Mike Szmatula is one of many players who have spent time in the North American Hockey League before finishing up their junior hockey careers in the United States Hockey League.
Szmatula’s path from the NAHL and USHL, however, was a bit different than most.
After spending the 2010-11 season with the NAHL’s Traverse City North Stars, Szmatula joined up with the Summerside Western Capitals in the Maritimes Junior Hockey League. In his one season in eastern Canada — facing the older and physically tougher competition in the Maritimes League — Szmatula was the Most Valuable Player and the leading scorer. That gave him the confidence to produce similar accomplishments this season in the USHL.
Szmatula won team MVP honors on the league’s top team, helping the Dubuque Fighting Saints win the Anderson Cup as the USHL’s top regular-season team with a 45-11-8 record. He finished fifth in the USHL in scoring, tied for second in goals and had the league’s best plus/minus by a forward.
“I just felt I needed a change and a chance to develop into the player I hoped to become,” Szmatula said of his season with the Western Capitals. “By going to the Maritimes, I was able to do that. I found my game.
“Honestly, I had no idea I’d be playing in the USHL this year.
Mike Field found Szmatula’s game in the Maritimes, too.
While scouting another player, Field noticed Szmatula and began following him. When Field became an assistant coach and the director of scouting for the Fighting Saints in August, he was quick to mention Szmatula to head coach Jim Montgomery.
Field liked what he saw of Szmatula and Montgomery liked what he heard when he contacted the 20-year-old from Commerce Township, Mich.
“I just loved the energy over the phone,” Montgomery said. “He talked about how he scored a lot and how the transition to junior didn’t go smoothly, but then he found his confidence last year out in the Maritimes.”
When looking back at his own days as a hockey player, Montgomery remembered making a lot of improvement after the age of 18 and he has noted others doing the same during his time as a coach.
“You could tell he was someone brimming with confidence and continuing to develop as a young man,” said Montgomery, who will take over as the University of Denver coach after leading the Fighting Saints through the USHL’s Clark Cup Finals, which begin Friday against the Fargo Force.
Szmatula’s production with Dubuque was immediate. He scored two goals in a 4-1 win over the Tri-City Storm in the Sept. 28 opener and added goals in the next two wins, giving him four of the first nine scored by the team this season.
By mid-November, Szmatula had 14 goals in 16 games and a commitment to continue his hockey career at Northeastern University.
“I didn’t have an idea that this was going to happen,” Szmatula said. “Everything just came together real quick. Ever since we came to training camp, our team has been real close together.
“We just had a strong chemistry. And, personally, I fortunately had a good start. My confidence grew and it just took off from there.”
Szmatula finished with 37 goals and 39 assists while going plus-49 in 63 games. He has another four goals and three assists in eight games while helping the Fighting Saints win their first two playoff series.
“He’s a guy who drives the net fearlessly and scores high-end goals off the rush because of his speed and skill attacking the net,” Montgomery said.
Szmatula said he found the confidence for “driving to the net, being a tough player and getting to the areas where you can score goals,” during his season in the Maritimes. He brought those abilities with him to Dubuque.
“I am just very fortunate to have an opportunity to play here,” Szmatula said. “It’s been great so far.”
The Fighting Saints are fortunate that Field helped bring him to Dubuque to help as it awaits the Western Conference champion with the Clark Cup on the line.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.
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.
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