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Paralympians Happy To Inspire The Next Generation Of Disabled Athlete

04/12/2014, 5:00pm MDT
By Harry Thompson - Editor, USA Hockey Magazine

Josh Sweeney, 2014 U.S. Paralympian, talks about being a role model to young disabled athletes

MARLBOROUGH, Mass. – It’s approaching 10 p.m., and the line that snakes through the upper lobby at the New England Sports Center shows no signs of shrinking. Nobody is leaving without getting what they came for.

It isn’t the Boston Bruins alumni, who had just played a charity game against an all-star team of amputee players, that everybody is waiting for. To the kids participating at the 2014 USA Hockey Disabled Festival the prize for their patience is much bigger than that.

Every disabled player and family member will leave here with more than just an autographed team photo of the 2014 U.S. Sled Hockey Team. They will carry with them a memory that will serve as a source of inspiration moving forward.

“These kids look up to these guys like they’re [Alex] Ovechkin or [Sidney] Crosby. They’re their heroes, and they give them a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow to shoot for,” says J.J. O’Connor, the chairman of USA Hockey’s Disabled Section, who considers the presence of these Paralympians the crowning jewel of this weekend celebration of disabled hockey.

The 13 Paralympians who came here with their gold medals in tow are happy to oblige. For many of them, they have been on the other side of the autograph table, and giving up a few hours of their time and a little writer’s cramp is a small price to pay it forward.

“I think it’s great because I get to give back to the sport that has given me so much,” says Rico Roman, who is here competing for the San Antonio Rampage.

“These guys really look up to us as National Team players and Paralympians, so for me to sign some autographs and take a few pictures hopefully will inspire them to be the best that they can be. I really get fired up from seeing the youth players and the smiles on their faces. I love it.”

As O’Connor is proud to point out, these festivals are more than just another hockey tournament or a showcase of skills. It’s a chance for every player, whether they are competing in a sled, a special hockey game or as a member of an amputee team to say loud and proud that they too are hockey players just like their able-bodied brethren.

And what these Paralympians represent is the possibility that there are opportunities to be a part of something bigger if they continue to work hard and believe in themselves.

“It’s like pulling on that USA jersey,” says Kip St. Germaine, a three-time Paralympian who is coaching the UNH Wildcats adult team.

“It’s an honor and a responsibility that you can’t take lightly. It’s one thing to make the Paralympic Team and win the gold medal, but there are other responsibilities that come outside of the ice … to get kids enthused and involved because they’re the future.”

To their credit, every member of the gold-medal team understands that and relishes the opportunity to serve as an example for the next generation of disabled athlete.

“It’s awesome to be that kind of role model for these kids,” says Josh Sweeney, who scored the winning goal in the gold-medal game against Russia.

“That’s why I try to do the best I can to let them know that it’s possible for them, and it’s not something that they can’t do if they get to work.”

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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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