For Curtis Valk, the road to success hasn't been a sprint. More like a nice walk that has turned into a gradual jog, and continues to pick up speed as he goes.
After two seasons of waiting for his opportunity, the 5-foot-9, 160-pound Medicine Hat forward has made the most of it. He's seventh in the Western Hockey League with 32 goals and 10th with 67 points, and his 11 power-play goals lead the team.
"I think his commitment and his hockey sense and his work ethic have allowed him to gradually become the player that he's become," Medicine Hat coach Shaun Clouston told NHL.com. "It always seems like it’s a breakout, but we've seen him at 17 and at 18 and now at 19. For the outsiders it's like all of a sudden something changed, but for me he's continually worked at getting better and better, and now everything is lined up -- the opportunity, a little bit of extra strength. He understands how he has to play. It's just been a great season for him."
Things are going well for Valk now, but they didn't start that way. When he joined the team full-time as a 17-year-old for the 2009-10 season, he struggled with just 17 points in 56 games, and occasionally found himself a healthy scratch.
"I think that was really challenging for him," Clouston said. "It was really challenging for him to be in and out of the lineup, which he was a little bit at 17. I think in minor hockey he was a very offensive guy. To not be in the lineup every night, to not be on the power play, it was really challenging."
Clouston never lost faith in Valk's abilities, but knew the player's ability to adjust to the way he had to play to be successful in the WHL wouldn't come overnight.
Last season, though, Valk started to put things together, and finished third on the team with 24 goals and 55 points in 67 games.
"Last year he definitely made big strides, became a player we counted on, made his way into the top nine [forwards] and ultimately top six, a regular on the power play," Clouston said.
"In the back of my mind I knew I probably wouldn't go," Valk told NHL.com. "Everyone wants to go, you watch the draft and hope your name will pop up, [but] I wasn't too upset about it. There were a lot of guys in that draft that are good players. It just motivates you."
Over the summer Valk spent time in Minnesota at a camp run by Philadelphia Flyers forward Scott Hartnell. Working out on and off the ice with professionals like Hartnell and T.J. Oshie of the St. Louis Blues provided just the kind of motivation Valk needed.
"Being able to skate with those guys and watch them on the ice is pretty neat," Valk said. "You can learn a lot by just watching guys like that. … The camp is pretty intense. I've been down there a couple years now. It's a good atmosphere. There's a lot of NHL guys, junior guys, and you all train together. The intensity, the tempo, guys push each other. You never want to be that guy that's falling behind. You always want to one-up the guy next to you. It really pushed me a lot. Training in big groups, with the older players, shows you what you need to do to be successful."
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With Etem and his 61 goals last season graduating to professional hockey, an opportunity was there for Valk to showcase himself this season, and he's taken advantage.
"Coming into the season we believed he was going to be that guy, believed he'd be one of our captains, he would be a guy we were going to count on heavily to step up and have a big season," Clouston said. "It's probably been better than we expected. We knew with our situation, losing so many key guys, that Curtis Valk was going to be a player we needed to step up and put up some numbers."
And he's done it playing on a line with Shinkaruk and without him. Shinkaruk is Central Scouting's top-ranked WHL skater (No. 5 overall), and joined with Valk and Elgin Pearce to form a solid line after Pearce was acquired in an early-season trade. More recently, though, Valk shifted back to center, his natural position, while playing with an assortment of forwards. The only constant has been Valk's continued success.
"They [Valk and Shinkaruk] have been together on and off throughout the season, but he [Valk] has been able to continue to have success as a centerman," Clouston said. "He was in the middle for a little while at the beginning of the year with Hunter, he ended up playing the right side on a line with Pearce and Shinkaruk, and when that line went cold for a stretch, he asked if he could play center. He really missed playing center. He liked playing with those guys, but he liked center again, so we've used him on a line that has [Logan] McVeigh on the left side quite often, and [Boston] Leer or [Jacob] Doty on the right side. That also shows just how far [Valk's] game has come because he's been able to sort of take over that line. He's been able to center a line with different linemates and he's still been very effective offensively."
He's done enough to start getting his name in the conversation for the 2013 NHL Draft. NHL Central Scouting his him at No. 123 in its midterm rankings, and Clouston said Valk is becoming more popular among NHL scouts.
"Where we didn't get any questions last year, he's on the radar [now]," Clouston said. "He's definitely a player that is getting more and more attention. There are at least questions being asked, there's feelers being put out. People want to know about him, they want to know a little bit more about his background, his character, do I think he's big enough -- all those types of things. Those are questions being asked, which to me is a positive sign, because they weren't being asked before."