Last year, a pinnacle. This year, a launching pad.
For three years out of every four, the World Sledge Hockey Challenge serves as a de facto world championship.
Not this year.
Not with 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, just around the corner.
This year the weeklong Sledge Hockey Challenge, which gets under way Dec. 1 in Toronto, will serve as a Paralympics tune-up for the U.S. Paralympic Sled Hockey Team, which captured last year's Challenge title in Calgary, and will defend its 2010 Paralympic gold medal in Sochi.
“We don't need to be the best team in the world this weekend,” U.S. coach Jeff Sauer said. “But we want to be the best team in the world [in Sochi], and that's what we're building on, starting this week.”
Team USA will join sled squads from Canada, Russia, and Korea in preliminary round play at the MasterCard Centre, with the semifinals to be held Dec. 5. The championship game will then be Dec. 7 at 5 p.m. EST.
The World Sledge Hockey Challenge will be Team USA's first competition since the selection camp in July, and after four months of pounding on each other, the opportunity to vie against players other than themselves is a welcome one.
“The big thing,” said Sauer, “is to send a message that we're ready to go. Winning and losing is always important. There are a lot of things on the line.”
Solidifying the final roster is among the items at stake. Sauer and his staff must make a cut from the current 18-man roster by Jan. 1, 2014. That is easier said that done given the Americans’ talented roster that includes seven veterans from the 2010 Paralympic gold-medal team. Among those returning is defenseman Andy Yohe, a two-time Paralympian who came out retirement and has since been named team captain for the second consecutive Winter Games.
The competition from within the U.S. squad is as spirited as it is from outside, Sauer said.
“We've got the best depth that we've ever had in our program,” he said. “We've got people competing for positions. I know some of the other countries don't have the depth that we have. But that depth and experience has to perform. The chemistry is very important. It always is. But we're very pleased with that as well.”
Sauer said that while his team will have to focus on its own strengths during the Sledge Hockey Challenge, it would be foolish to take the other contenders lightly.
“I'm concerned about Russia because they are the host country, and they've come a long way in a short time,” he said. “I'm looking forward to seeing just how far they have come. We'll know a lot more Sunday afternoon after we play them.”
The Dec. 4 matchup with Canada will likely be the strongest test of the tournament. Sauer said it could be a litmus test of sorts.
“I'm not going to do anything special against them,” he said. “You get more from an information standpoint, and not so much by cueing in on making sure we win the games. I want to find out who matches up against who, who our better players are against some of their guys.
“Those types of things are not only a learning situation for the players, but for the coaching staff in preparation for the actual [Paralympic] games. When the medal is on the line.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.
|Dec. 1||Russia||W, 2-1|
|Dec. 2||Korea||W, 5-0|
|Dec. 4||Canada||L, 1-4|
|Dec. 5||Russia (Semis)||W, 4-1|
|Dec. 7||Canada (Finals)||L, 1-3|
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.