The Old Bridge Junior Knights are flourishing after essentially rising from the ashes of a previous program in the northern New Jersey town.
“It’s a replacement, I guess,” said Squirt A coach and board trustee Mark Schroeder, who previously coached with the Junior Knights predecessor, the Old Bridge Wings. The Wings ultimately transferred their operations to South Brunswick in the late 1990s, and the Knights moved in to fill the void in Old Bridge.
“It was a program to develop players for Old Bridge High School,” recalled Schroeder of the Junior Knights’ formative days. “In 2000-01, it started as a structural learn-to-play program, and it’s been built out of that.”
The Junior Knights, a member of the New Jersey Youth Hockey League, now field teams ranging from Mites to Midgets and operate approximately two teams annually at each level.
“We typically run with 11 teams,” Schroeder said. “This year we’ve had a good turnout from our learn-to-play [program].”
This year the number is up to 12, including two Mite teams, two Bantam squads, and three Midget clubs. Teams are predominantly offered at the A and B levels, although there is also a Mite C squad and a Midget U-16 AA group.
“We’ve had an extraordinarily large number of Mites,” added Schroeder, noting that an independent team of 22 Mite skaters was split up into two squads of 11 players each for 2012-13.
The Junior Knight rosters every year include female players, although they haven’t yet had the numbers to ice an all-girls team.
“Only a handful of programs offer it, mostly independents,” Schroeder said.
Home ice also isn’t available to the Junior Knights all year round. Old Bridge Township John Piccolo Arena is partially exposed to the elements, and so the rink is usually only open from early October through late March. It is named for one of the Old Bridge Wings original founders, who passed away in 2009. The Junior Knights later convinced township officials to dedicate the rink in his memory.
The Junior Knights still offer a learn-to-play program on Sundays that not only teaches newcomers fundamental skills such as skating and stickhandling but also explores team concepts and game play. The program consists of 11 weekly sessions that run for 75 minutes apiece, according to oldbridgejuniorknights.com.
Besides facing off against their usual Garden State opponents, the Junior Knights had the opportunity over the holidays to play host to several teams from the Great Britain Lions Hockey Club.
“It was great,” said Schroeder. “It was a really good experience.”
He explained that the Lions were actually made up of select players from a half-dozen or so youth hockey programs in England, from towns such as Sheffield, Sutton and Cardiff.
According to a document at the Junior Knights website, the Lions were invited to play teams in the New York-New Jersey area, with players ranging in age from Mites to Midgets. They were also scheduled to attend a pair of NHL games: the Toronto Maple Leafs versus the New Jersey Devils, and the Pittsburgh Penguins against the New York Islanders. The Lions youngest players were even scheduled to take the ice between periods of those professional contests. Unfortunately, with the NHL lockout still underway at the time, that didn’t occur.
Still, the Lions have gone overseas with various levels of success since 1992, and this time — including the stop in Old Bridge — was perhaps their biggest American trip in the two decades they’ve been taking them.
“It was unbelievable,” said Schroeder.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.
For the last 15 years, Ian Walsh has crisscrossed the United States as an NHL official. In this Part 2 of our conversation with Walsh, the 42-year-old Philadelphia native fielded a series of questions discussing life on the road, his conditioning schedule, mentors, on-ice struggles, the evolution of the game and advice for aspiring officials.
USA Hockey: How do you think you've been able to maintain all of the officiating success you've had over the last 15 years?
Ian Walsh: I believe one of my strengths as an official is my work ethic. I come to the rink every night ready to work hard and give 100 percent. I also believe I am very coachable, and when I'm offered a suggestion for improvement, I try very hard to implement that advice into my game.
USAH: What is your conditioning schedule like during the NHL season? How about during the off-season?
Walsh: During the season, conditioning work is more about maintaining what you built up over the summer. The workouts aren't as intense but you must continue to take good care of your body. Game-day workouts usually include a 30-minute bike ride or a couple miles run at the hotel gym. I also like to do some core work and light strength training on top of that.
The weather in Portland is amazing in the summer, and I prefer to be outside and on my road bike. I usually get in about four days a week of riding outdoors to help build my endurance and strength. I try to play hockey a few days a week as well to help work on my skating.
USAH: When did you realize you finally had cemented your career as an official? What was that feeling like?
Walsh: I don't know if you ever get that feeling. Every night is a different challenge in our league. It is a hard, hard league to officiate. The scrutiny of every call, every goal, ever non-call is such a challenge for all of us. The best players and coaches in the world expect us to perform at such a high level every night, and we have to be ready for anything that comes our way. It’s a privilege to be on the ice in the NHL, and I think that is something no official takes for granted.
USAH: What has been your biggest accomplishment to date as an official?
Walsh: Being chosen to participate in four Stanley Cup playoffs is what I'm most proud of. It’s an incredible honor to be selected and that’s the goal for every official each year. Also, being part of the team that was chosen to represent the NHL at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics was a phenomenal experience and a great opportunity.
USAH: What has been the biggest hurdle/obstacle you've had to overcome in your officiating career?
Walsh: I’ve been lucky so far, knock on wood, that I haven’t had any serious injuries. Other than some bumps and bruises, I’ve been relatively injury-free in my career. The biggest challenge is to be able to bounce back from calls you made that aren't correct. In this day and age, we usually know within minutes after the game if we made a wrong decision. When you make a call that impacts the game, it’s hard on the mind. Unfortunately, we make mistakes and what most people don't understand is that nobody takes it harder than the official making that mistake. Being able to bounce back from a mistake is something all officials must learn to do.
USAH: Who has had the most impact on your officiating career over the past 15 years? What has that person or those people taught you?
Walsh: Nobody has helped me more over my NHL career than fellow referee Paul Devorski. I've worked a lot of games with Paul and we’ve had the opportunity to travel together on the road. As an elite, veteran referee, he has been able to pass down some of his knowledge to me to help me become a better official. Paul is retiring this year, and our staff will sorely miss him.
USAH: How has the game changed, besides speed, since you started in the early 2000s?
Walsh: I would say the biggest change besides the speed of the game would be the use of technology. It is amazing what you see at rink – teams have iPads on the bench, super slo-motion video replays, hi-def video scoreboards, etc. With all that technology, it makes the officials job appear easy. People forget that the official on the ice sees a play one time, in real time, and must make a split-second decision on that play. It often appears quite different when you see a replay in super slo-mo on hi-def after a game.
USAH: What advice can you give aspiring NHL/professional league officials as they progress in their career?
Walsh: I would say make sure you have a backup plan. Making it to the NHL is everyone’s goal, but there are very few jobs available. There are so many factors that go into hiring an official and a lot of those are out of your control. Go and work the highest level available to you. Don't worry about other officials, if you are good enough, the NHL will find you. Also, control what you can control – always work on your skating, know your rules and come to the rink every night with a strong work ethic and a great attitude.
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