hildreth_awardAndrew Hildreth is back from a stint in Switzerland dominating the ball hockey courts over there. He talks about his love for the game, where he sees the sport now, and his idea for a new rankings style tournament…

By Chris Bokuniewicz, Information and Media Director for ASHI

Andrew Hildreth was born and raised in Leominster, MA, and currently resides there after spending a couple of years in Switzerland. Andrew was invited to play in a premier ball hockey league in Switzerland after an appearance at the 2009 ISBHF World Championships where he earned MVD honors. Oddly enough, the Swiss have a shortage of right handed shooting defenseman and since he was young and unattached, and one of the best ball hockey defenseman on the planet, Andrew jumped at the opportunity to further hone his ball hockey skills and do some studying abroad. Andrew described his experience as something he’ll never forget and something he is very proud to have marked as a chapter in his life. Andrew also won 1st Team All Star honors at defense in the 2013 ISBHF World Championship in St. John’s, Newfoundland. He is currently working for Consumer United here in the states. Andrew has also recently accepted a position with ASHI as a regional fundraiser for the Northeast, and is also an assistant coach for the Team USA 20 and under Men’s squad. That team will be competing in Slovakia in the Spring of 2014. We sat down with Andrew to get his thoughts on the sport, tournaments, what it’s like being looked upon as one of the best players out on the rink here in the United States, and an interesting idea for a nationally ranked tournament system.

1. Where were you born and where did you grow up the majority of your childhood?

I was born and raised in Leominster, MA. And the majority of my childhood was either holding a hockey stick, traveling to and from hockey or on the road in front of my house playing with my older siblings.

2. How old were you the first time you played street hockey and give a brief description of the circumstances.

I honestly can’t remember my first time playing, but I was a rink rat since I was born. I do however winning my first chipmunk game in Leominster with the Chiefs. We had a solid club.

3. What made you fall in love with the game?

My love for the game was always with me, I was born into a dek hockey family that started with my uncles who were some of the pioneers of the game. Unfortunately, my uncle Barry did play for the Rams (the Leominster Rams, and Andrew is on a rival team, the Jets). Fortunately my uncle Billy played against him and I guess that’s where the love started; I got to see and understand that the game was based on competition and pride.

4. Name some of your biggest influences in your life that helped you growing up with the game. Dad, friends, coach?

Like I said before, I was a rink rat and a lot of people can attest to that. There are tons of players I used to watch in awe as I grew up. But, the one player who really taught me, pushed me and motivated me to get better would have to be my brother Tim. Of course, my parents who drove everywhere gave me a reason to play my hardest every game.

5. What turned you on to competitive ball hockey? How old were you when you played in your first tournament?

My first competitive team was when I was 7 playing in Egg Harbor (New Jersey) with the Vipers traveling team. It was right after Chipmunks and being a standout Penguin player (I hope), they added me to the roster a few weeks before hand.

6. How did you get involved with playing for Team USA in the ISBHF tournaments prior to the last St. John’s tournament? For example, did Person A know Person B who knew you and then put you in touch with them or did you have to try out for the team?

I first got involved with Team USA during my first year in Freshman in 2006. During that year we won Freshman and Men’s Nationals then went on to worlds in Italy to take home Gold. I got the chance to play because our Freshman team was planned to be basically half the U20 team that would go to the Worlds. From that Freshman squad, literally everyone has played with each other for our whole lives. It was more of a timing thing than someone knowing someone.

7. Please describe how you got involved with Team USA for the last St. John’s tournament?

I got involved by making the decision to play against the best in the world. I contacted GM and Coach Chris Banks and he welcomed me onto the team since I had already proven myself in previous tournaments at that level. The previous world champions, Czech Republic, were going to St. Johns and I felt that it was the right tournament to play in for that reason. In addition, Slovakia, who embarrassed us the tournament before, was also going to be there. I really, really wanted some revenge.

8. Are you more of a natural hockey talent when it comes to ball hockey or do you have to work at being one of the USA’s better players?

I have a good amount of God given talent but really, since I started playing ball hockey, my number one advantage was being in shape, always working hard and being a rink rat. Working hard isn’t something I fear, but rather welcome it. Preparing for world tournaments requires a lot of sweat and time put in to be in top shape.

