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Sledge Hockey Challenge a Paralympic Litmus Test

11/29/2013, 10:15am MST
By Dan Hickling - Special to USAHockey.com

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.

Team USA World Sledge Hockey Challenge Schedule

Date  Opponent   Time/Result
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

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INTEGRITY AND ACCOUNTABILITY IN OFFICIATING

08/25/2015, 3:30pm MDT
By USA Hockey

No one has ever said that officiating, and especially officiating ice hockey, was easy. Rule knowledge, communication skills, fitness, skating and a natural presence are just some of the skills necessary to be a successful official.  Some possess more of these skills and those are the officials who advance to higher levels. But regardless of the level achieved or the skill set the official possesses, the one quality that should be equal among every official is a high level of integrity.

The national official staff members, along with our volunteer referees-in-chief and local supervisors, have heard growing concerns over a decreasing level of integrity among our youth hockey officials. It’s sometimes said that no one is holding them accountable. A portion of this perception is likely a typical “blame the officials” mentality, but some anecdotal evidence suggests there is also some merit to this concern. That’s alarming to USA Hockey, as it affects the credibility of our entire program, along with every member it represents. The blunt truth is this: even one official who isn’t on the up and up can and will damage the credibility of all officials who do take pride in the integrity of their work.

Whether we like it or not, officials are under a microscope, and by the nature of the business, are held to a very high standard. When we signed up for this officiating gig, we committed ourselves to represent the game of hockey, USA Hockey, our local group of officials and ourselves as people of integrity who accept the responsibility and guardianship of enforcing the rules in a fair and consistent manner. Most importantly, we must remember that the game is bigger than all of us and that the game itself is what we serve. Those who lose sight of that not only compromise the competitive fairness of the games, they also make life more difficult for all of the officials by damaging the credibility of the officiating community.

An example of this type of unacceptable behavior occurred last season. A Level 2 adult official tended to work his games with a chip on his shoulder. He often created confrontation with coaches, alienated his younger partners with inaccurate advice and disregarded their help in attempting to get some calls and rule applications right. Even though the help they were providing was correct, he chose to maintain his incorrect position that affected the outcome of several games. He also tended to identify certain players and single them out for various infractions and/or on-ice lectures as a means of emphasizing his authority.

Once the trends were identified, concerns were voiced by several parents and coaches to the local assigner and supervisor, who acknowledged they had never seen the official’s work, but would keep throwing him out there working the same teams and levels that had expressed concerns regarding his attitude. This included intentionally assigning him a playoff game involving the coach who was the most vocal in expressing concerns. This official was then instructed to “throw the coach out if he says anything.”

That playoff game went without a hitch – a tight 2-1 game with a couple of close off-side plays and maybe an icing or two missed. In the post-game dressing room, the official in question, in the presence of his partners and the officials scheduled to work the next game, said, “It’s always a great day when you can make one or both of the coaches mad. It’s too bad the white team coach didn’t want to play along today.” The partners sat there in silence until finally a 12-year-old Level 1 official who was working the next game said, “I don’t think that’s right. We’re not supposed to bait coaches.”

The official got dressed quickly and left the room without saying another word. Kind of ironic that it was the innocent 12-year-old that seemed to “get it” and instill a sense of accountability among those in the room. Imagine how any 12-year-old player feels on the ice when they see the official(s) displaying an attitude that is simply not to the standard the game deserves. And yes, more often than not, they can see through those who do not have the level of integrity expected.

Fortunately, these types of officials are few and far between. But they do exist and to simply stick our heads in the sand and not address the concern is irresponsible. Each of us, as officials, has an obligation to behave in a professional manner at all times and take our role seriously. We have made a commitment to approach each game with the understanding that the game is about the players and we should be invisible until the players require us to appear as a result of infractions that occur. Respect is a two-way street and simply putting on the sweater with the USA Hockey crest suggests respect is warranted, but only if supported by your actions.

USA Hockey has an obligation to create a non-threatening environment that promotes respect for officials and an opportunity for officials to improve through education and evaluation. USA Hockey does this through playing rules, points of emphasis, zero tolerance policies and comprehensive education programs for officials, coaches, parents and players.

