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Walker Working His Way Up

by Aaron Lopez / Colorado Avalanche
Avalanche prospect Luke Walker admits there are moments when his mind drifts and he wonders what it would be like to be back in Oregon, spending the season with his former junior club, the Portland Winterhawks.

At 20 years old, Walker would still be eligible to play his overage year in major junior, and the Western Hockey League’s Winterhawks are on the short list of favorites for the 2011 Memorial Cup. Portland currently sits seventh in the BMO CHL MasterCard Top-10 Rankings, a “power poll” of sorts voted on by a panel of NHL scouts.

Walker has appeared in 39 AHL games for the Lake Erie Monsters during his first professional season (Ben Hall/Lake Erie Monsters)
But those moments of conjecture are fleeting, because Walker knows that he’s in the best situation to advance his career. Currently skating with Colorado’s American Hockey League affiliate, the Lake Erie Monsters, the forward is getting his first taste of professional hockey.

“My junior team didn’t want me to turn pro,” said Walker. “This is the year that they wanted to take a run for it and it would be really cool to go for a championship with them, but I thought it would be better for me to play at the highest level possible. There was always a chance that Lake Erie could have sent me back earlier but they didn’t, and it’s been working out well so far this year.”

Walker’s path to the professional ranks didn’t follow the prototypical blue print. Passed over completely the first two years he was eligible for the NHL Draft, Walker began receiving a bit more attention during what he termed a “breakout season” in 2009-10.

He not only recorded 57 points (27g/30a) in 61 games while posting a +17 plus/minus rating and 103 penalty minutes for the Winterhawks, but he also gained some valuable international experience and exposure by skating for the gold-medal-winning United States team at the 2010 IIHF World Junior Championship.

A strong season culminated in June, when the Colorado Avalanche called his name at the 2010 NHL Entry Draft – selecting him in the fifth round (139th overall).

While the story of Walker’s draft process is intriguing and a bit unusual, Avalanche Vice President of Player Development Craig Billington said many factors come into play leading up to the NHL Draft.

“Obviously the first-year draft eligible guys get a lot of the focus, but there are a lot of players and there are only seven rounds, so there are players that get passed on that turn out to be good players,” said Billington. “Luke had decent point production, but I think the thing that stood out was his involvement in the play. It was a good opportunity for us to get him in the organization, bring him to Cleveland and have him work on his trade there. I think that’s been a good transition.”

Things could have turned out much differently for Walker. In fact, he might never have been available for the 2010 NHL Draft if the cards had fallen in another way, as he wore another team’s colors for a brief period the summer before he was selected by the Avalanche.

Walker was invited by the New York Rangers to skate for their squad at the Traverse City Prospects Tournament in August of 2009. He played well at the event and helped the Rangers prospects earn a third-place finish while personally ranking among the tournament’s top-10 scorers. With that strong performance in mind, Walker believed he might earn an invite to New York’s training camp. Ultimately, that didn’t happen.

“It was a good experience,” said Walker. “I played pretty well there, but they were having a really, really small training camp, so I didn’t get to experience playing against the pro guys until I came here.”

The Rangers’ loss is Colorado’s (and Lake Erie’s) gain.

Walker has spent the entire 2010-11 season playing with the Monsters, and like most players who graduate from major junior, he has gained some important experience but has also gone through some highs and lows while adjusting to the professional game.

“You go from playing against kids to playing against men,” said Walker. “Everyone that comes out of juniors and plays in this league is used to dominating. Then you come here and play the fourth line, and it’s a big adjustment. Guys are bigger, faster and stronger. The first 10 games were kind of a big learning curve.”

After getting over that 10-game hump, Walker has started to feel a little more at home in the AHL. Through 39 games, the winger has totaled seven points (5g/2a) and 22 penalty minutes while providing an energetic presence to the Monsters’ lineup. And although Lake Erie is halfway through its season, and he’s starting to feel a little more like he belongs, he doesn’t plan on slowing down.

“You don’t want to use the term settle in, because you never really want to get comfortable, but I felt like I belonged and I knew what the league was all about and what I needed to do. That’s helped me out the last 30 games that we’ve played.”

The game of hockey is in Walker’s blood. The son of former NHL player Gord Walker, Luke was born in New Haven, Conn., while his father was skating with the AHL’s New Haven Nighthawks toward the end of his professional career. After Gord retired, the family settled in Castlegar, British Columbia.

“I’d say he’s been the biggest influence in my hockey life,” Luke says of his father. “Growing up we lived in a small town and we didn’t have AAA hockey or anything like that, so he coached me a lot of the way coming up. He taught me everything up until my bantam age. He doesn’t talk to me too much about hockey nowadays; it’s more about how I’m feeling. He knows there are highs and lows and it’s good mental support more than anything.”

Now, Walker’s next goal is to follow in his father’s footsteps and one day reach the National Hockey League. He’s already taken the first few steps, having been drafted and then putting on a solid showing at Colorado’s training camp in September.

While he knows it might take some time before he’s a regular member of an NHL lineup, Walker planted the seeds during camp and has been building toward that goal ever since.

“You just have to remember what got you here and don’t do anything special,” said Walker. “Make a lasting impression. I didn’t have high hopes of making the(Avalanche) this year, but I wanted to put it in the back of their minds that in a year or two I could be fighting for a spot.”
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