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Proactive Kansas City Stars Make Great Gains

09/02/2014, 5:15pm MDT
By Mike Scandura - Special to USAHockey.com

According to Kansas City Stars Director of Hockey Tom Tilley, the organization’s mantra is “continuous improvement.”

“How do we get better every year?” queried Tilley. “We’re in Kansas, which isn’t a natural hockey market, so we’ll do whatever we have to do to get better.”

One thing the Stars did was “tinker” with their spring program, which had declined to about 130 families last year when the teams played in a citywide spring league. Instead, Tilley and Co-Hockey Director Dean Nelson wanted to create a more fun, casual and inclusive environment for boys and girls at the squirt, peewee and bantam age groups.

“I heard about some of the hockey hotbeds going to a 4-on-4, no-checking format with less structure to make the focus more on fun and creativity than wins and losses,” said Tilley, who played for the St. Louis Blues and also with the Michigan State University team that captured the 1986 NCAA championship under coach Ron Mason.

So the Stars decided to give that a try. When the kids arrived, they found the music turned up and an atmosphere focused on having fun. The changes helped the Stars double their participation to 260 kids and also helped the organization attract enough girls to field its first all-girls team this coming season.

“When it comes down to it, really based on the numbers, my whole focus is how can we make this more fun for the kids,” Tilley said. “It’s all they’re looking for.”

The spring program was just one of many avenues the Stars have used to grow their association. They also established a try-hockey-for-free program. In fact, with 88 participants, the Stars finished fifth in the USA Hockey’s CCM incentive aaward program, sponsored by CCM, during Hockey Week Across America in March.

“It was one of the most fulfilling experiences I’ve had on the ice, watching kids who could barely skate who ended up passing me pucks within one hour of being on the ice,” Tilley said.

Because the Stars ranked in the top five, CCM donated 20 helmets and 20 sets of gloves as a reward.

The Stars also implemented USA Hockey’s American Development Model.

“When we implemented the ADM, I met with a lot of resistance because people couldn’t get their arms around it and neither could the coaches,” Tilley said. “I had USA Hockey guys come in and run clinics, which helped. Some people weren’t ready to embrace it, but we were ready because we knew where the game was going.

“That’s a testament to the ADM. It teaches coaches how effective it is.”

Even though the Stars’ rinks are in Shawnee, Kan., their travel teams play in a St. Louis, Mo., league.

“There are four organizations [in the St. Louis league],” Tilley said. “We’re the largest organization in the metropolitan area, and we have the most house teams and the most travel teams.”

Another reason why the Stars are thriving is that they encourage feedback from families of their players.

“We do an annual year-end, online anonymous assessment where people can tell us what we can do better and what we need to work on,” Tilley said. “We have year-end surveys.”

The Stars also established a goalie-coaching program that has been a plus.

“We need this for our goalies,” Tilley said. “So we allocated a budget for goalie coaching because, when you’re in Kansas, it’s hard to find good goalie coaching.

“What’s also helped us is implementing a system to have a coach-in-chief in place for our house program, because communication is critical. Having a commissioner at every level from 8Under-8 to squirt to bantam has really helped from the standpoint of, ‘What are these kids learning at this level?’ Implementing a coach-in-chief gives me feedback instead of, ‘Can we wait for the end of the year?’”

Tilley and the other Stars board members also stress to their players that there is more to hockey than skating, passing and shooting the puck.

“I tell all the kids I coach that you’re a student-athlete,” he said. “We’re here to put your child in the best position to succeed and learn it and get to the highest level they want to. But more importantly, this is about enjoying the game and doing well in the classroom.

“Most kids who come out of Kansas won’t make it to the NHL. But we want to make sure they respect their opponents, the referees and understand the concept of team play.”

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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