Playoff hockey. It’s the most fun time of the year.
The playoffs represent the pinnacle of the season. It’s a time for players to demonstrate the skills they’ve honed for months.
Players trained in a supportive environment should be able to make a seamless transition to the playoffs, since they’ve already been competing in every situation – power play, penalty kill, etc. – without fear of failure.
Rhode Island-native John Hynes, in his fourth season as head coach of the AHL’s Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, has a simple message for playoff-bound coaches: stick to the game plan and trust your process. Don’t shorten the bench.
The 2011 AHL Coach of the Year and former National Team Development Program coach recently sat down with USA Hockey to talk about playoff preparation for coaches and believing in the team’s foundation.
Here’s what the Boston University alumnus had to say:
USA Hockey: You’ve coached in many big games. What’s your approach when it comes to the playoffs?
John Hynes: When you get to the playoffs, or later in the season, you’re really at a stage in the year where all of your foundations and your buildings blocks are in place. Your individual development and player development over the course of the season is all built to be at its best in the playoffs. When you get to this stage of the season, it’s about having belief and trust in the process you’ve gone through up to this point.
USA Hockey: So you’ve already done the prep work. You’ve already set the foundation. Now it’s just time to go out there and have some fun?
John Hynes: Correct. At this stage, it’s knowing what your role is. It’s knowing what your identity is. It’s knowing what your mindset is. It’s believing and trusting in that, and then going out and playing as best as you can.
USA Hockey: Do you think coaches, parents and players are tempted by “going for the win” too much? Is it easy to get too caught up in the moment or in the emotions?
John Hynes: At times you do. When you get into playoff situations and championship games, the natural instinct is to go to the end result and to want to win more than wanting to go through the process. Believe in your process. The more pressure, and the bigger the game, the more you want to rely on your foundation and structure. You play your best when you’re focused on playing and focused on the process, but to do that you have to believe in the preparation you’ve had through the year. You want to be able to go play with a clear mind.
USA Hockey: Especially at the youth levels, how disheartening can it be for a kid to see a regular shift all season and then ride the bench during the playoffs?
John Hynes: It’s particularly difficult at the younger ages. It’s always difficult when players are in a more developmental situation, when part of the process is learning and playing through those situations and going through the full season. When your role gets limited and you don’t have a lot of chances to play later in the season, it’s disappointing. It’s not like the professional level, where guys are earning a living.
USA Hockey: You want the kids to come back next year. Shortening the bench can’t be a good retention strategy.
John Hynes: Absolutely it’s not. The biggest part of youth sports is developing and fueling the passion for the game. Those are the situations (shortening the bench) where players could get turned off. Ultimately, for the growth of the game, it’s not a good thing.
USA Hockey: What about you, personally? Playoffs can raise the stress level. What do you do to stay loose, stay calm and ensure you continue doing your job?
John Hynes: It really comes down to preparation. It’s the most fun time of the year. It’s the time of the year that’s the most rewarding. You go through all of your training camps. You go through all of your trials and tribulations. There’s something on the line. It’s really just trusting in that preparation. When you’re prepared for a difficult game, you’re more relaxed going into it because you’re prepared for it. You can go play and enjoy the competition. It’s more just making sure that we’re prepared for each situation. Then we want to go out there and compete and enjoy the process of competing.
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.