With Cody Rich sharing the league scoring lead and team captain Mason Wade settling into fifth place, the Bellingham Blazers have climbed to the top of the Northern Pacific Hockey League standings.
More importantly, the Blazers are improving as the season goes along, just as they did a year ago.
Bellingham made its debut in the league last season and gradually climbed to third in the final standings. Then it put everything together for the playoffs and pulled out a pair of overtime wins in the final to rally from behind and take a five-game series win over the regular-season champion West Sound Warriors in the Cascade Cup final.
The Blazers and Warriors are battling again. They see each other often in a five-team league, and after West Sound had the advantage early, Bellingham has won the last four meetings during a 17-game winning streak that has improved the Blazers to 31-5-0-0.
“It’s just the process for us over the course of the season is about development,” Blazers coach Mark Collins said. “We have a few new players. We have a talented team, but early on, teams were able to take advantage of our mistakes.”
The mistakes are less common, and the support for returnees Rich and Wade is more plentiful for the Nor-Pac’s top team.
“We got some real good natural goal scorers on the team,” Collins said. “We recruited some out-of-town guys, and that has taken a little pressure off Cody and Mason.”
Ty Hubbard, from Fort Collins, Colo., was added this season and is second in scoring among Bellingham defensemen behind Scott Hansen, a holdover who joins Rich and Wade in playing for their hometown team.
Collins has coached both Rich and Wade since their Peewee days and has watched each player add to his game this season. Both are closing in on their production for all of last season. Rich leads the league in goals (41) and game-winning goals (9) and has 84 points in 35 games to share that lead with Peter Mingus of the Warriors.
“Cody has always had such a tenacity to his game,” Collins said. “The best way to describe him is relentless. He wants the puck on his stick all the time.”
Rich had eight points Jan. 25 in a game against the Vancouver Vipers, producing his second four-goal game and fourth hat trick of the season in the process.
“He has phenomenal speed flying down the right wing,” Collins said. “And, now he’s shooting the puck properly. He’s able to pick targets.”
Wade, a center, has four short-handed goals while scoring 25 goals and adding 39 assists in 32 games. Collins played Wade as a defenseman in his youth days because of his puck-rushing ability, but Wade never quite got comfortable in that role. He has continued to develop since the Tier III junior team started in Bellingham last season.
“The reason is he’s kind of understanding what’s good about his game,” Collins said. “Last year, he tried to do too much one-on-one. Now, he sees the ice better.
“He’s seeing where Cody is and is able to hit him flying up the wing. We’ve used so much more give-and-go this season. We’re a quick team. If we can get teams to turn over the puck, we can go.”
While his own game progresses, the team captain likes what he sees from the team.
“Our team is a lot more skilled this year,” he said in a story on the team website. “There are a lot of younger guys who want to move on. ... Last year, we were obviously good, too, but the chemistry is coming together sooner than last year.”
That is a bad sign for the rest of the Nor-Pac.
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.