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Disabled Festival Celebrates A Decade Of Opportunity

04/11/2014, 7:45pm MDT
By Harry Thompson - Editor, USA Hockey Magazine

USA Hockey Magazine Podcast with JJ O'Connor

MARLBOROUGH, Mass. – As he looks across the lobby at the New England Sports Center watching a stream of players and parents searching for their locker room assignments, J.J. O’Connor can only smile when he thinks about how far the USA Hockey Disabled Festival has come in such a relatively short amount of time.

“It’s hard to believe that 10 years has gone by so fast, but as they say ‘time flies when you’re having fun,’” says O’Connor, the chairman of USA Hockey’s Disabled Section.

“We’ve developed this festival into a grand event that everyone looks forward to.”

From its humble beginnings in 2005 with the first festival at the Great Lakes Sports City in Fraser, Mich., the Disabled Festival has come a long way. At the same time, it has held true to its goal of providing opportunities for players with various disabilities to enjoy the game.

More than 500 players competing in sled, special, amputee and hearing-impaired hockey programs faced off for a three-day festival that was more of a celebration than a competition.

Once confined to the sidelines, more disabled athletes are finding fun, friendship and a sense of belonging as they put their disabilities on ice. Creating programs like the Disabled Festival has given players from around the country an opportunity to not only compete but to get together under the USA Hockey banner.

“Every walk of life is here. That’s what makes it such a beautiful thing,” says O’Connor. “The goal is to create a grand event for people with disabilities to be able to enjoy the game of hockey. At the end of the day it’s not who wins or loses, it’s the fact that everyone gets to enjoy the game and have fun.”

There was no complaining about officiating, stressing out about wins and losses or whining about ice time. It was all about the opportunity to have fun playing the game they have come to love.

“I think we could all learn a lesson from these kids,” says Tom Brake, whose involvement with disabled hockey predates the first festival.

Not that the Disabled Festival doesn’t have a competitive side to it. For the fourth consecutive year the Festival features a National Sled Hockey Championship, with 13 of the 17 members gold-medal winning Paralympic Team competing for their local clubs.

“It’s definitely different playing against these guys. We haven’t faced each other since the last Disabled Festival,” says Declan Farmer, who got the better of his friend and linemate Brody Roybal as the Florida Bandits defeated the RIC Blackhawks, 6-3.

“Brody and I have a friendly rivalry. We’re friends on the ice but we always try to beat each other any time we’re on the ice together. It’s that way with all of us [Paralympians].”

Over the years the event has grown from 24 teams in 2005 to 54 this time around. Leading the charge has been the growth in the number of youth and adult sled hockey programs, which has been sparked by the success of U.S. Sled Hockey Teams at the Winter Paralympics.

Special hockey has also witnessed a surge in popularity as parents and physicians have discovered the act of being on the ice has helped people with autism, cerebral palsy and other disorders better integrate into society.

“I don’t think that our see differences [with other disabled hockey players],” says Amy LaPoe, the mother of a player on the Tomahawks special hockey team.

“You’re not focused on the fact that you can’t hear or you’re in a sled, you’re focused on playing hockey and having a lot of fun.”

A team from the American Hearing Impaired Hockey Association, which celebrated its 40th anniversary, took on local youth hockey teams, while the standing amputee division promises to be its most competitive competition to date.

Judging from the looks on the faces of those who converged on the New England Sports Center in Marlborough, Mass., for the tenth annual USA Hockey Disabled Festival in the spring, the fun is not limited to the ice. Not only are parents getting caught up in the action, those not even involved in the tournament can’t help but notice a positive energy that pervades the six-sheet facility that has hosted multiple USA Hockey events in the past.

“I use the word inspirational,” says Rick Fask, a Mass Hockey volunteer who is overseeing the festival. “It’s one of the most inspirational and rewarding things that I’ve ever done.”

A busy opening day was capped off with a special benefit game that pitted an all-star team of sled and standing amputee players, including Boston Marathon bombing victim, Mark Fucarile, took on the Boston Bruins alumni to kick off Friday night’s festivities that included a banquet and concert.

“This makes a world of difference for these kids. Not only can they play hockey, but this improves the quality of their lives in many ways,” says O’Connor.

“This is your chance to tell the world, ‘Just because I’m disabled doesn’t mean that I’m not a fantastic hockey player.’ ”

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Photo by: Elan Kawesch/Harvard University

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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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