ONE AMERICAN OFFICIAL’S PATH TO THE NHL
By Mark Burns, TouchPoint Media
The path to becoming a National Hockey League official is a journey that includes challenges, adversity, competition and pure passion. We recently charted the officiating development of Philadelphia native Ian Walsh, 42, who has spent the past 15 years working in the NHL.
1972 — Born May 9, 1972.
1978 — Started skating in the Philadelphia suburbs and at the age of 6. Walsh began playing hockey as a mite.
1987 —Walsh’s first year of officiating began with 10-15 games. His dad, Bill, suggested it would be a good way to make some money and stay connected to the game he loved. Bill, who was also an official, assigned games, so he made sure he put himself with Ian during that inaugural season.
“ My first game ever, it was kind of a blur,” recalled Walsh. “I enjoyed officiating right from the start. I had good mentors, including my dad. A lot of officials in the Philadelphia area really helped me out the first couple of years.”
In the years soon to come, Walsh officiated with certain select guys his dad paired him with, now referring to it as a “mentoring program before there was actually a formal mentoring program.”
“It definitely paid dividends,” Walsh said.
1991 — Walsh attended an Eastern Regional USA Hockey Officiating Camp, a weekend filled with on-ice sessions, classroom instruction and seminars geared toward improving officials’ performance.
“It was a great eye-opener for me because it showed me that officiating was something I really wanted to pursue as a career,” he said.
1992 — Spent two years in the United States Hockey League, which was considered the top junior league in the country. Now it’s the nation’s only Tier I junior league.
“I had never done a level quite like that before,” said Walsh, who now resides in Portland, Oregon, with his wife, Margo, and son, Clarke (2). “I was working some of the best hockey and officiating some of the best up-and-coming players in the country. …I was able to build off of that first-year success.”
1994 to 1996 — Following his USHL stint, Walsh officiated one year each in the Central Hockey League and the East Coast Hockey League.
1996 — The NHL finally came calling, identifying 25 officials for its trainee program. Walsh served as an independent contractor for the next three years, as the NHL assigned him games in the East Coast Hockey League, International Hockey League, Canadian major junior leagues and the American Hockey League. He worked more than 100 games in each of those few seasons.
“You know you’ve been identified by the NHL, but you’re still so far away from where you want to be, and there’s so much competition,” said Walsh of his three years in the program. “We’re all trying to get to the same spot. It’s a real nerve-wracking time, especially when you’re thinking that this could be a career.”
2000 — At the age of 28, Walsh officiated his first NHL game between the New Jersey Devils and Anaheim Ducks at the old Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
“It was close to my home, and it was probably the most rewarding thing for me to not only make it to the NHL, but I ended up buying 25 tickets for the game, and I was able to have my father, my mom, officiating friends and other family from Philly drive up to watch me and root me on. It was special in the way that I had finally achieved the goal that I had set out to do.”