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U-18 Worlds is a life experience for up-and-comer Lexie Laing

01/08/2013, 8:15am MST
By Doug Williams

Lexie Laing has been playing competitive hockey since she was 6, so there’s nothing new to her about lacing up her skates and putting on a uniform.
 
Yet when she slipped on her USA jersey for the first time as a member of the Women’s Under-18 National Team, she admits it was special.
 
Laing, 16, a promising forward from Marblehead, Mass., was getting ready to take the ice against Russia in the opening game of the International Ice Hockey Federation U-18 Women’s World Championship in Finland on Dec. 29 when she knew she’d crossed a threshold.
 
“This moment will most likely be in my memory for the rest of my life,” she wrote recently from Finland in an email interview. “That first time I pulled the jersey over my head a bunch of feelings started rushing through my body. Nerves, excitement, anticipation and any other happy emotion you could think of rushed through my body.
 
“That moment, everything had changed and everything had become real. I was about to represent USA.”
 
Nerves or no nerves, Laing played well in her debut, getting an assist in Team USA’s 7-0 victory over the Russians. In her second game, she added another assist in a 10-0 win over the Czech Republic. The U.S. continued to roll, beating Sweden 8-0 and then topping the Czechs again in the semifinals, 10-0 — with Laing recording another assist — to set up a showdown with Canada for the gold medal, which the Canadians won 2-1 in overtime.
 
For Laing, the entire experience of traveling to Finland, getting to know new teammates and coaches and competing for the national team in an international tournament for the first time has been tremendous.
 
Though Laing has had a successful youth career and comes from a family rich in hockey experience, her participation in the U-18 World Championship has been an eye-opener. For one thing, the talent she’s playing with and against has forced her to adapt and play a different game than even what she’s been used to on a very successful Assabet Valley club program in Massachusetts.
 
“I’ve learned to keep my head up and move the puck to the open player right away, instead of making another stickhandle and either losing the puck or making a bad play,” she wrote. “Another thing I’ve learned is to be a lot faster, because as soon as I touch the puck someone is on top of me, especially at such a high level of play.”
 
She says playing with new teammates and raising her game was “challenging, at first,” but she believes she grew.
 
The trip, however, has been about more than just hockey. The flight, the jet lag, the new people, a foreign country (and a new language), new friends and essentially being on her own turned it into a learning experience.
 
The first thing she noticed upon arriving in Finland was its beautiful countryside and “a lot of snow” — on the roads and in piles everywhere. At first, because of the time difference, she had trouble sleeping and kept waking up in the middle of the night. Eventually, though, she settled in. The Finns were friendly, and many of the workers at the rink took time to teach her words and phrases in their language.
 
For Laing (who prefers to go by Lexie rather than her given name of Alexandria) it’s all been one more step in her hockey and life education.
 
Her father, Dennis Laing, a coach and former college and pro player, got his youngest daughter on skates almost as soon as she could walk, and she soon was playing hockey just like her older sisters Denna and Brianna. Denna now plays for Princeton, and Brianna — a goaltender on the U.S. team that won a silver medal at last year’s IIHF U-18 World Championship — has committed to play at Harvard.
 
When she was first learning to skate, Lexie says she initially thought she might want to be a figure skater, but that passed, and soon she was winning championships and accolades in hockey. She’s helped Assabet Valley win three USA Hockey national championships (2008-09, 2012), won the 2009 USA Hockey Easton Skills Competition for 12-and-Under and helped her Noble and Greenough School to championships in 2011 and ’12.
 
She says her father has been the biggest influence in her hockey career, but her sisters, too, have been invaluable supporters.
 
She said it was Brianna who gave her advice before going off to Finland, telling her to trust in her game and work hard.
 
“Before I left she told me, ‘You know how to play, so just go out and play because if you think about each mistake and each play then you will start to make more mistakes.’ ” Also, her sister told her: work hard, take advice and have fun.
 
When Laing returns to the States, she hopes to help Assabet Valley win another national title. Eventually, she’d like to play college hockey like her sisters, with her sights set on someday being part of a U.S. Olympic Team — and perhaps pulling on another Team USA jersey at an Olympic venue.
 
