Audrey Bakewell remembers watching a young goaltender on the ice at a Calgary Flames training camp in the 1980s. The kid was a promising rookie, but the team didn’t think he was ready to be a starter.
“At the end of the camp, they asked me to rate the goalies and I rated him No. 1,” she says. “They just looked at me squirrely. About two months later they had their PR guy phone and he said, ‘How did you know? We want to know how you knew.’”
The goaltender’s name was Mike Vernon, and he would go on to play 19 seasons in the NHL while winning Stanley Cups with the Flames in 1989 and the Detroit Red Wings in 1997.
Bakewell, meanwhile, has been helping hockey players become stars for over four decades. The list of players who she’s trained how to skate is a who’s who of present and future Hall of Famers: Sidney Crosby, Jarome Iginla, Scott Niedermayer, Cam Neely, Mark Messier and Paul Coffey just to name a few.
Now 62 years old, Bakewell is still on the road. She was in town last week for a pair of skating camps at the Nelson and District Community Complex, which for the players present meant doing unorthodox drills like spinning down the ice on their knees before returning, often awkwardly, backwards on their heels.
Her drills have changed over the years, but the skills they emphasize — control and core strengthening, for example — remain the same.
“Kids get really bored doing the same thing over and over and over again,” she says. “So I try to do things they haven’t done before, and I’m training the mind as much as the body. It takes 21 days to train a muscle and I usually have five. So I have to come up with methods that will make sense to the players at yet at the same time unusual enough it keeps them interested.”
Bakewell’s career had a serendipitous start.
In the 1970s she was a fledgling figure skater in Edmonton when the coach of her brother’s bantam hockey team asked if she’d help his players improve their skating. Bakewell took an interest in the sport, and later approached then-NHL player Bruce MacGregor with an offer to help out at his hockey camp.
He agreed, even though Bakewell didn’t know all that much about hockey. She remembers being baffled that skaters wouldn’t perch at the opposing net and just wait for a pass.
“So I went down where nobody was and the goalie says, ‘What are you doing here?’ I said, ‘You just get ready, I’m going to score on you.’ I tapped my stick, puck please. Leon Abbott was the coach that year. He calls me over and he goes, ‘So, you know what off-side is?’ Nope!”
That camp led to a hockey instructor job at the University of Alberta during her final year as a student, during which she started developing her ideas about skating with an eye on a career in hockey. In 1976 she was hired by the WHL’s Portland Winter Hawks, and shortly after went pro with the Edmonton Oilers when the team was still part of the World Hockey Association.
Later on she worked in the NHL for Calgary and the St. Louis Blues, the latter of whom she taught ballet and jazz to strengthen their core muscles.
“When teams started coming into their sessions with their arms above their heads and going on their tippy toes, I figured they figured it out.”
A typical Bakewell class begins with a slow session to learn the motions, like football players walking through plays. One of her first drills at the NDCC, for example, was for players to slowly skate a distance on one foot without falling over.
“You can cheat going fast,” she says. “You can also cheat going forward. So once they’ve got reasonable position, just to throw a clinker at them, I make them do it backwards. They’re like, ‘Holy smokes I thought I could do this.’ And it’s like starting all over.
“But I want them to be as comfortable backwards as forwards because in the future you can market yourself more. So it’s all about, for me, the future.”
The players who succeed take her drills seriously. Crosby, who Bakewell taught at the beginning of his NHL career, stood out for his dedication to the program. Hall of Fame forward Brett Hull made an impression after Bakewell challenged him to skate backwards as well as the defencemen.
They also didn’t care about Bakewell’s gender. Women are as rare a sight in hockey camps now as they were in the 1970s, but Bakewell’s best students were more concerned with what she could teach them.
“With the Winter Hawks, I forget what I was doing but I scored on their top goalie,” she says. “It was probably a total fluke, but that went around the league immediately. ‘She does know what’s going on’ type thing. I would also analyze them in their games and tell them what was going to make them better. I also taught a lot of the really tough guys, and that extended their careers beyond the fighting.”
Bakewell eventually left the NHL to focus on junior players. She doesn’t hold as many camps as she used to, and mostly sticks to Western Canada with a few trips to assist teams in Europe.
The game has also changed since she was teaching players how to pirouette.
Now Bakewell emphasizes speed and response times, which reflects how hockey has transformed since the 2004-05 lockout. Her offerings are also more diverse, with options for stride classes or defensive skating for example. She also doesn’t skate as much as she used to. “I observe more. It’s needed more now.”
The longevity of her career is also making itself known in another way: she’s now teaching the children of former pupils. Bakewell never had children of her own, there’s was no time for that, but she’s come to care for her players in a similar way.
“I enjoy the thousands I’ve taught,” she says, before skating onto the ice to teach another generation how to move like stars.