One night in 2011, Knoxville Amateur Hockey Association House Program Director Tom O’Brian and coach Randy Wolfenbarger were “kicking around” ideas about doing something different for the boys in KAHA.
The end result was Hockey Night in Knoxville, an event that was held for the second time on Feb. 9 at the Icearium in West Knoxville.
“We started thinking it would be nice to give the kids a different experience, like skating out under spotlights,” O’Brian said. “We were trying to give the kids an NHL experience.
“We’re in a small rink and we’re not in a hotbed of hockey.”
The first Hockey Night in 2012 was an unqualified success with over 1,200 people in attendance. What made the second annual Hockey Night in Knoxville even more special was the fact it celebrated the 50th anniversary of the association.
“[Hockey Night] was a big part of our celebration,” O’Brian said. “Nobody would ever think hockey would be in east Tennessee for 50 years. Everybody is shocked when they know we’ve been around for 50 years. We’ve even had kids who’ve gone on to become coaches.
“Compared with Boston and Buffalo, it’s an accomplishment. The fact that we’ve had volunteers who built this program and kept it alive is a great testament to the game and our program.”
The goal of Hockey Night in Knoxville, which features a series of fast-paced games, is to continue to drive awareness of the KAHA programs, to encourage membership, to recognize players’ achievements and to celebrate passion for the sport of ice hockey.
“It’s about keeping our player retention high,” O’Brian said.
Admission is free, but the association prints tickets that their players distribute to their friends at school and in their respective neighborhoods.
“It’s a way for them to say, ‘We play hockey so come and watch us,’” O’Brian said.
When players walk into their locker room, one of the first things they see is a magnetic strip on each locker, which includes the player’s number.
Players also receive a “goodie bag” that contains a towel with the KAHA logo, a sticker for their helmets and assorted hockey-related items donated by USA Hockey.
“USA Hockey sent different things that helped make the night a success,” O’Brian said. “Our local Pepsi company distributed Gatorade bottles that were just like the ones NHL players get.
“Then, the players skated out from the bench and were introduced. The national anthem was played before each game.”
Hockey Night consists of one Mite game, two Squirt games and three Peewee/Bantam games.
“Our youngest kids play cross-ice games, which are part of USA Hockey’s American Development Model,” O’Brian said. “The only variation we made for Hockey Night was that, while our Mite players use [cross-ice] during the regular season, this night we play a full-ice game just to let them have this experience. But normally they do play cross-ice games.
“We do everything we can to attract players. It’s easy for kids to dribble a soccer ball and a basketball. But hockey’s a different game. Different skill sets are involved. Kids have to learn stick handling and shooting. Our kids know they’re playing a different sport and it brings a cool camaraderie.”
Hockey Night in Knoxville also involves a “fashion statement.”
“Both years we asked our coaches to dress in a coat and tie and all of them complied,” O’Brian said. “This year we asked our kids to dress like that and they did. Almost all of them came in with this look of excitement on their faces, especially our Mite level kids who knew they were coming in to play a game on that night.
“Our volunteer staff put nice touches in the lobby which was decorated. And there was that anticipation in the locker room … the overall excitement of the kids.”
Not surprisingly, everything that’s gone into making Hockey Night in Knoxville a success didn’t happen in an eye blink.
“There were months of work that went into this and, eventually, the games could be played,” O’Brian said. “I’m blessed with people in our program that put in the time and effort. And I can’t say enough about our hockey director, K.J. Voorhees. For every kid who comes through our program, this could be the first time they’ve played hockey and they think K.J. is their best friend.
“As for me, the satisfaction came from seeing the puck drop, because then the work was done and we could sit back and watch the games.”
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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