, and that most players are slower when they have the puck.
“The multi-tasking part of skating is being able to manipulate the puck around defending sticks and defending players at top speed, again is what sets those great players apart,” Matheson said. “So many players almost stop skating when they have to do something with the puck. Those other players, they do it both at the same time.”
One player, other than McDavid, who played the game at top speed was Montreal Canadiens legend Guy Lafleur, who died April 22. Lafleur was a terror to defenders in the 1970s, much like McDavid is now.
“Even watching some of the highlights of Lafleur, some of the things that caught me… he was doing crossovers through the neutral zone more than most players did back then,” Matheson said. “That’s something that McDavid does now consistently and more and more players do.
"You don’t skate straight-line strides through the neutral zone very often because it’s very one-dimensional. Lafleur was a guy who was doing crossovers through the neutral zone.”
Matheson said he teaches different things to hockey centres and wingers, and to defencemen — although the skills are not as different as one might think. Forwards need to be able to skate backwards, too.
“A player with the puck who’s going backwards, he’s opened up so many more passing lanes and options, that it makes it much harder to defend, “ Matheson explained. “And more defending players are using forward skating because backwards skating becomes a disadvantage. The forward skating is so fast you just simply can’t match it with backward skating.
“You need to be able to do all of it (skating), whether you’re a forward or 'D'. If you are a defenceman, there’s specific footwork within playing defence that you need to be good at. But if your team doesn’t have the puck, you’re a defending player and you’re going to have to do some of that footwork.”
With the Leafs in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs against the Tampa Bay Lightning — Game 2 goes tonight at 7:30 p.m. at Scotiabank Arena, with Toronto holding a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series — Matheson doesn’t expect to be giving much skating instruction to the players on the big club in the near future.
But he will be ready, if asked.
“I’m at their mercy as to what they want me to do. As of yet, it’s just been the Marlies that I’ve seen,” he said, referring to the Leafs’ American Hockey League affiliate. “Given the time of the season… obviously it’s not a time when you’re going to introduce a new voice and a new face to the group as you go into playoffs.”
But starting a few weeks ago means he can hit the ground running in the summer with prospects, draft picks and some of the development programs for the summer, starting in July.
The Leafs also hired Michele Moore, a former Mariposa skater who Matheson coached years ago, as a skating consultant.
Matheson has been in Barrie for nearly 30 years, but hails from Embro, a small community between Stratford and Woodstock.
“I grew up on a farm there, my brothers still run the farm,” he said. “It’s tiny, it’s got its arena and a really great little community.”
So the bright lights of Toronto await him.