Janice Cavaretta was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support and congratulations she received after she was announced as the latest winner of the J. Micheal Duffett Award, presented by the Buffalo Sabres to the individual who best exemplifies “the knowledge, teaching, love of the game and gentle humanity of Mike” in support of youth hockey in western New York state.
After all, while it might be a big deal to others that Cavaretta is the first woman to claim the award in its 30-year history, she was simply following her passion.
That’s why it seemed a little strange to be recognized for her long career in youth hockey that includes serving as a coach of a boys’ Bantam team in the Buffalo area, working 14 years (and counting) as the executive director of the Western New York Amateur Hockey League, and serving 11 years as USA Hockey registrar for the region.
“I was taken aback and certainly very surprised,” Cavaretta said. “I did not expect it, I did not think that I would be considered, and certainly did not think I would win the award with so many deserving people, especially when you consider the credentials of the past winners. I know a few people that have won it over the years that I have a lot of respect for, and I know that it is a privilege to be awarded this honor.”
To David Braunstein, president of the West section of the New York State Amateur Hockey Association (NYSAHA) and a member of the selection committee, Cavaretta was such an obvious choice he couldn’t believe he’d never thought to nominate her before. So when he finally did, Cavaretta was enthusiastically voted the winner by the panel of Western New York luminaries that include Mike Gilbert, the Sabres’ public relations director; Seymour H. Knox IV, whose father and uncle were the original owners of the Sabres; Michael Duffett’s widow and son Brian; and several other people deeply entrenched in the area’s youth hockey scene.
“Everyone that is involved in youth hockey in western New York, whether it’s in administration or coaching, knows Janice Cavaretta,” Braunstein said. “She’s the executive director of the largest youth hockey league, a 28-member organization, so they know her from that, but she quietly coaches also.”
The award was established in 1984 to honor J. Michael Duffett, a former Clarkson University player who went on to coach local youth hockey and worked in the Sabres’ hockey operations department until he lost a long battle with cancer.
Cavaretta, who earned her Masters Level 5 USA Hockey coaching accreditation since 1989, was presented the award during the Sabres’ home game on Dec. 19 against the Boston Bruins, and was a little overwhelmed by having the spotlight shining so bright on her.
“Gosh, that was over the top,” she said of the experience that night. “The Buffalo Sabres, what a class act. It was a whirlwind. I honestly do not remember much of the game. I enjoyed watching the kids delight at being able to sit in the press box to watch a game, and being able to talk to so many people who came over to introduce themselves. When it was announced at the arena, the Sabres put together a multimedia presentation that was shown on the Jumbotron and lasted a few minutes. It was also shown on TV, and hearing the crowd cheer and chants from people that knew me was pretty cool. Some of my current players were at the game, which was very special.”
Beyond all the pomp and circumstance of the presentation, Cavaretta was deeply touched by the reaction she received from current and former players she’s coached, as well as numerous people she didn’t even know.
“My phone blew up with text messages, tweets, emails and voice mail,” she said. “One of the tweets I received touched me: ‘huge congrats to the inspiring #hockeyhero.’ I remember thinking, ‘This is beyond special.’ I never saw myself in that light, yet many people do.
“So many parents have contacted me about their daughter playing hockey and some struggles they have encountered, asking for advice. To be seen as a role model to so many that I do not know is unbelievable. To hear from parents of kids I coached, present and former players, some who are now adults with kids of their own, was phenomenal, too, and the emotions that surface are indescribable.”
And while she has encountered occasional barriers as a woman in an overwhelmingly male environment, Cavaretta has overcome those obstacles in impressive ways and used any setbacks as further motivation to forge ahead.
“A lot of what I faced was people telling me that I couldn’t do things, I shouldn’t do things or that I don’t belong there,” Cavaretta explained. “That never stopped me. At times, it was frustrating. However, my silent reply most of the time was, ‘Watch me and you’ll see what I can do.’
“Yeah, I had to prove myself, put my time in, try to get people to see me for me — not a female, but someone who knows and loves the game. I started in the game at 3 years old, playing hockey with boys much older than me. I had to prove I can play all the time or they wouldn’t include me. Once I did, the rest was history. I have always had confidence in who I am and what I could do, I just needed the opportunity.”
Coaching a competitive team of teenage boys, she has earned the respect of not only her players but also their parents. Her experience as an elite-level player herself, back before the days of competitive women’s college hockey, still serves her well occasionally in practice.
“Any challenges faced coaching were mostly with administrators and parents,” Cavaretta said. “The kids were always easy to work with. They still are. Once they see that you know your ‘stuff’ and understand the game, they are very accepting.
“Making a few moves on them during practice doesn’t hurt either.”
Added Braunstein, “Janice was quite an accomplished hockey player when she played. If they’d had collegiate hockey at the time she played, she would have been a Division I player. She probably would have been an Olympian, too, she was that good.”
Ultimately, Cavaretta is just being herself and following the path her father, Tony Rozek — who passed away in March 2013 — helped set her on. She thought it was fitting that it was Nov. 8, Rozek’s birthday, when she first heard the news that she would receive the Duffett Award, because Rozek helped instill that love for the game when she was just a child, and in the process, cemented a lifelong connection between them.
“We spent so much time together, as so many parents do with the kids traveling to practice and games, but our relationship went further,” Cavaretta said of her dad. “We bonded. He was there for me and my family all the time. We could talk about anything and he would do anything for me. We talked hockey and sports all the time. He was my main mentor and encouraged me to be all I can, academically and in life. He told me at a very young age not to cry or pout when things didn’t go my way. ‘Don’t get mad, just prove them wrong,’ and show them who I was.
“He taught me so much on dealing with people and on the administrative side of the game, and how doing the little extra things will always make a difference. You never know who is watching and who you are making an impression on.”
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.
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