Five days after the press release was posted, the buzz had barely dwindled, the surprise still there. “I’ll be honest, it’s a little bit overwhelming,” Dawn Braid says. “I’m not used to this kind of attention. I haven’t really wrapped my head around everything that’s happened.”
Until August 24, when the Arizona Coyotes made Braid their new skating coach and what’s believed to be the first full-time female assistant in NHL history, the 52-year-old had always preferred operating at low-key levels. Her private training business, located in Ontario, maintains no website and buys no advertisements, relying only on reputation and referrals. Her two sons still tease her about social media illiteracy. There is genuine concern in her voice when she says of all this newfound attention, “I was on the ice today, and I was a little worried. Am I going to go in and are there going to be people watching me? Is it going to be fair to the players I’m working with?”
No, Braid didn’t think much of Arizona announcing her hiring, in the final paragraph of a 280-word memo that also welcomed aboard a development coach (Mike Van Ryn) and a skills coach (Steve Potvin). This was merely the next logical step in a long career, ever since her late father first nudged her down this road. She started by teaching an entire Junior B team back home. Since then, she has consulted for the Toronto Maple Leafs, Anaheim Ducks, Buffalo Sabres, and Calgary Flames. She maintains a list of professional players who want one-on-one offseason sessions, including her most famous client of eight years: New York Islanders captain John Tavares.
Now, she is a pioneer … at least, that’s what all the interviewers and well-wishers keep telling her.
“That part of it I haven’t really looked at,” Braid says. “I’m honored if I am the first, but I honestly don’t know. That’s the last place myself or the Coyotes meant for this to go. I have two very close friends in Barbara Underhill [in Toronto] and Tracy Tutton [in Colorado] who are in the same business and work with NHL teams. I think we should respect and acknowledge all of those women.”
“I don't know even how to explain how it took off, and I don't think Arizona even knew that’s the way it was going to go. They were just announcing me as one of the new coaches. It took on a life of its own, I guess.”
For Braid, life on the ice began at a young age, the middle child of 11 in Woodbridge, Ontario. When she picked up figure skating, her younger siblings joined too. “It was easier for my mom to watch six of us,” Braid says. Besides, in a small town like Woodbridge was then, the rink was the place to be.
By her late teens, Braid had already transitioned into teaching figure skaters, like her niece, and running a power skating program. She had never worked with a hockey team before, until her father, Bill White, bought a Junior B club in nearby Vaughan. An entrepreneur who owned several businesses, White had always paid special attention to how hockey players skated, and figured his daughter might be able to sculpt a career from the craft. “I think there’s an opportunity here,” he would say. “I see something in what you’re doing.” In particular, he noticed how one of Braid’s younger brothers, 6' 4" but light on his feet, had been influenced by figure skating lessons. “I think what he saw was, skating is a big part of this game,” Braid says. “Maybe it should be worked on more.”
Since that initial Junior B tour, Braid’s methods have naturally evolved. Whether with young up-and-comers or established pros, she prefers small group sessions, no more than a half-dozen on the ice at one time; it’s better than wrangling an entire roster. Before working with new clients, she conducts frame-by-frame video analysis of the player’s stride. When she started, Braid believes she applied “a lot more figure skating tactics to it,” rather than tailor body alignment to functions that are necessary within the game. “It’s changed from, hey, let’s put six guys in a line and have them skate down and do a drill,” Braid says. “We do a lot more correction.”
Braid continued dabbling with other local minor hockey teams at the AA and AAA levels, but quit for five years to get married and give birth to her two sons, Taylor and Mackenzie. When both started skating, Braid took them to public sessions to “just sit around and have fun.” Before long, though, other parents were noticing how smoothly they moved on the ice, and started asking from whom they had learned so well. “My mom taught me,” they would say.
By then, other women had already carved out spots in the market. In 1973, Laura Stamm began working with Islanders rookie Bob Nystrom, at the request of GM Bill Torrey. In 1977, the Islanders hired Barbara Williams as their skating coach after Nystrom, fittingly enough, spotted Williams at their practice facility and asked for help. Now, two of 30 NHL team websites list women in coaching or developmental capacities—Braid in Arizona, and Underhill in Toronto.
“I thought there was no chance of a woman working with an NHL team at that point,” Williams says today. “It’s such a macho field, and such a hard field. I personally never thought the Islanders would ever do that for me. I was just shocked at that time. That was unheard of.
“I thought there would be more women, but there wasn’t. But now? This is 2016. Women are in football (the Buffalo Bills made Kathryn Smith a full-time assistant; the Arizona Cardinals hired Jen Welter as a coaching intern last year). They’re in basketball (Becky Hammon of the San Antonio Spurs; Nancy Lieberman of the Sacramento Kings). They’re trainers. This is the time for women to break into all men’s fields.”
In the fall of 2005, Braid received her big break when the Maple Leafs invited her to teach at their development camp. Reflecting now, that moment opened a door that brought Braid so much—the consulting gigs across the NHL, the overflowing requests for her services, the full-time job because Coyotes GM John Chayka loved how she worked with their prospects last season. But it’s also why, when discussing her new job, Braid quickly pivots from personal achievement to something far more meaningful. “It’s the opportunity to honor my father again,” she says. “Every day I teach or I coach or I consult I think about him. It is part of what drives me on the ice to do what I do. He’s always in the back of my head.”
White never got to see his daughter coaching the Leafs before brain cancer took his life in Feb. 2006. As Braid recalls, the family had hoped to get him to the rink, but even leaving home in Woodbridge was simply too much. There was, however, a picture printed in the local newspaper, which Braid’s mother snipped out and gave to White. “He didn’t really understand it, [didn’t] recognize that it was me,” Braid says. “I recall that he had a laminating machine. He told me, ‘I don't know why, but your mother says I should keep this picture.’ He was having trouble putting it in the machine. He said he was sorry, because he wasn’t good at doing things like that anymore.”
It’s a wrenching story with an inspiring end. Braid will relocate to Arizona for the season, splitting time between the Coyotes and their AHL affiliate in Tuscon. (She declined more specific comment about her new duties, but agreed they were “an expansion” from her role in 2015-16.) When both teams are traveling, a team official told SI.com via email, Braid will continue to serve as a part-time consultant for the Calgary Flames.
Meanwhile, the congratulations continue rolling in, most notably from her 11 siblings, the 40-odd grandchildren in the family, and those among the 12 great-grandchildren old enough to reach out. This summer, Braid has been shadowed by a figure skater in her early 20s whose brother plays hockey, and who wants to learn how to become a skating coach too.
And remember those concerns? About whether this recognition might interrupt her desire to teach? Here’s what happened five days ago: “The players I was on with today, all pro players, they were like 'way to go Dawn, what an honor, let’s get to work.' It was nice. We went in and I was happy to just be there teaching. I was happy to be on the ice.”