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A Natural Transition

by Jeff Paterson / Vancouver Canucks
 It is true that Ryan Walter has never held a coaching position in the National Hockey League.

But if anyone deserves the benefit of the doubt that he’s up to a new challenge, it’s the 50-year-old who was hired Tuesday by the Canucks to work along side Alain Vigneault.

A former second overall draft pick back in 1978, Walter spent 15 years and played more than 1000 games in the NHL. He was a captain with the Washington Capitals and won a Stanley Cup with Montreal in 1986. He’s seen and done just about everything in the game. And in the 15 years since his playing days ended after two seasons with the Canucks, Walter has established a remarkable track record of success and accomplishment away from the rink, too.

A student, an author, a broadcaster, an entrepreneur, a motivational speaker and a personal development consultant, Walter has had a chance to branch out and apply himself in many ways. But the one constant through all of his experiences was – and very much still is – his love of hockey. And that’s why he feels the time is right to take a shot at coaching the game at the highest level

Jeff Paterson is a Team 1040 broadcaster and a regular contributor to the Georgia Straight.

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"I guess if you look at my history, I was built to coach," says the Burnaby native who has some minor hockey coaching experience from working with his three sons and two daughters over the years. "I think leadership is a key component to any coach whether he's a head coach or an assistant coach. I've spent the last part of my life studying those things. Going back to school and doing the masters in leadership was a real focus for me. I've often wondered why teams with the same talent, why do some win and some lose? The ingredient is that leadership part and it's going to be fun looking at it."

In addition to everything else he had going on in his busy life, Walter has spent the past three years working as a consultant with the Montreal Canadiens. So even though he wasn’t behind a bench, he was very much involved with an NHL team and he figures that should ease his transition into coaching.

It should also help that he and Vigneault spent some time together before the hiring and it seems the two are already on the same page in many areas of the game.

"Ryan has always been involved in the game as a player and, after that, doing colour on TV, so he's up to date on everything that's new to the NHL," says Vigneault. "He's a pretty bright guy and he'll be able to pick up on things pretty quickly."

As a player, Walter was a tough competitor who showed up every night and gave everything he had. He had offensive ability, but was also responsible in his own zone and was the type of player a coach could trust in any situation. In some ways, his style was similar to the way Trevor Linden played the game. It’s interesting that Tuesday’s hiring comes just days after Linden announced his retirement leaving the Canucks with a void to fill in the leadership department.

With his years of studying leaders and the notion of effective leadership and with most observers expecting the Canucks to have a new captain – or captains – next season, Ryan Walter should be able to help groom the next wave of influential and inspirational players in the locker room. “Ryan has a great history in the NHL, he has a Stanley Cup ring, he's a student of the game, an academic student, he ran his own business and has all the features I think are critical to having a well-rounded person in that role," says new general manager Mike Gillis who initially contacted Walter to inquire about having him conduct some leadership workshops for the hockey club.

Instead, he wound up hiring him to help lead the team from the bench. "I think Ryan's ability to communicate is unparalleled. He has great ideas about how to advance the offensive nature of this team.”

That’s certainly an area last year’s Canucks could have used some help. And over the next few weeks, Walter will begin developing strategies to make the existing players better and he should also get a boost with the addition of a few new faces through trades and free agency. One of the areas he’s expected to tackle is finding a way to put a fresh coat of paint on a Canuck power play that sputtered too often last season.

Always upbeat and with a smile on his face, Ryan Walter knows he’s got plenty of work to do. But he can’t wait to roll up his sleeves and get started.

“It's a big learning curve, no doubt," Walter says. "I love learning, though, that's what I do. I think if I was coming into this without 15 years sitting on that bench in the NHL, I think it would be difficult. But I've seen those rooms and I've been on that bench. I know what coaches do and I know what coaches don't do, so this is nothing new to me.”

Some will view the hiring of Ryan Walter as a risk. But clearly Mike Gillis isn’t one of them. And given Walter’s history of getting the job done – and done well -- in every other thing he’s immersed himself in over the years, there’s every reason to believe he’ll make a good NHL coach, too.
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