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Vanbiesbrouck Brings ‘A’ Game To Breakout Sessions

08/23/2014, 5:30pm MDT
By Harry Thompson - Editor, USA Hockey Magazine

For 18 seasons John Vanbiesbrouck was the gold standard for NHL goaltenders. His 374 career wins still rank as the most all time among American goaltenders even though he hung up his competitive pads more than a decade ago.

Now he is passing on some of that knowledge to other coaches to help them improve their understanding of the position. It’s a big part of giving back to the game he has dedicated his life to.

In addition to listening to a host of speakers at this week’s National Hockey Coaches Symposium, Vanbiesbrouck has been pressed into action to conduct breakout sessions on goaltending.

“It’s great to be able to take a piece of history, what I’ve done in the past, and bring it into the future and see how it applies in today’s game,” said Vanbiesbrouck, who was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 2007.

While the featured speeches in the main ballroom are the centerpieces of the four-day event here in Las Vegas, the breakout sessions provide an opportunity for coaches to learn some of the basic Xs and Os of the game at age levels they are coaching. It also gives them more one-on-one interaction with presenters, which makes for lively discussions.

“The coaches wanted to ask questions about 25 minutes in [to the breakout session], so that tells me they were prepared,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “They’re investing a lot of time and I think they really are valuing this time because they get to touch and feel and listen to all of these great speakers and really engage in conversations.”

In addition to the goaltending sessions – Vanbiesbrouck is teaching the 13 & Over track while NTDP goaltending coach Kevin Reiter is working with the 12 & Under coaches – there are sessions on small-area games, the art of coaching and practice planning.

While a lot has changed since he came into the league in 1982, Vanbiesbrouck said that many of the principles of playing the position remain the same.

“For goaltending, specifically, those old principles don’t apply, but then again they do apply,” he said.

If coaches walk away with one thing from his presentations, Vanbiesbrouck hopes that they know that they have to build a relationship with their netminders.

“You have to build trust and build a bond,” he said. “To do that, you have to communicate with them goaltenders and use terms that will hit them in the heart.”

In addition to his work as a presenter here, Vanbiesbrouck remains closely tied to the game, serving as a USA Hockey vice president and chairman of the Junior Council in addition to his full-time job as the general manager and director of hockey operations for the Muskegon Lumberjacks of the United States Hockey League.

For all of his involvement in the game, the man known as “Beezer” is impressed with the level of passion and commitment he’s seen here this week, and has enjoyed the opportunity to talk hockey with coaches from around the country.

“At the end of the day we’re all fans of the game,” he said. “We grew up fans and if you played like I played for a few years, you were a fan inside the game, and now I’m a fan outside the game. The core of it is that people love this game and they want to be good custodians of it.”

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Photo by: Elan Kawesch/Harvard University

For 18 seasons John Vanbiesbrouck was the gold standard for NHL goaltenders. His 374 career wins still rank as the most all time among American goaltenders even though he hung up his competitive pads more than a decade ago.

Now he is passing on some of that knowledge to other coaches to help them improve their understanding of the position. It’s a big part of giving back to the game he has dedicated his life to.

In addition to listening to a host of speakers at this week’s National Hockey Coaches Symposium, Vanbiesbrouck has been pressed into action to conduct breakout sessions on goaltending.

“It’s great to be able to take a piece of history, what I’ve done in the past, and bring it into the future and see how it applies in today’s game,” said Vanbiesbrouck, who was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 2007.

While the featured speeches in the main ballroom are the centerpieces of the four-day event here in Las Vegas, the breakout sessions provide an opportunity for coaches to learn some of the basic Xs and Os of the game at age levels they are coaching. It also gives them more one-on-one interaction with presenters, which makes for lively discussions.

“The coaches wanted to ask questions about 25 minutes in [to the breakout session], so that tells me they were prepared,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “They’re investing a lot of time and I think they really are valuing this time because they get to touch and feel and listen to all of these great speakers and really engage in conversations.”

In addition to the goaltending sessions – Vanbiesbrouck is teaching the 13 & Over track while NTDP goaltending coach Kevin Reiter is working with the 12 & Under coaches – there are sessions on small-area games, the art of coaching and practice planning.

While a lot has changed since he came into the league in 1982, Vanbiesbrouck said that many of the principles of playing the position remain the same.

“For goaltending, specifically, those old principles don’t apply, but then again they do apply,” he said.

If coaches walk away with one thing from his presentations, Vanbiesbrouck hopes that they know that they have to build a relationship with their netminders.

“You have to build trust and build a bond,” he said. “To do that, you have to communicate with them goaltenders and use terms that will hit them in the heart.”

In addition to his work as a presenter here, Vanbiesbrouck remains closely tied to the game, serving as a USA Hockey vice president and chairman of the Junior Council in addition to his full-time job as the general manager and director of hockey operations for the Muskegon Lumberjacks of the United States Hockey League.

For all of his involvement in the game, the man known as “Beezer” is impressed with the level of passion and commitment he’s seen here this week, and has enjoyed the opportunity to talk hockey with coaches from around the country.

“At the end of the day we’re all fans of the game,” he said. “We grew up fans and if you played like I played for a few years, you were a fan inside the game, and now I’m a fan outside the game. The core of it is that people love this game and they want to be good custodians of it.”

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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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