Looking back, it all makes more sense.
Not that it didn’t before. We all understood that Scott Walker was sticking up for a teammate during his altercation with Aaron Ward in Game 5. No one blamed him for becoming emotional after he scored the overtime winner in Game 7.
Afterwards, there were subtle hints. Walker described the last week as one of the toughest of his career. Coach Paul Maurice and others used the phrase “after all he’s gone through” once or twice, which we thought was referring to the harsh reception he got in many circles for the Ward punch, not to mention the persistent concussion issues that plagued him for the second half of the regular season.
As it turns out, those problems barely scratched the surface. About a week ago, Walker learned that his wife of nearly 10 years and mother to his two children, Julie, was diagnosed with cervical cancer.
“Being a tough player, if people talk about me like that, this is one where it doesn’t matter how tough you are,” Scott Walker said at a Saturday press conference. “It’s hard to handle.”
Fortunately, the cancer was caught early enough that his wife, who he has been with since high school, is doing fine and is expected to make a full recovery.
“The great thing about being a hockey player is the support you get from your teammates and the organization,” said Walker, who was remarkably upbeat throughout the session. “If you had to deal with this as a player, there’s no better sport to be in than hockey. We’re such a tight-knit group.
“Obviously I’m just trying to support my wife,” he added. “Everybody worries about me, but it’s my wife that’s going through it. She’s strong, and we’re going to get this fixed and she’ll be fine. I’m just happy from the support from all my teammates and the organization and the prayers I’ve had from a lot of people.”
The Walkers first knew that something was awry a few weeks ago, but the severity of the issue wasn’t fully understood until last Saturday – the off day between Games 4 and 5 of the Boston series. In the following days it became difficult for his coaches and teammates not to shed light on the situation while Walker underwent a firestorm of criticism for his now-famous punch.
“There are comments made about the player – I wouldn’t say character assassination – but they were not very happy with Scotty at that point and you could understand that,” said Maurice. “In your locker room, you know this guy is exhibiting the character and fortitude and strength that we haven’t seen in so long, that makes it tough because you want to go out there and say, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about,’ but at the end of they day they didn’t know, so how could they?”
From a hockey standpoint, Walker’s overtime goal to defeat the Bruins in Game 7 was about as exciting as it gets, which masked the extra emotion that every member of that team was feeling after the goal. Needless to say, there was plenty of it.
“I don’t think you could have asked for a better guy to score that goal,” said Erik Cole. “I think a lot of the excitement and emotion that was shown on the ice was for Scott. He’s a great guy and a great teammate, and we care about him and we care about his family.”
“I’ve never been happier to see a guy score a goal,” said Maurice. “That had nothing to do with us winning Game 7. For him and him alone, completely for him, I’ve never been happier in my life for anybody else.’
For the Walkers, that goal and the subsequent success for the Hurricanes couldn’t be more welcome in an otherwise difficult time.
“It was an unbelievable moment as a Carolina Hurricane, as a fan and as a player, but I was thinking about how excited she was going to be,” said Walker. “Positive things are just great right now, and that’s all I could think about. Regardless of whether I’m happy myself, you always worry about your partner being happy. I could tell in her voice how excited she was, so for me that was as big a thrill as anything.”
Although one of the more seasoned veterans on the team, Walker is just now getting his first prolonged taste of playoff action, having never advanced past the first round in two previous attempts with Nashville in 2004 and 2006. It’s been strange to hear him talk about how he’s learning things from players like Eric Staal and Cam Ward, who despite being quite a bit younger have more playoff experience.
In this situation, however, it seems that everyone is learning something from the example set by number 24.
“I don’t know that any of us know how we would react in that situation,” said Maurice. “Based on what we saw then in how he reacted and how being in the locker room was a really good place, in a way Scotty is making the people around him feel better by saying this is going to be OK and we’re going to get through this.
“Let’s go back, follow Scotty’s lead and just play hockey.”