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All Signs Point North for Bemidji Youth Hockey Association

04/22/2014, 5:45pm MDT
By Mike Scandura - Special to USAHockey.com

Approximately five years ago, the Bemidji Youth Hockey Association skated onto a rough patch of ice.

“We were stagnant and were losing numbers,” BYHA vice president Kevin Waldhausen said. “But in the last five years, we’ve seen a steady growth in numbers. Five years ago we implemented a try hockey for free for one year at any age level. It was a huge success.

“My son started hockey at 9. We wavered back and forth because we weren’t sure if our child would like the sport. But it was just what we needed to give our son the push to play. If you get a kid on the ice, he’s going to love it for a lifetime.”

That wasn’t the only reason why the BYHA was able to turn a decline in numbers into an increase in boys who registered to play with the northern Minnesota association.

“We have a big basket of techniques, including try hockey for free,” said Waldhausen.

For example, the BYHA connected with the Gear Up Minnesota program, which grants sets of starter hockey equipment to deserving hockey associations via an application process. The goal of the program is to grow the game at the grassroots level by making hockey as affordable as possible.

“Gear Up Minnesota has provided us with gear for young skaters [5- to 7-year olds],” Waldenhausen said. “We’ve acquired 40 sets of gear.

“The first-year skaters are given the gear and return it at the end of the year. We have gear, minus skates and sticks, which reduces costs.”

In addition, the Bemidji Old Timers Hockey Group has played a vital role by annually donating $2,000 to the BYHA.

“This group has been making donations for several years,” Waldhausen said. “It’s a 50-and-older club. They host a tournament in Bemidji, and the proceeds are donated to youth hockey for scholarships and equipment.

“It’s been a very generous and vital part of our association.”

Another factor is Bemidji State University, which plays in the WCHA and is affiliated with the BYHA.

“We have a Division I college, and we get tons of support from Bemidji State, which helps us increase our numbers,” Waldhausen said. “The Beavers host ‘Skate with the Beavers’ after one of their games. They’re very active with our program. Our 6- to 10-year olds can hang out and talk to their on-ice heroes at that level.

“Since we have a Division I program, many of our coaches (who at one time played for Bemidji State) stick around. Our quality of coaching is a bonus for our association.”

The BYHA’s home base, the Bemidji Community Arena, is a high-end venue.

“Bemidji is a town with a population of around 13,000. We have four indoor sheets of ice with one having ice 365 days a year," said Waldhausen.

“We have a plethora of ice and we want more.”

Since 1988, the BYHA has hosted the Paul Bunyan International Hockey Tournament, which is geared toward peewees.

“It’s a 16-team tournament, but we want to make sure it’s not all Minnesota teams,” Waldhausen said. “We have teams from Michigan and Canada. In the past, we’ve had teams from Russia. If you come, you’re going to have excellent competition. NCAA Division I players and NHL players have played in this tournament.

“We host opening ceremonies that emulate the opening ceremonies at the Olympics. Players skate out with their teams. The players’ names are called out until all 16 teams are on the ice. We assign one of our squirt members to stay with that team throughout the tournament. We have a host player and family for every team in the tournament. They serve as their escort around town.”

Add all this up and it’s easy to see why the BYHA this season was able to suit up the following teams: Bantam AA, Bantam Blue and White, Peewee AA and Peewee B, Termites, Mite 1 and 2, Mite 1 Blue and White, Mite 2 Blue and White plus 12-Under and 10-Under.

And to say Bemidji High School receives a major boost from the BYHA would be an understatement.

“Playing high school hockey is a very big deal,” Waldhausen said. “We’re a feeder program for the high school team. All of our kids strive to play for their high school.

“It goes without saying hockey is a culture in our community.”

Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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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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