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Careful planning helps Alaska All-Stars keep in-state option for players

03/04/2014, 3:45pm MST
By Tom Robinson - Special to USAHockey.com

Geographic challenges can leave young hockey players from Alaska separated from their counterparts in the continental United States for much of the year.

By carefully selecting out-of-state group trips, the Anchorage-based Alaska All-Stars make sure those challenges don’t result in a lack of opportunity for their girls — both to play and to get noticed.

The All-Stars won the USA Hockey Tier I 14-and-under national title last season and went unbeaten in pool play to reach the 19-and-under national quarterfinals. This season, they appear to be building a potent 16-and-under team.

“What is unique about the girls up here … is they are highly recruited by the academies,” All-Stars coach Cristy Hickel said. “What we’ve tried to do here in Alaska is for people who want to raise their kids and keep them home, we give them an option.

“They have good coaching, they have a solid program, and they get visibility through the showcases without leaving home.”

The All-Stars, already faced with the expenses of running a program at home, carefully choose about four trips a year, factoring in the expense and logistical challenges placed on the players’ families. Once flights and lodging are arranged, the team saves money where it can, such as shopping together for team meals on the road.

The latest trip, in February, was to Washington, D.C., where the team was sure to visit historical sites as part of its adventure.

“We just flew out to D.C.,” said Hickel, a Level 5 USA Hockey coach who has been on the staff for three Olympic Winter Games. “That’s a pretty big trip to go from Alaska to D.C. You have the four-hour time change and 20 hours getting there and back and still trying to not miss school.

“It’s a unique set of challenges that Alaska girls have.”

Hickel and the others who run the All-Stars are intent on making sure those challenges to do not limit the opportunities for girls dedicated to their program. In just five years, the All-Stars have already sent 35 players on to college hockey. Five All-Stars alums joined NCAA Division I programs this season, adding to a list that includes Hickel’s daughters Tori at Northeastern University and Zoe at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

“Showcase-wise, they’re random throughout the year with the Canada Cup, the Challenge Cup and the very specific times when the coaches are available to come see the girls,” Hickel said. “We’re working really hard with coaches to make sure they know there are some really hard-working girls up here that they may not see that often. They have goals to go to college and play the game they love.

“Families don’t necessarily have to spend large amounts of money to send their kids away to play for the academies.”

Hickel said she tries to make sure players are aware of how limited Division I scholarships are, but also what other options exist. Those not ready for Division I hockey and beyond have options in Division III and college club hockey.

“Most of them are not Kendall Coyne. They’re not going on to the Olympics,” Hickel said, referring to the forward on the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team. “College is their last little bit of hockey. We’re trying to emphasize the journey.

“I have some girls that ref and I have some that want to coach. We’re trying to give them that spectrum that you’ve just given 13 years of your life to hockey, what can you give back or what can you get out of it?”

The All-Stars have players who make the trip as far as eight hours from Fairbanks to Anchorage just to participate in their “local” schedule that features games against boys’ teams.

The two teams the All-Stars have this season, 16U and 19U, hope to be back on the road soon. Anchorage hosts the Pacific District Girls’ Tournament on March 5-9, where the All-Stars will try to earn another national trip for two teams. The 16U team already has a silver medal at the USA-Canada Cup Series in Ontario and a semifinal appearance at the Presidents Day Challenge Cup in Washington this season.

Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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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.

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