Dawn Braid, pro-hockey’s first full-time female skating coach, was only seventeen when she began giving skating lessons to hockey players. Growing up in Woodbridge, Ontario, Braid’s father coached the Junior B hockey team at their local skating club. He thought that his daughter, an impressive figure skater competing at the national level, might have unique insights for his players.
“He saw the value in skating for hockey players a long time ago. He thought it would be a great opportunity for his team to get better,” Braid says over the phone from New York where she’s attending a conference. Her big break came in 2005, when she was hired by the Toronto Maple Leafs to teach at their development camp. In August 2016, the Arizona Coyotes made Braid their skating coach, a history-making moment in the NHL.
Braid undoubtedly did her due diligence to break the ice ceiling. In the 30-odd years between teaching novice players and becoming one of the most sought-after skating coaches in the hockey world, Braid worked with children, double-AA and triple-AAA division athletes, and eventually, players with the Ontario Hockey League, some of whom she continues to coach as they’ve made it to the NHL. She has served as a skating consultant for the Anaheim Ducks, Buffalo Sabres, and Calgary Flames, all while keeping up her private practice in Toronto.
“The respect that’s there is because I’ve earned that respect. I wasn’t great at it from day one. There were growing pains. There was a process I went through.” Though today, Braid’s expertise allows her to glide through male-dominated rooms and rinks unperturbed, being a teenage girl teaching boys her own age came with insecurity. “The challenge of not knowing whether they would listen to me, are they going to trust what I’m doing. It was a matter of earning the trust, whether it was the players, the coaches, the organizations, or management. But they saw the value, and I had to be good at what I was doing.”
“I think no matter what it is, in a male-dominated [field], you’re always going to get people that look and question and are jealous. But overall, it’s a lot easier [today] for women to walk in and work in a typically male position.”
“Those early insecurities were the initial barrier I had to deal with. Did I always get the trust of everybody? No, and I probably still don’t – there’s a lot of men that look at it and don’t think that I should be doing this job. But the majority, I would say, do.”
The NHL gender barrier is increasingly on thin ice: over the past several decades, women have been hired as skating coaches, analytics personnel, and scouts. In 1992, Deborah Wright made hockey history as the first woman to work in a scouting capacity in the NHL. This past August, Canadian hockey legend Hayley Wickenheiser (who has won four Olympic golds and one silver for Canada’s women’s national ice hockey team) was hired by the Toronto Maple Leafs as the Assistant Director of Player Development. Slowly, female athletes and professionals are claiming the spaces that they are entitled to.
“I was never in a situation where it felt that they didn’t respect me and the value of what I was doing. I was very fortunate that there no major obstacles, I was lucky,” Braid remembers. Braid has more than merited the space that she has carved for herself. Her clientele include hockey giants John Tavares of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Kyle Okposo of the Buffalo Sabres, and Taylor Hall of the New Jersey Devils. Still, she still recalls challenges that she faced as her professional career took off.
“I do recall a male skating coach who wrote something about females in the industry and that we had no right to be there, teaching skating to hockey players, and how were we getting these jobs with professional teams. He gave examples of how a figure skater skates, and what a hockey player should do. If I recall, I did send an e-mail or letter to that coach, and explained a few things that he had written that were incorrect, in regards to the differences between figure skaters and hockey players. I never heard back.”
“Even today there are players who feel too cool for it, I’m good enough, I just got drafted, why would I need skating lessons from a female – but that’s not the majority. You’re going to get that, but once they trust what you’re doing and they see the results… if a player doesn’t want to do it, the reaction from me was generally, ‘if you don’t want to be here, then don’t be here. No one’s forcing you to be here.’ I think no matter what it is, in a male-dominated [field], you’re always going to get people that look and question and are jealous. But overall, it’s a lot easier [today] for women to walk in and work in a typically male position.”
After years of tough work, mastering the game, and perfecting her craft, Braid’s expertise has produced some of the top players in the game. The door to breaking the barriers in professional hockey ultimately opened up, she says, because of her reputation of undeniable results. “You don’t want to go in, having them treat you differently because you’re female. I’d say the majority, they think, that’s just our skating coach. That’s our coach. Because that’s the way I feel when I walk into the locker room to throw my skates on.”
Dawn’s tips for challenging the gender imbalance in professional hockey:
- 1) You have to trust yourself. You have to be confident in what you’re doing, and you can be confident in what you’re doing if, just like any position, you’ve prepared for it, if you’ve done the work.
- 2) Don’t let them treat you differently because you’re female. You don’t want to let them think you’re different because of gender.
- 3) There’s a learning process that you have to go through. It’s just like any job, you have to work at it before you go out and teach it. There’s years of preparation, understanding the game, staying on top of how it changes. You have to watch a ton of hockey games.
- 4) You have to perform yourself and get results—these players are elite athletes and you have to know what you’re doing.
- 5) There will always be men who are skeptical of you when you’re in a position of power. Trust your ability and know that if you’re good, others will trust you too.