TAMPA — Think of them as non-traditional letters of recommendation.
Long before his hiring on March 25 as an NHL head coach with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Jon Cooper put in his time in the AHL, and before that, the CSHL, NAHL and USHL. The one letter that never changed? The Ws he consistently put together through humble but wildly successful years in junior hockey, setting the foundation for his current challenge at pro hockey’s highest level.
“One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned, coming up the ranks, is not to take anything for granted,” said Cooper, 45, after a morning practice just weeks into his new job. “You started out coaching a high school team, riding a school bus to games. My first junior team, in Texarkana, I pulled a Suburban with all our equipment 120 miles one way just to practice in Little Rock. One way.”
Nearby rinks and reasonable travel are easier to come by in the NHL, and Cooper can appreciate his new amenities. He is the only coach to win titles at all three tiers of American junior hockey — with the Metro Jets, the St. Louis Bandits and the Green Bay Gamblers. His coaching career started in near-anonymity, but more importantly, with hard work and a constant eye on improvement.
“Myself and my staff, we’d flood the rink, paint the rink, my wife would do it. We’d be up ‘til 4 or 6 in the morning, just getting the rink ready,” he said. “My first three or four years of my career, I never got paid. You do it for the love of the game, the passion for the game. The higher you go, the buildings get nicer. … You could pretty much fit the hotel you were staying in [in juniors] in the room I actually stay in now. I laugh about that.”
When Cooper wasn’t practicing his team, he practiced as a defense attorney until as recently as 2003, politely refusing the gas money his first hockey owners wanted to give him.
Junior hockey is a small world, so Cooper is constantly running into familiar faces from his stops along the coaching ladder. In a recent game against Ottawa, he saw Erik Condra, who played for him in Midgets with Honeybaked Hockey in Detroit and in juniors in Texarkana. Other NHL teams will bring other players he knew as teenagers who have made the same rise he’s made.
Cooper’s best memories from junior hockey are the investments he and his coaches and players made in a team, literally building a program from scratch and eventually leaving it as a perennial champion.
“That’s probably the most gratifying, the players you’ve kept in touch with all the years,” he said. “You think about a lot of the trials and tribulations you have, and it makes you stronger. It makes you appreciate what you have now. I attribute a lot of the successes I’ve had to the struggles I had when you start out.”
After Cooper was hired by the Lightning, he was curious what had gotten him in the door — about what had given him the chance to get the job with a strong interview.
Tampa Bay’s leadership pointed to two things: his uncanny success at all levels, but also his international experience. Cooper was a head coach for USA Hockey with the Under-17 team at the Five Nations tournament in Slovakia and Czech Republic and then served as an assistant with U-18s. He also helped coach USA Hockey’s InLine team to a title under Darren Turcotte in Budapest.
“It was awesome. An unreal experience,” said of his time in Hungary, not realizing then that his experience there would help him land the biggest job a hockey coach can aspire to.
“And if it wasn’t for USA Hockey having faith in me to coach some of their international teams, I’m not sure I would even got through the door here.”
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.
Tag(s): News & Features