The Best and Worst of Times
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But the circumstances of that moment and the road which led there were likely not how many a hockey-playing child dreams it.
The journey is rarely ever as pristine as an innocent mind dreams up, and as the head coach of the OHL’s Guelph Storm now, that’s something Walker can impress upon his team.
“The kids in junior that I have that get drafted can’t identify with guys who played hard roles as third- or fourth-line checkers because they all believe they’ll be Ovechkin or Crosby,” he said. “For me, it’s fun to go and give back to the kids saying, ‘Look, there’s a lot more to the game than just being the best and having points.’ That’s fun and you need that, but it’s like this old story: at the opera, there’s usually a good-looking, gorgeous lady who’s playing the violin and the spotlight is on her, and then there’s usually a great big guy in the back playing the tuba, but the orchestra don’t start until they both sit down.”
From Defenseman to Forward
Right up until his NHL debut, Walker was a defenseman. He was drafted in the fifth round of the 1993 NHL Entry Draft by the Vancouver Canucks as a defenseman. He scored 91 points (23g, 68a) in 57 games with the Owen Sound Platers in 1992-93 as a defenseman. He was an OHL All-Star as a defenseman. He played in the AHL All-Star Game as a defenseman.
“I love defense. I still love it,” he said. “I feel like you control the game more. You see the game happen so much more.”
Vancouver wanted him to play right wing.
“I said, ‘Whatever you want,’” he recalled. “You’re not going to stay and debate. It’s like, ‘Whatever. Want the water bottles filled?’”
He ultimately made a career playing right wing. Though that was perhaps the most radical adjustment Walker would make to his game, it wasn’t the first.
When Walker was drafted, the scouting report said he was an undersized defenseman who wasn’t tough enough or big enough to play in the NHL. So, he added an edge to his game.
In his first two seasons in the AHL (151 games), Walker recorded 606 penalty minutes. Playing the role of the enforcer, he said, was something that came naturally.
“I knew I was not afraid to do it (fight), and I loved doing it, actually,” he said. “I won’t say I was the best at it, but I was half-decent. Most of all, I enjoyed doing it. You didn’t have to ask me twice, just put it that way.”
It was this grit, desire and determination that promoted him on depth charts. As a defenseman, he essentially surpassed every forward on Syracuse’s AHL roster to play in Vancouver’s bottom six. Pat Quinn and George McPhee, both in Vancouver’s front office in the mid-90’s, told Walker as much.
“They said, ‘Listen, you’re a kid that wouldn’t be denied and did whatever it took to play. That’s what we want.’ For me, that’s the way I tried to continue to play my whole career. I loved it. I loved the NHL and playing hockey,” he said. “Would it have been nice to be the best player on the team getting all the points? Yeah, that’s a lot of fun. But to be the hardest working guy and the guy who stands up for his teammates is kind of fun, too. Your teammates like you, and the fans like you and what you do, especially where I played.”
The first years of Walker’s professional career can be described with one word: adapting.
“I went from a point guy in junior to a guy who got over 300 penalty minutes in the minors,” he said. “I played on the third and fourth lines in the NHL, clawed my way up to the second line and probably averaged out to a third line forward.”
Hockey in the South
In the 1998 NHL Expansion Draft, Walker was picked up by the Nashville Predators, a team with which he logged half of his career games played. Walker posted a career season in the Music City in 2003-04 with 25 goals and 42 assists (67 points). He parlayed that into a lucrative contract extension but was hindered by a sports hernia injury in the season following the work stoppage.
On July 18, 2006, the Hurricanes acquired Walker from Nashville in exchange for Josef Vasicek. At the time of the trade, Walker was the Predators all-time leader in goals (96), points (247) and penalty minutes (465).
The additions of Walker and Trevor Letowski in the summer following the Canes’ Stanley Cup victory bolstered their collection of character players.
“They [were] an extremely tight team, and they should be. There are a lot of celebrations; we did the ring ceremony with them and the banner (raising). It was cool, but when you’re not a part of it, you kind of feel like, ‘Ok, that’s their team,’ and you’re kind of on the outside looking in,” Walker said. “It was tough for the new guys. But I became great friends with a lot of those guys, and I learned how to win.”
Walker, like many other former and even current Hurricanes players, credits the work ethic of the organization and the tenacity of head athletic trainer Pete Friesen.
“Friesen demanded more out of you. You thought you were working hard until you met him, and you never knew if you’d ever work as hard,” Walker said. “That’s how you become a champion, and that’s why they were and will always be one of those teams to be reckoned with. Once you win at any level, it’s funny how it becomes addicting and rubs off on all the young guys. I’m so glad I got to be a part of it.”
Walker recorded 213 games, 43 goals and 60 assists (103 points) with the Canes from 2006-2010. He endeared himself to fans with his relentless commitment to the game and his teammates and his gritty play on the ice, manifesting itself in the Hurricanes’ run to the Eastern Conference Final in 2009.
In the 18 playoff games that the Hurricanes played in the spring of 2009, Walker scored one goal.
