Scott Walker barely remembers the biggest moment of his career, and not because of his struggle with concussions.
Walker hasn’t played in the NHL since 2010, but he still ties the laces on his skates regularly. He’s the head coach, and part-owner, of the Guelph Storm in the Ontario Hockey League. He was skating with the team at the end of his final NHL season, as a way to stay in shape, and stay in the NHL. Then the Storm made a coaching move.
“They asked me if I’d help out until they made a final decision on a coach, so I said, “sure, I’ll help out until then,” said Walker. “After I did it for 3-or-4 games, they asked if I wanted to do it, and I said sure. I know everyone says it, and it sounds like a cliche, but if I went back and played now, I’d be a way better hockey player after coaching. You get such a different appreciation of the game and all the little things you don’t realize game-to-game as a player.”
Walker was drafted in 1993 by the Vancouver Canucks. He played his whole junior career in the frigid temperatures of Owen Sound, Ontario for the Platers, now Attack. Walker was easily one of the most skilled players on the team, setting a team record for points by a defenceman. His 91 points in 1992-93 still stands today.
“It was always, ‘he’s too small, he’s too small’, so when I went to camp to try out for the Canucks I figured I better start doing something else. I started playing a little more physical and fighting a bit. I liked it and I was half decent at it, so it became another part of my role,” says Walker. “My first year pro in Hamilton I had a few [penalty minutes], and when the team moved down to Syracuse, I had a lot. Fans down there loved it and I loved entertaining the fans, and obviously it helped me get noticed to give myself a chance to get called up to Vancouver.”
After cracking the Canucks roster in 1994-95, Walker spent 15-years in the NHL, piling up 72 fights according to HockeyFights.com. Injuries began to take a toll, most notably, concussions.
“It’s a tough one, it’s still tough now a days,” says Walker. “You always wonder about certain things that happen during the day or you forget things. I can’t go on rides anymore and I always wonder if it’s because of the concussions or because I’m getting old. Things go through your mind, but its part of the sacrifice I guess that you have to make to play the role and play a long time. I wasn’t a very big guy and I took my fair share of licks.”
He also dished out his fair share. But through 859 games, his biggest blow wasn’t thrown with a fist, instead it was with his shot.
In 2009, Walker was a member of the Carolina Hurricanes, who were in a heated Eastern Conference Semi-Final matchup with the Boston Bruins. It would normally be a time where a veteran like Walker would be fully focused on capturing the Stanley Cup, but he had other things on his mind.
During the series, Walker’s wife, Julie, was diagnosed with cervical cancer.
“It was probably the best and worst time of my life,” says Walker.
In the seventh game, with the clock ticking towards the final minute of overtime, Ray Whitney shot the puck on the Bruins net. Walker drove from the left side of the ice, and banged in the rebound. A series clinching goal, sending his team to the Eastern Conference Finals, and himself running down the ice without a stick, but with a grin big enough his teammates could see him coming miles away.
“If I watch tape on it now, I probably wouldn’t remember half the game,” says Walker. “Every time I came to the bench my mind was gone. I didn’t even hear the crowd. My mind was just in so many places. It was a tough tough time, but no question it was tougher on my wife. She was disappointed, because that was the farthest I’ve ever went in the playoffs, and then this happened it was a tough time for everyone.”
“Half of it’s like I stepped outside of my body because I don’t remember being there.”
After the game, the team got on a plane and flew back to Carolina.
“I look back on it now and she’s healthy and healed and goes through all her tests and everything is fine, it was one of the greatest times of our lives,” says Walker. “She came with the kids and met me at the airport and there were thousands-and-thousands of people with signs for her and for me.”
“It was pure joy, and kind of like it was over. I could get home and move on with what my wife was going through.”
The Hurricanes lost in the next round to the Pittsburgh Penguins, but the Walker family won its biggest battle.