Chris Douglas glides into the offensive zone, maneuvers around an imaginary defender and deftly beats the desperate move of a sprawling goalie. Over in the near corner, Douglas spots a loose puck. He collects it and coasts down the open sheet of ice. A move here, a deke there and his focus is clear: Score into an open net, pick up another loose puck and head back down the ice.
Hard work is not a figment of Douglas’ imagination.
Prior to March 2011, Douglas had no interest in ice hockey. He didn’t know the rules and didn’t watch the NHL. Sled hockey? He never heard of it. This is Florida, by the way. Not Alaska.
Now … “I watch hockey 24/7,” Douglas said.
The attitude change came quickly following a casual conversation with a nurse who suggested Douglas speak with local sled hockey coach Tom Reinarts.
Sled hockey? Douglas thought about it, but not for long. Douglas at first “totally forgot” about the conversation. But a few weeks later, he remembered and contacted Reinarts, coach of the Space Coast Ice Bandits. Reinarts invited him out for a skate.
“As soon as I got out there,” Douglas said. “I was hooked.”
The discovery didn’t come without complications. Competitive sled hockey leagues were scheduled to end the next month. Douglas sighed.
“No way can this be done,” Douglas recalls thinking.
For Douglas, the season was not done. His career was just getting started.
With inspiration from Reinarts and cooperation from a Kissimmee, Fla., ice rink, Douglas started skating … and skating … and skating …
Impressive as a rookie last season, the defenseman landed a spot on the 2012-13 national developmental team.
“[Douglas] has moved right along,” Reinarts said. “He has two things going for him. He has a lot of natural talent — he has a ton of speed — and his dedication. He is just grabbing the ice time.”
For his quick rise, the St. Cloud, Fla., resident applauds the efforts of Florida sled hockey pioneers Ron Robichaud and Reinarts. Not long ago, sled hockey opportunities were virtually non-existent. Then Reinarts formed a club team, the Space Coast Ice Bandits. Soon after, Reinarts met Robichaud, who was attempting to start a team in the Fort Myers, Fla. region. The duo started working camps and, as Robichaud’s squad developed, the two blended their teams into a feeder program for USA Hockey.
Entering this week’s 2013 Sled Cup, Florida will be represented by forwards Greg Shaw and Declan Farmer, a teenager, on the national team and Douglas on the developmental squad.
Despite the challenges of forming grassroots sled hockey in the Sunshine State, top club teams like Space Coast and the Tampa Bay Lighting are beginning to produce depth on the national level.
“Getting games is hard, but we are developing talent,” Reinarts said, adding, “sometimes we got creative with the logistics.”
Shaw, Farmer and Douglas are expected to play big roles at USA Hockey’s mid-season tournament, which will be staged this week at Extreme Ice Center in Indian Trail, N.C. Korea, Russia and the U.S. developmental team also will compete.
“All three of those players will do a bang-up job,” Reinarts said.
Robichaud feels good about the Florida connection’s future.
“Hopefully if we can get some funding,” he said, “we can be one of the teams to beat.”
Reinarts soon predicts the Florida assembly will land “two or three” players on the national team and “two or three” more on the developmental team.
“That’s a cool feeling,” Reinarts said.
Douglas would agree.
Three years ago, hockey meant nothing to him.
Now, if you want to find him, first check the local ice rink. He’s probably practicing.
“My goal is to make it to the Paralympics,” Douglas said. “I only have room to go up.”
If he does, Douglas certainly will applaud the efforts of Florida pioneers Robichaud and Reinarts.
“I think all the [Florida] programs are starting to catch fire and get sponsors,” Douglas said. “Whenever I see someone with a disability, I go up and talk to them and see if they want to play.”
That, to Douglas, is also a cool feeling.
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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