That, she says, would “fulfill my dreams as a little girl to be an Olympian.”
 
For now, though, her goal is simple: work as hard as she can to reach her “fullest potential.”
 
So far, she’s skating in the right direction.
 
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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INTEGRITY AND ACCOUNTABILITY IN OFFICIATING

08/25/2015, 3:30pm MDT
By USA Hockey

No one has ever said that officiating, and especially officiating ice hockey, was easy. Rule knowledge, communication skills, fitness, skating and a natural presence are just some of the skills necessary to be a successful official.  Some possess more of these skills and those are the officials who advance to higher levels. But regardless of the level achieved or the skill set the official possesses, the one quality that should be equal among every official is a high level of integrity.

The national official staff members, along with our volunteer referees-in-chief and local supervisors, have heard growing concerns over a decreasing level of integrity among our youth hockey officials. It’s sometimes said that no one is holding them accountable. A portion of this perception is likely a typical “blame the officials” mentality, but some anecdotal evidence suggests there is also some merit to this concern. That’s alarming to USA Hockey, as it affects the credibility of our entire program, along with every member it represents. The blunt truth is this: even one official who isn’t on the up and up can and will damage the credibility of all officials who do take pride in the integrity of their work.

Whether we like it or not, officials are under a microscope, and by the nature of the business, are held to a very high standard. When we signed up for this officiating gig, we committed ourselves to represent the game of hockey, USA Hockey, our local group of officials and ourselves as people of integrity who accept the responsibility and guardianship of enforcing the rules in a fair and consistent manner. Most importantly, we must remember that the game is bigger than all of us and that the game itself is what we serve. Those who lose sight of that not only compromise the competitive fairness of the games, they also make life more difficult for all of the officials by damaging the credibility of the officiating community.

An example of this type of unacceptable behavior occurred last season. A Level 2 adult official tended to work his games with a chip on his shoulder. He often created confrontation with coaches, alienated his younger partners with inaccurate advice and disregarded their help in attempting to get some calls and rule applications right. Even though the help they were providing was correct, he chose to maintain his incorrect position that affected the outcome of several games. He also tended to identify certain players and single them out for various infractions and/or on-ice lectures as a means of emphasizing his authority.

Once the trends were identified, concerns were voiced by several parents and coaches to the local assigner and supervisor, who acknowledged they had never seen the official’s work, but would keep throwing him out there working the same teams and levels that had expressed concerns regarding his attitude. This included intentionally assigning him a playoff game involving the coach who was the most vocal in expressing concerns. This official was then instructed to “throw the coach out if he says anything.”

That playoff game went without a hitch – a tight 2-1 game with a couple of close off-side plays and maybe an icing or two missed. In the post-game dressing room, the official in question, in the presence of his partners and the officials scheduled to work the next game, said, “It’s always a great day when you can make one or both of the coaches mad. It’s too bad the white team coach didn’t want to play along today.” The partners sat there in silence until finally a 12-year-old Level 1 official who was working the next game said, “I don’t think that’s right. We’re not supposed to bait coaches.”

The official got dressed quickly and left the room without saying another word. Kind of ironic that it was the innocent 12-year-old that seemed to “get it” and instill a sense of accountability among those in the room. Imagine how any 12-year-old player feels on the ice when they see the official(s) displaying an attitude that is simply not to the standard the game deserves. And yes, more often than not, they can see through those who do not have the level of integrity expected.

Fortunately, these types of officials are few and far between. But they do exist and to simply stick our heads in the sand and not address the concern is irresponsible. Each of us, as officials, has an obligation to behave in a professional manner at all times and take our role seriously. We have made a commitment to approach each game with the understanding that the game is about the players and we should be invisible until the players require us to appear as a result of infractions that occur. Respect is a two-way street and simply putting on the sweater with the USA Hockey crest suggests respect is warranted, but only if supported by your actions.