And what a special, meaningful, impacting goal it was.
The story isn’t unfamiliar to fans. With a minute and a half left in the first overtime period of Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, the Canes and Bruins tied 2-2, Niclas Wallin went D-to-D at his own blue line with Dennis Seidenberg. Seidenberg advanced it through the neutral zone to Ray Whitney, who, from along the boards at the top of the near faceoff circle simply sent a shot toward the net. Tim Thomas made the initial save, but couldn’t corral the rebound. Walker, elevated to the first line, crashed the net, beating the 6-foot-0, 220-pound Dennis Wideman to the loose puck. Walker chipped the rebound over Thomas’ glove and left pad for the Canes second Game 7 victory in as many series. In what has now become an iconic image of sheer joy and raw emotion, Walker leaped into the glass and skated down the ice nearly as fast as Thomas did to his bench.
It was, without question, Walker said, his greatest memory from his time with the Hurricanes, if not in his entire career.
“Ultimately, it was probably one of the greatest thrills of my life but also one of the toughest parts of my life,” he said. “I still have the pictures of my kids coming to the airport and all the people there. But at that time, it really was a blur.”
Walker’s emotions were visibly evident in his celebration and his passionate postgame interview. Two days later, it was revealed that Walker’s wife, Julie, had cervical cancer. It was treatable (and, with regular doctor’s visits, she is still doing fine today), but that didn’t make the situation any easier for a guy who made a living out of defending others on the ice.
“It was a tough day. It was a tough week. It was no easier when I went onto play against Pittsburgh,” he said. “As a hockey player, a father and husband, you don’t want anything bad to happen to your kids or wife; you’re supposed to be the protector. When you can’t do it, you feel helpless. There’s no worse feeling in the world. I felt hopeless, and if it weren’t for the support of the wives, my teammates, the coaches, Jimmy (Rutherford), the Hurricanes organizations and the worship group, I don’t know if I would have played.
“I might have missed practice the day we found out, but I never missed a game. I went on the road with them. And to me, looking bad at it, it almost seems crazy. But at the time, that was just what was going on and what happened,” he said. “I knew my wife was getting the support. In the toughest circumstances in my life, it was one of the best times of my life because it really shows who your friends are and who will be with you through tough times.”
Walker said, even looking back at the tape, he doesn’t remember playing in Game 7, yet it was one of his best performances.
“I can honestly tell you, when we played those games, I was a better player because I was barely thinking about hockey. My mind was so not there, but yet I was there,” he said. “So that just means your instincts and natural abilities are taking over. Sometimes, as players, we play with high emotions in high-pressure situations and we don’t play well under the circumstances. But I really didn’t feel like there was pressure on me. I had such a greater thing going on in my life. I just went out there and played.
“Going through that, it made not just me, my wife and my family stronger, but also our relationship with the fans and the close people that we came to know and love in Carolina and still stay in contact with today. So overall, that was one of the greatest moments of my life and one of the worst, as well.”
Retirement and Coaching
Walker retired in the summer of 2010 after a 17-year NHL career in which he played for four NHL teams. In 829 regular season games, he recorded 397 points (151g, 246a). Walker skated in 30 NHL playoff games, 18 of which came with the Canes in 2009.
“It was time to retire when 30 teams don’t call you for a contract. To be honest with you, I’d still be playing today if someone wanted me,” he said. “I guess the hardest part is coming to realize that nobody really wants you anymore. You deal with it. You move on. I know lots of players say, ‘I don’t miss it,’ but I can tell you everyday I miss it. Every single day.”
With no options remaining in the NHL, some players will venture overseas. But with a young family just a year removed from his wife’s health struggles, Walker didn’t even give thought to playing internationally. He knew he wanted to get back involved with the game, so he began mentoring junior players.
After a lethargic 15-14-5 start, the OHL’s Guelph Storm named Walker head coach on Dec. 23, 2010. He guided the Storm to a 19-13-2 record after his debut, and the team bowed out of the playoffs in the first round. In 2011-12, the team finished 31-31-6, again losing in the first round of the playoffs. Walker has the team off to a blazing start this season at 20-10-4, good for third place in the Western Conference.
In playing under a number of different coaches in the NHL, including Mike Keenan, Barry Trotz, Peter Laviolette and Paul Maurice, Walker took elements he liked and didn’t like from all of them to mold his coaching style.
“I want to be a guy that communicates,” he said. “I want to be a guy that demands respect, but you have to earn respect. You don’t want your players to come and always have fun. It’s supposed to be fun, but it’s also work. I never worked as hard as I did in my whole career than when I was in Carolina, and I had the most fun there.”
For Walker, coaching is his way to give back to the game that provided him with so much.
“It’s not even close to being a player. I always tell my guys I would be out on the ice with them if I could. I don’t think there’s any other coach they’ll play for who wants to be out every shift,” he said. “I took my career and life somewhere special, and it was the greatest thing in the world to do. If I can get one guy to do it and live out their dream, that’s the only thing I know how to do.”