Before trading for Andy Walker prior to this season, Kenai River Brown Bears head coach Josh Petrich looked at the forward entering his last year of junior eligibility and thought, at worst, Walker is a third-line center.
“I know it sounds so negative, but I look at a kid’s worst-case scenario,” Petrich said. “He’s smart, skates well and is undersized. That’s not a problem if we give him decent matchups.”
Now all Walker needs is a Division I coach to think the same thing.
The 5-foot-9, 140-pound forward is typical of a number of players chasing Division I commitments in their last year in the North American Hockey League, the second-best junior league in the United States.
“I’m going to have to do all the little things right because there’s a lot of players that are almost identical in the way they play the game,” Walker said. “It’s the small things that matter, like body language and being a leader on the ice.”
Petrich agreed there are a lot of players in a situation similar to Walker.
“He can be anywhere from a late D I commit to a very good D III player,” Petrich said. “It’s all going to depend on results. He’s got to produce.”
Walker has been producing this season with six goals and three assists in 20 games. When Petrich got Walker before the season, he wanted somebody to at least replace David Kaplan, who had eight goals and seven assists in 58 games last season before aging out.
While Walker has shown scoring ability, Petrich is most impressed with Walker’s vision.
“Goal scoring is not his knack, vision is his niche,” Petrich said. “He’s going to contribute the rest of the season. We’re really happy with him.”
Walker grew up in Mason, Michigan. While hockey is obviously popular in the Detroit area, Walker said he came right out of the heart of Detroit where none of his friends played hockey.
He got into the game due to his father, Greg. When Andy’s mother died when Andy was young, Andy’s brother, Sam, now 23, developed a very tight relationship with Andy.
Andy said that tight relationship helped when he was 14. Before that time, hockey was easy. But at that age, he had to push through a wall he had hit. From 16 to 18, he played with the Meijer program with coach Brian Sherry.
“He really made sure all the little stuff becomes habit during practice,” Walker said of Sherry. “Everybody would say you made a great play in the game, but it was just something you did all the time in practice.”
Petrich loves players with the Meijer pedigree.
“They work really, really hard to play the game the right way, and they don’t ask anything in return,” Petrich said. “It’s never, ‘Why not me?’ It’s always team-first. That makes it a pleasure to coach him.”
In his last year with Meijer, Walker had nine goals and 13 assists in 19 games, earning him a game as an affiliate playing for the Brown Bears and former coach Jeff Worlton. The game was in Minnesota and Walker eventually tendered with the Aberdeen (South Dakota) Wings, where he had five goals and four assists in 37 games before getting traded.
Walker was initially concerned by the Bears’ poor records of late, but now he’s glad he’s with Kenai River.
“The guys like it up here,” Walker said. “Everything is pretty outdoorsy. The guys have a lot of fun. It’s a pretty close group.”
Walker said his numbers are up because he has a year in the league under his belt.
“I just have a lot more confidence,” he said. “I like playing for Josh. I get a lot more ice time and that makes it easier.”
In order to make a push for a Division I deal, both Walker and Petrich agreed the time is now for more production and more wins. The Bears are 2-7-0-1 in their last 10 games and Walker has two goals and two assists in that time.
“Andy has been nothing but positive and productive,” Petrich said. “I can’t say anything bad about the kid.
“But we’re in fifth place. We’ve got to be better and Andy could have been a little better in the last 10 games.”
No matter how it turns out, Walker, the billet son of Crystal and Russ Locke, will have an Alaska experience to look back on fondly. Most prominent is an early November practice on Lower Fuller Lake that is quickly taking on the stuff of legend.
“That was as Alaskan as it gets,” Walker said. “It was a two-mile hike to skate on perfect frozen water surrounded by mountains.”