Paul Matheson admits that when he does watch a hockey game he'll catch himself focusing on the skating.
If he's out watching an Ontario Hockey League contest, he'll zero in on players he works with to see what they're doing and what they have to work on.
"You do really appreciate the guys that are good at it," said the Mariposa School of Skating co-owner and nationally certified coach who has put in over 25 years of skating instruction.
"At the NHL level, even the guys that aren't known as great skaters, they're still good skaters, especially compared to years ago in that era when (former Edmonton Oilers defenceman and Hockey Hall of Famer) Paul Coffey really stood out, because there weren't many of those Paul Coffey types then."
Recognized as one of the top figure-skating schools in the world, Mariposa has collected a stack of national and world titles and Olympic medals with the likes of Elvis Stojko, Jennifer Robinson and Jeff Langdon among many of the top athletes to train over the years at Mariposa's home base, the Allandale Recreation Centre.
While they were an international school of figure skating, Matheson and co-owner David Islam identified the need for a new direction. So when the popular school was purchased by the longtime coaches in May 2017 from Doug Leigh, one of their goals was to turn the school into a destination for hockey skating as well as figure skating.
Today, Matheson and other coaches work with mite and tyke minor hockey players all the way to junior hockey, NCAA and professionals, including NHLers.
"Skate Canada, they recognize and have hockey skating programs, so that was an area we targeted and really wanted to expand on for more the local area here and say we can help out the community with these kids and they're skating," Matheson said. "It really has come to fruition, maybe even a little quicker than we thought. Now we are kind of a destination for players to come work on their skating of all levels."
A specialty coach dealing with edges, power and skating technique, Matheson believes working with the young players will only help their development as they get older. He credits the Barrie Minor Hockey Association (BMHA) with having the foresight to start such a far-reaching program.
"You're really just trying to, in part, lay foundational stuff that will help them later," said Matheson, who also works with Barrie 'AAA' program. "When a player steps on the ice with me eventually, maybe they're playing a higher level of hockey, but they've done that basic foundational stuff. It helps me immensely to not have to go back and fill in those cracks because we've already done that. We can kind of hit the ground running a little bit, so as a program for the region, it helps out a lot if these kids are exposed to that.
"And the parents see it, and they see the benefits of it and keep it going," he added. "It's one of the reasons I think we are getting to be a good region for developing higher level talent more consistently because we have those types of programs in place."
The recent 2020 NHL Entry Draft held earlier this month is a good indication of how that extra work on skating is paying off for local players. Alliston native and Barrie Colts forward Tyson Foerster was selected 23rd overall by the Philadelphia Flyers, Barrie native Isaak Phillips, a defenceman with the Sudbury Wolves, was selected by the Chicago Blackhawks in the fifth round (141st overall), while Barrie native Philippe Daoust, a forward with the Moncton Wildcats of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, was drafted by the Ottawa Senators in the sixth round (158th overall).
Foerster is a great example of just how much improved skating can make a difference.
"His skating has taken some knocks and, honestly, rightfully so," Matheson explained. "His skating wasn't as good as it needed to be. He needed the skating to catch up."
Foerster reached out to Matheson early in the summer of 2019.
"I don't think he's missed a session since then," the coach said. "He recognized that's what he needed to do and like most of those (elite-level) kids, once they realize that's what they got to work on, then you don't have many options. If you want to change the narrative of your game and stop the talk of Tyson can't skate, you work on your skating.
"He admitted the other day, 'I wish I'd done this years ago'."
Matheson says he talked to one NHL scout who told him his team's philosophy 15 years ago was your skating is your skating and they didn't expect it to change a whole lot. Now, with a lot of players it's something that can be changed and an area where they can improve.
Which is something Matheson says Foerster has certainly done during the suspension of OHL play from the pandemic.
"For a player like Tyson, he's going to turn some heads when he steps on the ice coming out of this because he's not the same skater people saw in March when things shut down," Matheson said. "His skating was better last year than it was before because he put in a summer of work, but now he's put in months of work and it's going to be months more.
"It's going to be head-turning improvement compared to where he was before because of the changes he's made. That doesn't mean it's perfect, but from where it was it's remarkably better."
Seeing that improvement and seeing players he's worked with able to reach that next level is tremendously satisfying for Matheson.
He started working with Phillips back in peewee hockey.
"To be able to help a kid and watch him progress all the way through and get himself to a level where he's now an NHL-drafted player is pretty impressive," said Matheson, who also holds coaching clinics to help them with their delivery of skating techniques at the grassroots level. "That's a select group of players that get themselves to that level."
Phillips remembers heading over to see Matheson with a friend at lunch time in Grade 10.
"He's helped me a ton," the Wolves defenceman said of Matheson. "For me, skating has always been one of my strong suits, but he really helped me solidify that. I really like how you're out there and he uses the iPad. He'll videotape you and you can see what you look like skating down the ice, so that really helps as a player because you don't know what you look like skating down the ice.
"For me, my biggest thing is extending my stride all the way and not missing any power that I can be leaving there. I can see how much farther I can go and when I do it in the next couple of reps I kind of get a feel for that. I think he's been huge in my game."
Matheson also spends much of his time working with local female hockey players, like the Barrie Sharks junior team. When he first started to do private lessons, he didn't have any female players. But on a typical day now, between 30 or 40 per cent of those players he works with are female.
They have also gone on to enjoy success. He points to Alexa Pongo. The 17-year-old Midhurst native was invited to try out for a spot on the Canadian Women's National Under-18 team blue-line and has a scholarship to play at Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass., starting in 2021.
"These girls are good at what they do," Matheson said. "They're out there working at their skating the same as all the junior guys do. That's the level they want to get to and they realize if you want to play at a junior level or an international level, you've got to work on your skating. It's kind of cool seeing them taking the same path."
People have told Matheson he has the dream job of being on his skates all day, and he agrees. He's proud of the players like Foerster, Phillips and Daoust who heard their names called in the NHL Draft, but just as proud of seeing the kids at lower minor hockey levels fulfill their goals.
Kids that started in house league or 'A' level hockey and worked their way to making 'AAA' teams, those are the stories that are pretty special for him.
"They're setting goals that they just want to make the one team higher. One level of hockey higher is their dream," he said. "When those kids make it, you get some pretty cool messages and texts and how happy these kids are that they achieved their goals.
"At the end of the day, that's what sports are supposed to be about for these kids."