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Helena Bighorns take final AWHL title; NA3HL awaits in 2015

03/27/2014, 6:00pm MDT
By Tom Robinson - Special to USAHockey.com

The Helena Bighorns will try to extend their championship streak to eight straight seasons — and a third league — in the 2014-15 season.

The Bighorns completed a three-game sweep of the American West Hockey League’s championship series Friday night. The win came just hours after it was announced that the league’s seven teams would join the North American 3 Hockey League next season.

Helena won all three titles since the AWHL resumed play in the 2011-12 season. The Bighorns also won Cascade Cup championships in the previous four seasons as members of the Northern Pacific Hockey League.

The Bighorns ended the season on a 137:32 unscored-upon streak that culminated in a title-clinching 4-0 victory over the Great Falls Americans.

Helena is headed back to the Toyota-USA Hockey Tier III Junior National Championships, where it won the title in 2011 and finished third each of the past two years. This year’s tournament is April 3-7 in Simsbury, Conn.

Dylan Webster and Damon Hanson scored six points each and Helena allowed only four goals in six playoff games while improving to 52-1-1 combined for the AWHL regular season and playoffs. Austin Brihn made 18 saves in the clinching shutout.

The addition of Helena, Great Falls, the Billings Bulls, Bozeman IceDogs, Gillette Wild, Glacier Nationals (from Whitefish, Mont.) and Yellowstone Quake (from Cody, Wyo.) from the AWHL as the new Frontier Division will increase the NA3HL membership to 28 teams for the 2014-15 season. The changes are pending formal approval by USA Hockey in June at the Annual Congress as part of the junior recertification process.

“What a great opportunity it is for both the NA3HL and the AWHL to join forces as proud members of USA Hockey in step with creating the best Tier III junior property in the country,” NA3HL president and NAHL commissioner Mark Frankenfeld said in a story on the league website.

The NA3HL’s North Iowa Bulls are the defending Tier III national champions.

MORE TITLES: The Marquette Royales won the Minnesota Junior Hockey League’s Bush Cup and the Boston Junior Bandits won the Metropolitan League’s Keegan Cup.

In the Minnesota League, Jeff Salzbrunn scored on an assist from Lane King four minutes into overtime to lift the first-year Royales to a 3-2 championship game victory over the Dells Ducks. The Royales made it to the final by beating the Hudson Crusaders in three games in the semifinals. The Ducks swept the Illiana Blackbirds.

The teams traded overtime game-winners in the first two games. Marquette’s Dallas McLaughlin, who had a hat trick in a Game 2 loss, scored five goals in the Royales’ 6-4 win in the deciding game.

The two teams, who each won regular-season division titles, advance to Tier III nationals.

The Junior Bandits won an all-Boston Metro final 4-2 over the Junior Rangers. The Junior Bandits went 38-1-3 in the regular season and 7-0 in the playoffs. Mike Taormina was named playoff MVP.

The Junior Bandits reached the final by winning three games in a round robin among division playoff champions: 4-1 over the New Jersey Avalanche, 4-3 over the Boston Junior Rangers and 2-1 over the Richmond Generals. Cody Braga had a hat trick against New Jersey and had the empty-net goal to clinch the final.

The Junior Bandits earned a spot at Tier III nationals. The Junior Rangers will play the Eastern League runner-up for a berth.

PLAYOFF ROUNDUP: The Northern Cyclones kept their championship hopes alive through a triple-overtime game Sunday night, then won again on Tuesday to extend the first Eastern Hockey League championship series to a fifth and deciding game Thursday night.

The New Hampshire Junior Monarchs won the first two games of the series and carried a 3-2 lead into the third period of the third game. Northern defenseman Grant Gallo forced overtime in Game 3 with a power-play goal 2:47 into the third. The game then remained tied through more than 80 shots and nearly 59 minutes until Will Norris broke the tie at 1:49 of the third overtime. Evan Morelli made 74 saves in the win. Jake Theut had 64 saves in the loss.

The Cyclones then rolled to a 6-1 win Tuesday.

The defending champion North Iowa Bulls, Dallas Junior Stars, Flint Junior Generals and St. Louis Junior Blues advanced to the NA3HL’s Silver Cup Championship Thursday through Sunday in Geneva, Ill.

Following a three-game round robin, the top two teams will play for the title and both will advance to nationals.

Blake McIntyre’s second goal, in overtime, lifted Dallas over the Topeka Capitals 4-3 in the third game of their series.

St. Louis also needed three games against the Peoria Mustangs, and North Iowa needed three against the Granite City Lumberjacks. The Flint Junior Generals swept the Cleveland Lumberjacks.

NUMBER ONE: The Fairbanks Ice Dogs defeated the Kenai River Brown Bears 3-2 in a shootout Friday to clinch the overall North American Hockey League regular-season title and home ice throughout the Robertson Cup playoffs. Fairbanks is 43-14-1.

The Michigan Warriors and Janesville Jets clinched spots in the Robertson Cup playoffs.

COLLEGE COMMITMENTS: Chris Buchanan, a defenseman with the Fargo Force of the United States Hockey League, has committed to play at Bentley University. The 19-year-old from San Jose, Calif. is in his second season with Fargo after playing one season with the Alaska Avalanche of the North American Hockey League.

Topeka RoadRunners forward Jake Kamrass committed to UMass-Lowell. The 20-year-old from Norcross, Ga., who is second on the NAHL team in scoring with 56 points in 58 games, will join his older brother, Zach, at UMass-Lowell.

QUICK STRIKES: Brian Pinho of the Indiana Ice needed just 6:23 of the second period to produce a natural hat trick in Saturday’s 4-3 win over the Youngstown Phantoms, giving the Washington Capitals’ draft pick 22 points in the last 14 USHL games.

Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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A follow-up to Ian Walsh's NHL career-path article (see Stripes - February 2015)

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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