By Dan Hickling
Special to USAHockey.com
WILLIAMSVILLE, N.Y. – It's been barely four months since USA's sled hockey triumph at the Paralympics in Sochi, Russia, and you would think a gilded resume would be a ticket to a spot on the 2014-15 U.S. National Sled Hockey Team. Right?
Nope. Not necessarily.
Which is why one saw the likes of Josh Sweeney, Steve Cash and Josh Pauls, all of them gold-medal winners, intermingled among nearly 50 other hopefuls at U.S. National Team tryouts held at The Northtown Center in suburban Buffalo.
All three, plus eight more returnees from last year's Paralympic champions, seemed to be locks to regain their spots on the team.
But sports is a “what have you done lately?” beast, and four months might as well be an eternity. And you don't get to wear, or sink your teeth into a gold medal by taking anything for granted.
As it happened, all 11 returning members from Sochi, along with six newcomers, successfully battled their way onto the 2014-15 roster, which has just been announced by USA Hockey.
Thus began the four-year ramp up to the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and a hoped-for third consecutive gold medal.
“That's hockey,” said Sweeney, who netted the lone goal in the gold-medal victory against Russia. “That's how it is. It's a real humbling sport. You can't get too big-headed. You'll start to think you're doing real well, then you'll be on the ice for a practice and be the worst player out there. It's one of those sports that's keeps you real humble. [I worked] just as hard as these guys to earn a spot on this team. The coaches are looking at skill and how they can put together another gold-medal winning team.
That sentiment was echoed by Pauls, who like Cash, has two gold medals to display.
“This is a whole new cycle,” noted Pauls. “Hey, we won in Sochi, and that's all great. But now we're on the road to Pyeongchang.”
The first major stop on the route will be back in Buffalo, at the 2015 International Paralympic Committee Ice Sledge Hockey World Championship, to be staged April 24-May 2 at the soon-to-be opened HARBORCENTER.
They'll do so without half a dozen key members of the Sochi squad.
Veteran team leaders Andy Yohe, a defenseman, and Taylor Lipsett, a forward, have retired from competition, while defenseman and alternate captain Taylor Chace and forwards Rico Roman and Greg Shaw are sitting out this season.
Goalie Jen Lee, who is on active duty with the US Army, is also taking time off.
Those departures will leave a huge hole in the Team USA lineup and dressing room.
“Not only are they buddies of mine,” said Cash, the goalie who backstopped Team USA to gold at the 2010 and 2014 Paralympics, “but they're brothers. Their leadership on the ice will factor in. We'll have newer guys coming in who haven't been on the team before. They're not really sure what to expect. [But] I don't have any doubts that within a year, we'll be clicking on all cylinders.”
Said fourth-year head coach Jeff Sauer, “The emotional thing for me is the guys who retired. They were a huge part of our success. They are like sons to me. I'd like to see them continue forever. That's just not the way it's going to be.”
Even so, Sauer, the savvy veteran bench boss that he is, is already figuring out ways to mix the old blood with the new.
“I think our team speed is improved from last year,” said Sauer. “The new guys will make us a faster team than we were. That will be a big plus.”
Sauer's biggest challenge will be to make up for the losses of defensive rocks Yohe and Chace.
He's promoted blueliners Sam Mumper and Billy Hanning from the U.S. National Developmental Team and also plans to shift the versatile Pauls from forward back to defense, a role with which he has experience.
“I don't really want to [move Pauls],” Sauer said, “but I think we have to do that. That takes a little bit away from the first line, but I think we can handle that.”
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.