At first glance one would think that Ron Rolston is a man with a lot of time on his hands. After all, how else do you account for a coach who spends hours or even days breaking down videotape of every goal scored during the playoffs?
To know Rolston is to know that nothing could be farther from the truth. He is simply a man with a passion for the game.
The former head coach at the National Team Development Program is entering his second season as the head coach with the Rochester Americans, the American Hockey League affiliate of the Buffalo Sabres.
Still, with the start of training camp less than a month away, Rolston returned to his USA Hockey roots to address more than 500 coaches taking part in the 2012 National Hockey Coaches Symposium in Washington, D.C.
As part of his presentation on developing offensive transitions, Rolston looked at every goal scored by the Boston Bruins during the 2011-12 season and followed it up by breaking down the video of every goal scored during the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs.
"My wife sometimes wondered what the heck I was doing," Rolston said in between talking X’s and O’s with some of the more than 520 coaches in attendance.
"It was a labor of love, and it was good for our organization to see what other teams do well. Boston is a team that we wanted to look at and find out how they were having so much success."
That's the life of a hockey coach, and Rolston is considered one of the best and brightest coaches in the game. There’s no doubt that he loves what he does, and is passionate about the game that has been a big part of his life since he was a kid growing up in Fenton, Mich.
“It’s exciting to be here with all these coaches who take time away from their jobs and their families to come here," said Rolston, who wrapped up his third coaching clinic of the summer.
“It's fun to talk to groups like this because these coaches are really eager to get better and learn and it's apparent by some of the questions they were asking.
“It wasn't information that was earth shattering, but hopefully they can relate it back to their teams and the level that they coach at and maybe pick up a piece here or there that will help their team have more fun by scoring more goals.”
Rolston was the opening act in an impressive lineup of speakers featured in Friday’s program. Also presenting was Colorado Avalanche assistant coach Tim Army, a last-minute addition who agreed to speak even though it was his 27th wedding anniversary and his youngest son was preparing to head off for his freshman year of college. Following Army on the docket was N.Y. Rangers assistant coach Mike Sullivan and Brian Burke, general manager and president of the Toronto Maple Leafs and general manager of the 2010 U.S. Olympic Team.
“The lynchpin of the hockey system is the volunteer coach,” said Burke, who was making his third appearance at the symposium. “We are all in your debt and we appreciate everything that you do. That’s why I’m always willing to be here if it’s humanly possible.”
In addition to general sessions, coaches spent part of the day learning about innovative approaches to coaching during intensive breakout sessions dedicated to the specific age level of the players they’re coaching.
During his seven seasons in Ann Arbor, Rolston raised the bar for both his players and his fellow coaches. He is the only coach in U.S. history to win three gold medals in the IIHF Under-18 World Championship (2005, 2009 and 2011). More than just gold medals, Rolston was instrumental in developing many of the top Americans in the game today, something he is most proud of.
After spending most of his coaching career in the collegiate ranks and at the NTDP, Rolston made the successful transition to the pro game. In his first year in Rochester he led the Americans to the playoffs on the final day of the season. This was no small feat considering how many of his players were called up to the Sabres, who were racked by injury last season.
“Being at the [NTDP] I learned to deal with players who are as talented as Phil Kessel, Jack Johnson, Collin Wilson and James vanRiemsdyk,” said Rolston, who received the 2011 Bob Johnson Award from USA Hockey for excellence in international competition.
“As a coach you want to help your players by creating the right environment to develop and grow as a player and a person. I think that’s probably the biggest thing that I learned [during my time at the NTDP] and it’s something that I’m still learning in the pro ranks.”
In wrapping up the day’s session, Burke urged those in the audience to keep youth hockey fun by carving out time in their practice schedules to let kids have fun through unstructured ice time.
“If you get a flat tire on the way to the rink, your kids are going to have a gas [on the ice] playing shinny hockey,” he said.
“Kids today may skate better and shoot better than ever, but they don’t have that same hockey sense because they don’t play enough shinny. You have to build in unstructured ice time into your practices.”
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.