The leadership of the Florida Junior Blades had a vision for a key change, even after what would generally be considered an incredibly successful start for the franchise.
In its first three years, Florida won three regular-season championships and made it to nationals twice. But the Junior Blades felt the disappointment of a semifinal elimination from the Empire League playoffs last year and tried to come up with a plan on how to avoid having that happening again.
“Last season, we had a very strong team, but we were front-heavy,” said Junior Blades general manager Tad O’Had, who was the coach last season. “As we got deep into the playoffs, we had a few players who worked very hard. They logged a lot of minutes and scored a large majority of our points.
“We had a double-overtime loss to the Boston Junior Bruins in the playoffs, and one of the reasons was we were relying so heavily on a small group of guys to contribute offensively.”
When O’Had moved up to become assistant coach with the professional Florida Everblades, Todd Pococke moved up from assistant coach to head coach of the Junior Blades and Tyler Carlston came on as assistant coach. Together, they formulated a plan to create a team that was harder to defend and less susceptible to wearing out key players.
“That was one of the things Todd and Tyler discussed early in the year in training camp,” O’Had said. “In the past, the guys that we had on the power play maybe would also be on the PK and play a regular shift.
“We had regular-season success, but maybe people burned out a little bit. One of the things we looked at was let’s have our power-play guys and let’s have our PK and let’s work on really sharing some of those minutes throughout.”
Pococke stayed committed to that ideal and the players have produced to make it work remarkably well.
The Junior Blades set a series of franchise records, including a late 21-game winning streak and finished up the first season of the Empire Division of the United States Premier Hockey League as the Western Conference champion. Their 37-1-0-2 record was the best among the 24 Empire teams and their 61 goals allowed, with the help of workhouse and division statistical leader among goalies Eric Sugrue, was by far the best.
“Eric has been with us the last few years and he has continued to blossom,” O’Had said of the 21-year-old from nearby Naples, Fla.
Florida also built the Empire’s third-highest scoring team, despite not having any of its top 26 individual scorers.
“We have four lines contributing,” O’Had said. “You always have a strategy or plan, but it doesn’t always come to life. The players have done a great job of all carrying the load at different times.”
The Junior Blades had four players within two points of each other at the top of the team scoring list. Chaise Howard led the way with 18 goals and 24 assists in 39 games. Trevor Mullaly added 41 points. Austin Hefferin, who had a team-high 20 goals, and Shane Visnick, who tied Howard for the assist lead among forwards, each added 40 points. Defenseman Jacob Leonard had a team-high 27 assists while also contributing four goals.
Howard is a hometown player from Estero, while Mullaly, Visnick and Leonard are also from Florida. Hefferin came to the program from Maryland.
While no one on the team was relied on for more than 42 points, the Blades got at least 30 points from six players, at least 21 points from 11 players and at least 14 points from 17 players.
“We don’t take anything for granted,” Pococke said in a story on the league website after the Junior Blades produced a pair of shutouts in the final weekend of the regular season. “We prepare for every game with intensity and a desire to win. The players know what it takes.”
That attitude and the team’s make-up has O’Had looking forward to the postseason, which begins with the USPHL Empire playoffs in Wayne, N.J.
“The whole focus is that, hopefully, come the playoffs and nationals, we’re able to be cruising on all cylinders to go as far as we can,” he said.
O’Had said Pococke and Carlston have stayed true to the team’s preseason vision.
“To Todd and Tyler’s credit, they’re doing a phenomenal job balancing out the responsibilities, and it looks like we’ll continue to have legs into playoffs and hopefully into nationals,” O’Had said.
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.