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Jim Johnson promotes the fundamentals

06/26/2005, 12:45pm MDT
By Jamie Fabos

Few people have seen the game from as many angles as Jim Johnson. A 13-year National Hockey League veteran, Johnson represented his country on five U.S. National Teams and competed in the 1991 Canada Cup Tournament (now the World Cup of Hockey). He played collegiate hockey at the University of Minnesota Duluth and competed in the United States Hockey League with St. Paul. As a coach, he has stood behind the bench for the Phoenix Coyotes, the U.S. National Junior Team and, most recently, his sons 14-year-old youth hockey team, winners of USA Hockey's 2005 National Championship at the Tier II 14 & Under level.

A graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth, Johnson has also watched the game from the broadcast booth, serving both as a consultant to the general manager and the broadcast analyst for the Phoenix Coyotes. He served as an assistant coach for the Coyotes during the 2000-01 season and has coached three straight U.S. National Junior Teams (2000-02). As a player, he competed for five U.S. National Teams and also serves on the Executive Committee of the Hockey Equipment Certification Council.

Despite his impressive hockey experience, Johnson has no problem simplifying the game for his youth hockey students. His recent success at the '05 Nationals proves that theres nothing wrong with sticking to the fundamentals.

Its all about developing broad-base fundamental skills in a basic sense, he said. Make sure players have those skills -- that they can skate, pass, protect the puck, shoot the puck and stickhandle. Those are the basic skills that make good hockey players.

And while going from the bench of the Phoenix Coyotes to a bench of 14-year-olds may seem like a big change, its one Johnson has enjoyed thoroughly.

I have really enjoyed going back, he said. I've always coached at elite levels, and its been fun to go back to the state level, the youth level, to develop a group of kids who are really passionate about the game.

The 2005 Tier II 14 & Under National Champions, under Johnson's leadership, were a group of teenagers not from Minneapolis or Boston, but from Scottsdale, Ariz., an accomplishment Johnson attributes to the arrival of the Coyotes.

We have a group of 1990 birthdates (14- and 15-year-olds), who were 6-years-old when the NHL moved to Phoenix. Now we have a good, solid group of hockey players at that age. The NHL brings that out; it brings the passion of the game, and now we have good coaches in the area who understand the game.

Adding to the pleasure of the '05 Nationals win, was the fact that one of the kids hoisting the trophy was Johnsons own son, Derek, a young defenseman, now 15-years-old.

Its been an amazing group of kids. In three years with this group, weve never had one squabble, never had one kid saying, Hey, I dont like this guy. The greatest satisfaction for me last year was to watch my group achieve what they achieved while giving everyone an opportunity to play and to develop.

Johnson took a non-traditional team through a non-traditional route to the championship. While other teams were spending money on extensive travel and tournaments, Johnsons team did not join a travel league, but put all its resources into maximizing practice time.

I worry that the travel leagues, especially in the South, could send the wrong message to kids; that hockey is more important than their education. Some kids will miss 10-20 days of school for hockey tournaments. Up until January 15, my kids missed one day of school. Im adamant that these kids understand that school is more important than hockey. We put so much emphasis on the cost that we tend to forget that [hockey] is a great outlet for kids to develop and enjoy a great game.

So, while Johnson claims hes found his niche in coaching, the opportunities to use his varied experience keep knocking. For now, however, he plans to stay put and work on his new coaching e-learning company, Flexxcoach.

Im really happy with developing and coaching kids. Who knows where it will take me? This [Flexxcoach] business has taken a ton of time, and Im very passionate about what were doing. I dont look at going anywhere, other than to continue to build this product where we can provide the best tools for coaches.

Johnson, along with co-founders Mike Sullivan, Keith Blase and Keith Allain, were inspired to create Flexxcoach as an alternative to youth coaches who had a win at all costs philosophy. They hope to soon extend their business to include football, lacrosse and soccer as well as hockey.

We started to notice the frustration that was evident in every youth sport. It didnt matter which sideline -- baseball, hockey, football or soccer - we saw that the coaches were no longer teaching the fundamentals. It was win at all costs.

We know that 70 percent of kids by the age of 13 have left sports. Why? I think a big reason is that theyre not having fun. Flexxcoach came when some great minds got together and decided that this is the best way to educate coaches to give our kids a better experience. We wanted to change the philosophy. When kids are going to enjoy the game and have fun, weve really accomplished something as coaches.

Flexxcoach has partnered with both the NHL Coaches Association and the USA Hockey Coaching Education program to provide the highest possible level of training for these coaches. Currently, USA Hockey Level 3 coaches can obtain their recertification online through Flexcoach. In addition, there are 13 USA Hockey Coaching Education classes available online.

Another section of USA Hockey touched by Flexcoach is the Sled Hockey program. The program was developed largely because of the efforts of Blase, the U.S. National Team head coach.

I think its wonderful what Keith is doing, not only with Flexxcoach, but what hes giving back to sled hockey, Johnson said. Hes very passionate about sled hockey and about the game, and really wants to provide the best opportunity to give education to coaches.

Part of Johnsons intense interest in coaching comes from some powerful role models who touched his own hockey career.

There have been so many coaches that have had an impact on me: the late Dave Peterson, Bob Johnson, Tim Taylor. Dave was a real passionate guy. He loved to teach. Bob Johnson was a great coach; Lou Vairo got me involved in coaching the Select program in 1984-85 when I was still in college. Bob Gainey was a great mind of the game who helped me when I was traded from Pittsburgh to Minnesota. Barry Smith has been a great influence on me as a coach and as a player, too. Mike Burke, one of my squirt coaches. He played pro, but he knew how to teach.

College hockey also had a major impact on Johnson.

My college coach was Mike Sertich. He really put us kids at UMD in the NHL. He taught us what it was like to work and to condition ourselves to be top-level players. He was a student of the game. He took us to levels we didnt believe we could play, but he got us believing in them because of the preparation. Because of him, a lot of those guys are still involved in the game.

Because of Johnsons involvement in the game, 500 coaches in Grand Rapids, Mich., heard a unique perspective on the game, nearly two dozen 14-year-olds in Scottsdale, Ariz., won a National Championship and made memories that will last a lifetime. And if Johnson meets his objectives, young athletes across the country will learn from highly educated coaches who are focused on teaching the fundamentals and making the game fun.

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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.


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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Tag(s): Past Events