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USA Warriors program uses hockey to help wounded soldiers

03/21/2012, 10:45am MDT
By Tony Lee

For a wounded soldier, rehabilitation can take on several forms. So many of those returning from war have sustained not only serious physical injuries, but they have taken on a heavy emotional toll. 

The USA Warriors Ice Hockey Program, which offers creative avenues for those veterans to return (or be introduced to, as the case may be) to the frozen pond, continues to provide a complete set of rehabilitative activities, assisting the wounded soldiers in many aspects of their recovery. 

For the mark the program has made on countless veterans over the years, it will receive another high honor in May: the 2012 Director’s Creative Humanitarian Achievement Award from the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s esteemed Program in Physical Therapy Education. 

While all forms of therapy can be critical in that long road back, this program has had an incredible impact. Organizers have found that hockey is a perfect fit for those who put their lives on the line in the name of freedom.

USA Warriors feature photo“Ice hockey in particular helps build confidence in our players,” said USA Warriors President Thom Hirsch. “Once they get on the ice, they quickly realize how hard ice hockey is and how anything that they achieve is strictly a result of their persistence and hard work. Through hockey, they can demonstrate to themselves what they can achieve. 

“Another dimension of hockey is that it is a bit rough. That makes our program particularly attractive to the seriously wounded. Most of the wounded warriors were very rough and tumble individuals right up to the moment they were injured and have not had a chance to be rough since. Hockey gives them an outlet and shows them they can be a bit rough and physically aggressive again. … All of this helps to re-build the players’ confidence.”

Those aren’t the only emotions that come forth through involvement with the Warriors, who have teams for vets who are standing (often on one or even two prosthetics) and those that require a sled for mobility on the ice. In some cases, it is that very involvement that gets the emotions going.

Such was the case with one member who recently began participating in the Warriors sled hockey program. Hirsch said that the man had shown virtually no emotion until attending one sled hockey clinic for soldiers from the Walter Reed Medical Center. Now he’s a full-fledged member of the Warriors sled hockey program and ready to play in games.

“For this particular guy, hockey helped get him over the hump in starting to rebuild his life,” Hirsch said.

Assistance projects abound for the Warriors, some of whom will travel to Omaha, Neb., in May to accept their award and to speak with members of the graduating class of physical therapists. In the eyes of those at UNMC, there is no better complement to a commencement exercise. 

“Their program is the perfect example of a community-based program that provides individuals with a disability a chance to reintegrate into their communities in a fun, productive, meaningful way, while at the same time advancing their physical skills,” said Jack Turman Jr., program director at the UNMC Division of Physical Therapy Education.

In addition to aiding veterans in difficult situations, the USA Warriors are especially proud of their connection with several high school hockey programs that visit and skate with the recovering veterans on a regular basis. The program stresses to the students that most of those on the Warriors teams are not much older; recognizing their sacrifices and understanding that these veterans may need assistance for years to come helps create a system of support.

The hockey community itself is a giving one, and it is one committed to such support. Hirsch is quick to reference assistance from USA Hockey, the NHL, the Capitals and others who have helped to broaden exposure. For a volunteer-based organization with no paid staff, every little bit helps and can be tied directly to improving the lives of those who were injured while serving the country.

“It feels very gratifying to be recognized with the award, which is a tremendous boost to our board of directors and the volunteers whose help is critical to sustaining our program and moving forward at the pace we are going,” Hirsch said. “Having said that, I know every one of our board members and volunteers feel the same way I do and they will tell you that it is not about us. It is about the wounded and injured servicemen and women and disabled veterans whom we are trying to help.  

“We want to help more and more of those wounded in the defense of our Nation. That is our mission.” 

Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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A follow-up to Ian Walsh's NHL career-path article (see Stripes - February 2015)

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.

Tag(s): USA Warriors