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CT Polar Bears Trick to Success? Give ‘Em a Break

07/21/2014, 3:45pm MDT
By Mike Scandura - Special to USAHockey.com

Despite their amazing run of success that stretches for nearly three decades, the Connecticut Polar Bears don’t require their girls to play hockey 24/7 and 365 days per year.

That aspect of the organization’s philosophy is driven home like a slap shot from the point.

“We encourage girls to play other sports,” Graham Gill, the association’s player director, said. “That becomes attractive to prep schools. These girls are the ones who are well-rounded academically and not in a one-track mindset.

"The biggest question I get from folks outside the organization this time of the year is, ‘We love the Polar Bears, but when are your spring or summer leagues?’ We only run skill-based sessions. We don’t run teams like Under-10 in the spring.

“You can’t tell a 9-year old to stay on skates all year,” continued Gill. “They have to make different sets of friends. We highly encourage that.”

Gill then cited his daughter as a perfect example of the type of balance that the Polar Bears emphasize.

“Recently there was a lacrosse jamboree where my daughter’s teammates were on opposite teams,” Gill said. “Everybody had a lot of fun. We also have rec basketball. We want them to take a break from hockey.”

But when the Polar Bears are on the ice, they not only win championships but they also produce Olympic-caliber players.

The Polar Bears, who were founded in 1985, have captured 11 national championships in various age groups.

When asked why the Polar Bears have been so successful for nearly three decades, Gill didn’t hesitate a second to answer the question.

“I think the real answer is we are truly an organization that focuses on the betterment of our girls,” he said. “We’re supportive of them as hockey players and make sure they get exposure to schools. We’re an organization full of volunteers that want to make the players successful including off-ice, which means getting them into a private school and into college.

“It’s an organization that’s focused on the child as opposed to ‘We want to go out and win 75 games.’”

In fact, Gill said, “If you want to play 75 games, this may not be the organization for you.”

In both Tier I and Tier II, the Polar Bears focus on skills over games, with the association adopting the principles of the American Development Model.

“If you want to learn to play hockey, this may be the organization for you because we emphasize the basic skill sets,” he said.

That this philosophy has been successful is underscored by the number of alumni who excelled at or beyond the college level.

For example. A.J. Mleczko, Julie Chu, Angela Ruggiero and Sarah Vaillancourt each received the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award.

In addition, Chu, Ruggiero, Mleczko, Sue Merz, Gretchen Ulion, Jaime Hagerman, Kim Insalaco and Hilary Knight have played on U.S. Olympic Teams (with Merz, Mleczko, Ulion and Ruggiero playing on the 1998 gold-medal-winning team).

“When you’re growing up, if you were a Bruins fan you wanted to be Ray Bourque,” Gill said. “In girls’ hockey, there isn’t anything bigger than then Olympics. These girls don’t have the [Mark] Messiers or the [Wayne] Gretzkys, but these women really are role models.

“Obviously, other programs have great players, but to be in the first wave of that is important. We could capitalize on that more but we let it speak for itself.”

Just as important is the fact that once girls “graduate” from the Polar Bears, they don’t put the program in the rear-view mirror.

“We have alumni who are heavily involved in our program,” Gill said. “These girls definitely have not forgotten their roots. We tweet the Polar Bear alumni. If you listen to Julie speak, you can tell she’s forever grateful for the opportunity the Polar Bears provided her.”

The program also provides one of the country’s more popular tournaments: the Polar Bears Girls’ Ice Hockey Holiday Tournament, which has been held for 29 consecutive years. Only four teams encompassing about 60 players participated in the inaugural tournament. Now, more than 220 teams are involved.

“The tournament came out of the necessity to grow the game on the girls’ side,” Gill said. “Through a grassroots effort, we created a tournament that teams saved up for and served as a destination. There wasn’t anything for girls to go to like this.

“We’ve had teams come from as far away as Alaska and Florida. Last year, Florida brought three teams. It’s a destination to be. Scouts come. It’s been a holiday vacation for many people for years and really is a premier event for girls’ hockey.”       

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. 

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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