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Junior Falcons Help Girls Soar to New Heights in New England

04/29/2014, 10:45am MDT
By Tom Robinson - Special to USAHockey.com

The New England Junior Falcons have gone from one split-season girls’ team to 100 girls on the program’s six travel teams in just five years.

There is no end in sight for that growth.

Falcons girls’ director Carol Lessard said the Enfield, Conn.-based program planned to conduct tryouts in late April with the goal of filling 10 teams for the 2014-15 season.

Lessard has worked in an administrative role at the Enfield Twin Rinks and served as the Falcons girls’ director for the five-year growth period. She points to two primary reasons for the increased interest in playing for the association based in the northwest part of the state on the Massachusetts border.

First, the Falcons have succeeded in making themselves attractive both to players who want to use the program as a steppingstone to the many prominent prep school programs in the region as well as those players who want the Falcons to be their main hockey focus.

Second, under the guidance of Tom O’Connor, one of the team’s owners, the Falcons have built a strong coaching staff that attracts interested players and families.

“We’re pleased with our numbers,” Lessard said. “I think one of the things we do well is that several of our players through the years have attended prep schools, and I think part of the reason is the affiliation with our program. We work with the prep schools.”

Many of the high school/prep school players in New England compete in half-season leagues before their school season starts.

The Falcons had a split-season team on the Under-19 level and a full-season team on the U16 level this season. They will enter into tryouts looking to see if they can field split- and full-season teams on both of those higher age levels for 2014-15.

“Not all of our skaters attend prep school or wish to attend prep school,” Lessard said. “We always provide a high-level team for the girls who play for us full-season as well. We’re not here just to fill the prep schools, but some of our girls have educational options that they would not have had if they did not skate for our program.

“But we have other girls who have gone on to be very successful who also stayed here and played for our local high schools or our U19 teams.”

Lessard said the concentration on recruiting and keeping quality coaches has also played a key role in helping the Falcons keep players in the program as they progress through the age groups. The team competes in the Massachusetts district and the Massachusetts state tournament because the bulk of its roster comes from that state.

While they draw from around western Massachusetts and Connecticut, the Falcons also attract players from Vermont and New Hampshire who travel in to Enfield to be part of the teams.

The New England Girls’ Hockey League helps in the process with a large membership and its ability to provide options for keeping teams paired in divisions that make games competitive.

The list of alumni from the Junior Falcons girls’ team includes Kacey Bellamy, who went on to play for the Berkshire School, the University of New Hampshire and most recently the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team that won a silver medal in Sochi, Russia.

When members of the Olympic women’s team were given the opportunity to select youth hockey organizations to receive 12 sets of OneGoal starter equipment as a donation, Bellamy chose The Junior Falcons program.

Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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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. 

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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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