There’s always room for improvement. That’s the mentality every coach should have following the season. In order for players to improve, you must believe that you can always improve, too.
University of Minnesota Duluth head coach Scott Sandelin knows it well.
He guided the Bulldogs to the 2011 NCAA national championship and was both a head coach (2004 – gold medal) and assistant coach (2011 – bronze medal) of the United States National Junior Team.
But even after a successful season, it’s always back to the drawing board. Sandelin told us his postseason game plan and the steps that he recommends coaches take in order to prepare for next year.
USA Hockey: Once the season’s over, what are the next steps for you?
Scott Sandelin: I take a look at my season. I meet with my staff. We usually like to meet within a couple weeks after getting over the sting of being done. You look at your season as a whole. What did you accomplish? What can you get better at? We also have player meetings. It’s good to get feedback from the players, too. I think that’s healthy. Talk to them about their season and their experience. I think it’s important to get that feedback, good and bad, so it makes you a better staff. Some people don’t like to talk about it, but I think it’s good.
USA Hockey: For you, at the college level, it’s very results-driven. What advice do you have for youth hockey coaches around the country? What should they be thinking about as they look back at the season?
Scott Sandelin: I think No. 1 is what kind of environment are you putting the players in every day. Are you putting them in a positive environment for those players to develop as players and people? I have kids in youth hockey, so I know how much winning means to everybody, but at the end of the day, the environment you put those kids in certainly plays a factor in whether they get better or not. I’m a big guy for that.
USA Hockey: What fits your standards of a positive environment for youth hockey players?
Scott Sandelin: Make sure they’re having fun coming to the rink every day. Make sure you’re accomplishing what you want to accomplish every day as far as development. That’s what it’s about for these kids. It’s about development and it’s about having fun. It’s about these kids wanting to come to the rink every day. We want kids to want to come to the rink every day, want to work hard and want to get better. We try to create that experience for them to grow.
USA Hockey: There’s a lot of talk and information about how players can improve during the offseason. What are some things coaches can do to improve away from the rink?
Scott Sandelin: I think communication is a big thing. We all steal ideas. The more you can do to continue learning, whether it’s clinics or sitting down with other coaches, it’s all beneficial. Keep bettering yourself. As a coach, everybody has their own philosophies and core values. I think you have to identify those. In today’s world, I find you have to be a little more flexible with kids at times. It’s kind of a changing culture.
USA Hockey: You talked about creating a fun environment for the kids. Should it be fun for coaches as well? Should they ask, “Did I enjoy myself?”
Scott Sandelin: If you don’t enjoy yourself, you shouldn’t be doing it. Teams are a reflection of their coaches at times. If you have guys that are on the bench yelling and out of control, your team tends to be that way. If you’re more even keel, I think your team will play that way, too.
USA Hockey: Do you like getting new players to work with every year?
Scott Sandelin: It’s one of the reasons I love doing this. It changes every year. I get a different group of players. It’s a challenge of molding those players into a team. Sometimes that happens right away, sometimes it takes longer, sometimes it doesn’t happen over the course of the year, but that’s the challenge you have as a coach. Probably the most important thing for me is watching players come in as freshmen and hopefully leaving as seniors as better hockey players, ready for the next step. I get a lot of satisfaction seeing those kids mature and grow and be ready for the next step. That’s the fun part for me.
USA Hockey: Hopefully youth hockey coaches are seeing those rewards as well.
Scott Sandelin: I tip my hat to the coaches in youth hockey, because a lot of them are volunteers. They put a lot of time and effort into it that people don’t recognize or appreciate. It’s easy to criticize, but those people give a lot of time and effort to help kids and they should be commended for that, because that’s pretty neat.
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.