In return, the game expects USA Hockey officiating members to bring a professional image to every contest and an attitude that creates a positive environment and makes the game better. We realize everyone makes mistakes – it’s part of the game. However, laziness or unprofessional behavior is unacceptable and being creative in rule enforcement and not holding players/coaches accountable for infractions will only make the next team of officials’ jobs much more difficult and set them up for failure.

The reality is that the game official must always hold themselves to the highest level of integrity and behavior both on and off the ice. Maybe that’s fair, or maybe not, but it is the expectation we are required to meet.

As we head into the 2015-16 season, ask yourself if you are willing to meet that expectation. If the answer is yes, welcome back and we look forward to a great season.

SZKOLA TRADES TOE-PICK FOR WORLD-WIDE WHISTLE

08/27/2015, 9:00am MDT
By Kelly Erickson

When it comes to women’s hockey, there is no argument that USA Hockey and Hockey Canada have the two premier programs in the world. Earlier this month, their young talent took to the ice in Lake Placid, New York, as a part of the U18 and U22 Select Series.

While there were several athletes on both teams who competed for their country in such an event for the first time, it also marked a special occasion for Melissa Szkola. An experienced official who has worked a handful of International Ice Hockey Federation events, Lake Placid marked her first USA-Canada affair. USA Hockey caught up with the Michigan native to talk about the amazing international experience and her evolving officiating career.


USA Hockey: What was it like to be a part of the U22 and U18 Select Series’

Melissa Szkola: The experience was wonderful. It was fantastic. We’ve essentially got the two best teams in the world competing against each other, so the learning experience, working with the officials that we have, is always amazing. You leave here a better person, a better official; that’s what we’re here for. That’s what I look forward to the most at these big-time events: the level of hockey and what you get out of it as a whole.

USAH: How did you first get into officiating?

Szkola: It’s been nine years since I got my start. I was a competitive figure skater and my older brother played hockey, so I’ve always been around the game, but it was my husband who actually got me into the officiating side of it. When we started dating, he was a roller and ice hockey official. He asked me to come with one time and I said ‘okay.’ That’s how I got started. It’s something he and I have in common and he is my biggest supporter. I wouldn’t be here without him.

USAH: So nine years under your belt, how would you describe some of your past IIHF events?

Szkola: I’ve had a handful of experiences with international tournaments. Each one has brought a new set of skills to my plate. You learn a lot about yourself and you learn a lot from your supervisors from different countries as well. To get out and work with other female officials and learn from them and your supervisors is amazing.

Being in another country, where sometimes there aren’t people who even speak English, is a really unique experience as well. The communication that you learn to speak with non-English speaking officials really makes you appreciate what you have in common – hockey.

USAH: How did the Select Series compare to those events?

Szkola: The level of play, it’s definitely much higher at the Select Series than any of the championships that I’ve been to. I wouldn’t say that the intensity is much different, because at each level they are competing for their highest achievement. The intensity is the same, the importance is the same, but the level of play is definitely much better; it’s faster, it’s crisper. Your awareness just has to be that much higher.

USAH: Did calling a game with high-caliber players like those at the Select Series shake up any nerves?

Szkola: I’ll be honest, I was a little nervous before we got on the ice. I’ve watched Team USA and Team Canada compete before, so you know the level at which they intend to play. Being out there with it, you just know where the emotions can go sometimes. It was a little nerve-wracking before the start, but as soon as that puck drops, you have a job to do. USA Hockey does a fantastic job developing us; I feel like they wouldn’t put you out there if you weren’t ready. Once that puck drops, you’re kind of at home.

USAH: What’s next for your officiating future?

Szkola: The support that I have, not only from my hometown in Michigan, but also the support and development USA Hockey has given really sets you up for success if you want to take it in that direction. That is my goal. I do want to skate in the Olympics. Moving forward I am going to continue to improve upon each experience that I have, because you can always be better. Mistakes do get made, so you learn from those and improve yourself. 

Paralympian Pauls Featured on CBS News

08/28/2015, 10:15am MDT
By USAHockey.com

Gold medalist interviewed on national television

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