The sixth annual USA Hockey Disabled Festival took place outside of Washington, D.C., this past weekend. And while the event once again featured the top deaf/hard of hearing hockey, special hockey, sled hockey and standing amputee hockey players squaring off against one another, this year’s Disabled Festival welcomed a new set of athletes: Paralympic Gold Medalists.
Yohe covLast month, the U.S. Paralympic Sled Hockey Team won the gold medal at the 2010 Paralympic Winter Games, posting a perfect 5-0-0-0 record without allowing a single goal throughout the tournament. Over the weekend, several of its players attended the Disabled Festival as members of their respective club sled hockey teams.
One of those players is Team USA captain Andy Yohe (Bettendorf, Iowa), who competed for the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago Blackhawks Sled Hockey team. He toted his gold medal around with him throughout the Festival.
“The Paralympics give us an amazing platform to advertise our sport, so winning a gold there was huge,” he said. “We are very proud of our accomplishment, and honored to share that experience with the kids and other athletes at events like the Disabled Festival.”
USA Hockey’s Disabled Festival itself is a major exhibition for the various disciplines of disabled hockey, and has taken place across the country near major cities like Philadelphia, Chicago and Boston. Next year, the Festival will travel to Minneapolis suburb Blaine.
“It’s great that we get a change to visit a new city every year,” said Yohe. “That gives us a great chance to really showcase all of the disciplines to different audiences.”
For the athletes, the Festival isn’t just a feel-good event. The competition can get intense.
“It can really get competitive,” said Yohe. “A lot of these sled club teams play each other all year long, so some pretty good rivalries form.”
After the games are over, however, Yohe and his Paralympic teammates will return to reveling in the friendship and strong bond that helped lead them to the gold just weeks ago.
“Obviously we formed into a pretty tight family over time,” said Yohe of his teammates, most of whom have been members of the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team for years. “And it’s always good to see family.”
With the number of officials dwindling at the higher levels, USA Hockey decided it was time for sweeping change.
A new initiative, which goes into effect this year, is mostly centered on the registration fees, something that Matt Leaf, director of officiating education, hopes incentivizes officials to ascend the ranks.
“This is the first change in registration fees we’ve had in eight years,” Leaf said. “Basically the premise was we want to encourage officials to advance to the higher levels. We don’t want the registration fee to be a deterrent in terms of an official going from Level 2 to Level 3 or from Level 3 to Level 4.”
Previously, the registration fees were as followed: Level 1 was $35, Level 2 was $60, Level 3 was $80, Level 4 was $90.
“Because of that, we had officials saying, ‘Well, I’ll just save $20 by staying at Level 2 forever,’” Leaf said. “It almost discouraged the officials from continuing to move up.”
That won’t be the case this year, with the registration fee for Level 1 being set at $45 and the registration fee for Level 2, Level 3, and Level 4 being set at $90.
“As soon as an official advances to Level 2, they now have an incentive to advance to the higher levels,” Leaf said, emphasizing how new officials are only permitted to stay at Level 1 for a maximum of two years anyway. “It's the same registration fee no matter what. You might as well continue to move up.”
It’s essential that USA Hockey figures out a way to increase officiating numbers at the higher levels, according to Leaf.
“If someone is going out there just to collect a paycheck, and is satisfied with the fact that they’re going to go out there and screw up a couple of rules every single game, that’s not making the game better,” Leaf said. “We feel like these changes generate an incentive for our officials to become the best officials they can be."
Additionally, USA Hockey is also piloting a loyalty program of sorts this year.
As soon as an official has obtained Level 3 or Level 4 status for three consecutive years, they become eligible to apply for tenured status.
"That will reduce annual registration requirements dramatically," Leaf explained. "We are asking for them to make a commitment to us, and in turn, we will make a commitment to them.”
Typically, a Level 3 or Level 4 official without tenured status annually has to pay the registration fee, fill out an application, attend an online seminar, complete an online exam and do an open-book exam, among a handful of other things.
“As soon as they become tenured, that annual registration requirement is going to be reduced to simply doing an open-book exam and doing an abbreviated online seminar curriculum,” Leaf said. “It’s a pretty significant reduction in time requirements and that stays in place for as long as they’re with USA Hockey.”
Lastly, USA Hockey has also decided to regulate the open-book exam to 50 questions across all levels.
Previously the open-book exam was 50 questions for Level 1 and 100 questions for Level 2, Level 3, and Level 4.
“We have reduced the total of questions at the higher levels and instead tried to enhance the educational part of it,” Leaf said. “That means the material is more geared toward the things we feel like officials are going to need to know at each level.”
While it remains to be seen what effect these changes will have, Leaf is confident that change is a good thing for the organization.
“We are hoping these things strengthen our bench as far as experience goes,” Leaf said. “That is what we’re striving for through this new program.”
Tag(s): Disabled Festival