After hours of presentations and countless discussions, Bob McCaig summed up the 2012 National Hockey Coaches Symposium in the simplest and most sincere terms.
"Wow. That's the only word I can use to describe how I feel being here this week," McCaig said as he sat in the lobby of the Renaissance Downtown Washington, D.C. Hotel watching coaches file past on their way from one presentation to another breakout session.
"I'm so happy that I'm here to see it."
As the coach in chief in the Southeastern District for more than 20 years, McCaig has had as much to do with the growth of hockey in the south as anyone. So for him to see more than 520 coaches from 41 states here in his home District is a crowning achievement in a lifetime of dedication to the game.
"We've gone from one coaching clinic in the District when I started in 1987 to more than 100 today," said McCaig, who moved to Acworth, Ga., from Sarnia, Ontario. "Today we have coaches attending clinics from Mississippi, Arkansas, Florida and Tennessee. We've not only grown the number of coaches but the number of talented coaches is really something to see."
The National Hockey Coaches Symposium is held every two years for coaches looking to attain their Level 5 coaching card, the highest level of USA Hockey certification. This is the first time since the program's inception in 1984 that the symposium has been held in a non-traditional hockey market, something that organizers are proud to point out.
"We've worked hard for two years to bring this event here (to Washington, D.C.), said Ty Newberry, who succeeded McCaig as the District coach in chief in 2009.
"This is the first time it's been in a non traditional hockey area. We believe that the growth of hockey in the District warrants it. We've been fortunate to have players drafted from the area. A lot of that is attributed to coaches."
The great things being done throughout the South is a microcosm for what's happening elsewhere in the USA Hockey ranks, as was evident from the impressive list of American speakers who presented at this year's event, including NHL head coaches Dan Bylsma and Joe Sacco, who was part of Sunday's program.
"The thing I'm most impressed by is that we can put together such an impressive lineup of speakers, who are all American," Newberry said. "I read somewhere that in 1969 we put more Americans on the moon than we had playing in the NHL. Today, not only are we putting more players in the NHL but we have more coaches working at the top levels of the game. It's really great to see."
One of the offshoots of hosting a symposium like this is that more local coaches can attend and gain knowledge and experience that they can pass on to others in their association and Affiliates.
"We have 106 coaches from Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., who registered for this symposium," said John Coleman, president of Potomac Valley Amateur Hockey Association.
"This is a great experience for them to learn from professional coaches and go back to their programs and talk about what is happening. There's a real ripple effect through the Affiliate and the District. That's what we want."
Coleman hopes that area coaches will take what they have learned about the American Development Model and bring it back to their clubs to run more cross-ice practices and games, which will help get the best use out of the limited amount of ice in the area.
"One of our biggest challenges with growth is that we limit the number of athletes we can welcome into our game because of the cost and the availability of ice in the area. We struggle to find enough ice to accommodate our growth initiatives," Coleman said.
"I'm hoping that part of the coaching education program helps coaches learn about more efficient and effective means of ice utilization that some speakers have addressed this week."
Despite the challenges Coleman is proud of the strides the District and it's Affiliates have made over the years.
"When you see kids you knew as a player who are now coaching you know you're doing the right thing because we are creating a culture where they want to get involved and give back," he said.
And as the program wound down on Sunday afternoon and the coaches hustled to catch flights back home and the small army of volunteers looked to catch their breath before heading back to their full-time jobs on Monday, McCaig could only smile with pride that so many people came to his home District to talk hockey and continue to move the game forward.
"You're never done learning," McCaig said. "I've been involved in hockey most of my life and I've picked up a few things by listening to the speakers this week."
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.