There’s something about tournament time that tempts many coaches to change their formula. Playoffs and tournaments can be an enticing time to roll with your top players while sitting the others. All of this, of course, is done with the hope that it gives your team a better chance to win. But by shortening the bench in youth hockey, you’re actually shorting the team. Player development suffers and the players’ overall enjoyment is diminished.
Instead of surrendering to the bench-shortening temptation, top coaches recommend believing in your season-long process and the foundation that was set at the beginning of the year.
Playing the Best
At the end of the season, you want to be the best, but at the youth hockey levels, the trophy shouldn’t be more important than player development.
So how do you define “the best” – is it winning a trophy, or is it your entire team reaching it’s full potential?
“The team has managed through highs and lows in the season, with lessons learned along the way,” said Rick Trupp, Alaska District coach-in-chief. “Through that, kids should be playing their best hockey with a lot of success, win or loss, because they reached their goals of improvement every step of the way.”
As a youth hockey coach, the common goal for you and your team should be to grow and progress throughout the season. The true reward isn’t the trophy or the final standings, but in the product on the ice at the end of the year.
“At the end of the season, as a coach, you want to stand on the end of the bench and see players do things they haven’t before,” said Bob Mancini, USA Hockey ADM regional manager for Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Missouri. “You want to see them being successful in situations that they hadn’t succeeded in before. Maybe they’ve improved on individual moves, group play, or maybe it might be just the way they handle the games as a team.
“Come playoff time, if you’ve done the right things all year long with your team, you won’t need to shorten the bench.”
Kids can be nervous and make mistakes because they succumb to increased pressure that often comes with end-of-season tournaments. One way coaches can help prepare kids to shine under the intense light of tournament hockey is by maintaining a high level of intensity during practices, scrimmages and games throughout the season. By preparing your players with intense, fast-paced game action, small-area games and station-based practices all season, you can help them progressively build themselves into tournament-ready competitors.
“Whether it’s overtime, a one-goal game with a pulled goalie, or penalty situations, players should have learned from those opportunities throughout the year so they know about it and know how to keep their composure rather than panic when a championship is on the line,” Trupp said.
Playing as a Team
Hockey is a team sport. Late-season tournaments, championship games and postseason play deserve to be finished as a team.
Especially at the younger levels, let all of your players have the opportunity to thrive in big games. It’s in those situations where a substantial amount of their development occurs. And remember – just because a kid is a fourth-liner now doesn’t mean that he or she will always be a fourth-liner. Give them the opportunity to learn, mature and improve. The results can be surprising, though they might take a few years to materialize.
“You’re compromising that learning just because you’re trying to win, which isn’t fair,” said Trupp. “At the end, you owe it to your players to bring them all along as a team.”
It’s no fun to sit on the bench. That’s not why kids signed up to play this year. Pulling the plug on players late in the season will leave a bad taste in their mouth heading into summer. If they don’t come back next year, that’s a greater loss than any tournament game.
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.