USA Hockey has an obligation to create a non-threatening environment that promotes respect for officials and an opportunity for officials to improve through education and evaluation. USA Hockey does this through playing rules, points of emphasis, zero tolerance policies and comprehensive education programs for officials, coaches, parents and players.

In return, the game expects USA Hockey officiating members to bring a professional image to every contest and an attitude that creates a positive environment and makes the game better. We realize everyone makes mistakes – it’s part of the game. However, laziness or unprofessional behavior is unacceptable and being creative in rule enforcement and not holding players/coaches accountable for infractions will only make the next team of officials’ jobs much more difficult and set them up for failure.

The reality is that the game official must always hold themselves to the highest level of integrity and behavior both on and off the ice. Maybe that’s fair, or maybe not, but it is the expectation we are required to meet.

As we head into the 2015-16 season, ask yourself if you are willing to meet that expectation. If the answer is yes, welcome back and we look forward to a great season.

SZKOLA TRADES TOE-PICK FOR WORLD-WIDE WHISTLE

08/27/2015, 9:00am MDT
By Kelly Erickson

When it comes to women’s hockey, there is no argument that USA Hockey and Hockey Canada have the two premier programs in the world. Earlier this month, their young talent took to the ice in Lake Placid, New York, as a part of the U18 and U22 Select Series.

While there were several athletes on both teams who competed for their country in such an event for the first time, it also marked a special occasion for Melissa Szkola. An experienced official who has worked a handful of International Ice Hockey Federation events, Lake Placid marked her first USA-Canada affair. USA Hockey caught up with the Michigan native to talk about the amazing international experience and her evolving officiating career.


USA Hockey: What was it like to be a part of the U22 and U18 Select Series’

Melissa Szkola: The experience was wonderful. It was fantastic. We’ve essentially got the two best teams in the world competing against each other, so the learning experience, working with the officials that we have, is always amazing. You leave here a better person, a better official; that’s what we’re here for. That’s what I look forward to the most at these big-time events: the level of hockey and what you get out of it as a whole.

USAH: How did you first get into officiating?

Szkola: It’s been nine years since I got my start. I was a competitive figure skater and my older brother played hockey, so I’ve always been around the game, but it was my husband who actually got me into the officiating side of it. When we started dating, he was a roller and ice hockey official. He asked me to come with one time and I said ‘okay.’ That’s how I got started. It’s something he and I have in common and he is my biggest supporter. I wouldn’t be here without him.

USAH: So nine years under your belt, how would you describe some of your past IIHF events?

Szkola: I’ve had a handful of experiences with international tournaments. Each one has brought a new set of skills to my plate. You learn a lot about yourself and you learn a lot from your supervisors from different countries as well. To get out and work with other female officials and learn from them and your supervisors is amazing.

Being in another country, where sometimes there aren’t people who even speak English, is a really unique experience as well. The communication that you learn to speak with non-English speaking officials really makes you appreciate what you have in common – hockey.

USAH: How did the Select Series compare to those events?

Szkola: The level of play, it’s definitely much higher at the Select Series than any of the championships that I’ve been to. I wouldn’t say that the intensity is much different, because at each level they are competing for their highest achievement. The intensity is the same, the importance is the same, but the level of play is definitely much better; it’s faster, it’s crisper. Your awareness just has to be that much higher.

USAH: Did calling a game with high-caliber players like those at the Select Series shake up any nerves?

Szkola: I’ll be honest, I was a little nervous before we got on the ice. I’ve watched Team USA and Team Canada compete before, so you know the level at which they intend to play. Being out there with it, you just know where the emotions can go sometimes. It was a little nerve-wracking before the start, but as soon as that puck drops, you have a job to do. USA Hockey does a fantastic job developing us; I feel like they wouldn’t put you out there if you weren’t ready. Once that puck drops, you’re kind of at home.

USAH: What’s next for your officiating future?

Szkola: The support that I have, not only from my hometown in Michigan, but also the support and development USA Hockey has given really sets you up for success if you want to take it in that direction. That is my goal. I do want to skate in the Olympics. Moving forward I am going to continue to improve upon each experience that I have, because you can always be better. Mistakes do get made, so you learn from those and improve yourself. 

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