SOCHI, Russia - The last time the U.S. Women’s National Team faced off against Finland, Noora Raty was laughing to herself and had American players wondering what they had to do to score.
Raty’s 58-save performance powered Finland to a 3-1 victory at the 2013 Four Nations Cup in Lake Placid, N.Y., and sent ripples through the women’s hockey world, marking the first time the U.S. missed out on playing in the championship game in the 18-year history of the event. The U.S. did not participate in the 2001 tournament in Finland due to the 9/11 attacks.
A similar result here on Saturday in the opening game of the women’s Olympic hockey tournament would send seismic tremors through a sport that is desperate for parity at the international level.
“I just remember that I was extremely lucky, but I guess I earned my luck,” Raty said of her effort back in November.
“At one point I remember I was laughing ‘how am I making all these saves.’ It was one of those games where you get in a zone and nothing goes by you. I hope the same thing happens tomorrow because that’s going to be needed.”
One major difference, Raty said, is that this time Amanda Kessel will be in the lineup for the U.S. The two were teammates on the University of Minnesota squad that won back-to-back NCAA titles. They were also finalists, along with their Gopher teammate Megan Bozek, for the 2013 Patty Kazmaier Award.
“She’s the best player in the world right now,” Raty said. “It’s a good thing for other teams that she hasn’t been able to play the whole year, she would be a rock star if she was able to play the whole year.
“We need to be aware that she’s on the ice or for sure she will find the back of the net. It’s going to be a lot of fun to go against her. We had some real good battles in practice the past couple of years and I think we made each other better players.”
While a groin injury sidelined her for all of the Bring on the World Tour, Kessel has declared herself as 100 percent and ready to go in her first Olympics. And she can think of no better way to kick things off than to face her friend and former teammate.
“I think it should be interesting to watch because I know her spots and she knows where I like to shoot as well,” Kessel said. “I guess I can give my teammates a few good tips.”
Getting to Raty early may be a key for the U.S. squad that still remembers the events in Lake Placid more than three months earlier.
“I don’t think there is any secret to beating her. If there is I haven’t found it yet. She’s a world-class goaltender,” said Megan Bozek, who led the U.S. attack with 11 shots on Raty the last time they met.
“She’s kept Finland in many games and was a big reason why they upset us at the Four Nations. Shots. Lots of shots early on, keep shooting and get people in front of the net.”
The victory in Lake Placid, which the Finns call their own “Miracle on Ice,” has provided the team with a shot of confidence heading into Sochi.
“We haven’t had much success against them in the past four years. I think the last time we beat them was before Vancouver so it was a confidence builder for our team and especially the younger players,” Raty said.
For their part, the Finns have spent hours watching the tape of the game and will look to exploit any weakness to gain an advantage.
“I remember that we killed a lot of penalties in that game so we can learn from what we did on the PK and what they’re going to try to do on their power play,” Raty said. “But we’ve played them quite a few times over the last few years so we know what to expect.”
As much as the victory was a shot in the arm for the Finns, it provided a kick in the pants for the Americans, who made some changes to their training regiment heading down the homestretch. Among those changes has been the implementation of small area games into every U.S. practice.
“Back in November I didn’t think we were a very good team so we went to condensing what we were doing, forcing them to make decisions faster, using better support, coming back to the puck,” said U.S. head coach Katey Stone.
And while they know that much of the focus will on the Finnish netminder, the Americans know that they need to worry about themselves and play their own style of attacking hockey if they want to be successful.
“She’s an incredible goalie, and she has a solid team in front of her, too,” said U.S. power forward Lyndsey Fry. “But we’re a different team now, and we’re going to throw everything at her. I think if we play our game we can put pucks behind her.
“We’ve just grown so much. The last time we played them was in November and here we are. Our goal is to get better every day and I think we’ve done that. We’re a better team than we were back then, and I’m sure she’s a better goalie so it’s going to be a great battle.”
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.