9. What challenges do you face as a player when it comes time to prepare for a world tournament?

Time really. Time to do interval and high tempo training for 2-3 months before the start of the tournament. That is how I prepare. From my experience, making time for it has definitely paid off.

10. Just for kicks and giggles, who are the top 3 players in the States you hate playing against because they are really tough to stop?

Buffalo Fusion’s Denny Schlegel, Boston Saints Luke Jones and Joe Russo.

11. A lot of people in the American ball hockey community think you are the best player the US has to offer right now. Does that put any extra pressure on you to perform?

Yeah, it does put some pressure on me, but I don’t totally believe it. Can’t really. There’s always a player out there who can do something better more often than I can. That’s what I love about this sport. Heroes are made on Sunday.

12. How different is the speed of the game at the world level compared to what you face in a regular US tournament, say for example the Super Bowl Bye Week Invitational?

I have yet to partake in the Super Bowl Bye Week tourney, but I do have many experiences playing in the North American Ball Hockey Championships in Philly. The World’s level isn’t significantly higher, but it is pretty high. The biggest difference is the depth of each team and sustaining that high speed throughout the whole tournament. That’s where the difference between tournaments comes into play.

13. If a younger player were to ask you how much being a rink rat helps you get better, what would you tell them?

I would tell them that that is how I got to the level I am today. I took my time to experiment, to shoot all day and make myself better. I had drive, I loved being down there, still do actually, and if you’re constantly surrounded by hockey, you’re bound to get better.

14. If a younger player asked you if it was better to play more games or practice more, how you would answer that and why?

It’s honestly a mix. You can’t play better in games without putting the time in during practice. Constantly challenging yourself and others in practice will lead over into games. Shooting a few hundred balls a day will pay off immediately. Learning the game comes slowly and it’s about learning each small aspect that makes a player complete.

15. How do you feel about how Team USA faired at the last worlds in St. John’s? Below expectations, better, about average….?

I feel we fared as we placed. We lacked discipline and we paid for it from a subpar penalty kill and soft execution of our own power play. I wish the outcome was better, but we didn’t stick to how we wanted to play going into the tournament. Discipline wins championships. That is our biggest improvement we need to make.

16. Where is there room for improvement in America right now at the tournament level?

I love tournaments, but I’ve been gone a while overseas to see how they have been run. That’s how our sport was built and could help it grow even more. Give me a few months after a few tourneys under my belt. But you know, I’ve always had this idea for a national tourney system. Let me explain….

I would love to see a legitimate league built out of playing tournaments. Point system, wins/losses, etc…and then make a season ending tournament I’d like to see a real championship that takes a legit season over the course of so many months to win. I want road trips more often to play for something that we can be proud of at the end. Basically an NHL season ha ha ha…
An NHL season for ball hockey players?
Well yeah, similar I guess. Junior hockey uses showcases to get teams from far apart to play each other and I feel we can adopt a similar system here with our game since that is what we play anyway. It would be a series of tournaments with a legit entry system to make a 16 team tourney and play for a huge trophy.

17. This is a very interesting idea so let me see if I get this. Perhaps a tournament every other month that people can travel to as a team where each team has to have a certain number of the same core players. Then once you qualify to enter the tournament as the same team as was in previous tournaments, you get points by winning games. And then at the end team with most points is crowned champ?

Kind of. I’d rather see a final tourney where the top 16 teams qualified for entry to it based on their accumulated points over the year. Or the top 8 teams win the entry into the tournament and battle it out there.

18. Well then I’ll certainly pass along this idea to the powers that be, and since this interview is getting published, a bunch of people will see it. Perhaps this is the start of making it a reality.

That would be fantastic.

19. I asked you where you see areas for improvement with the sport and tournaments so let me flip that around. What is right with the sport at the tournament level?

What is right is our dedication. Dek, ball and street hockey players are a cult of sick individuals who will lay their body, their teeth and break their bones to stop an orange ball. People don’t understand why, and quite frankly, neither do I. But what’s clear is that we’re a community who understands each other, whether it may be Pittsburgh, Philly, Vancouver, Orlando, Slovakia, Leominster, wherever…we all play the best game on Earth.