by Gary Ahuja
When your father – a former NHL player – stands behind the bench as your minor hockey coach, there are certain external expectations that come as part of the package.
That’s the situation current Abbotsford Heat centre Ben Walter faced during his formative years, following in the footsteps of his father Ryan. The elder Walter played more than a 1,000 NHL games with the Washington Capitals, Montreal Canadiens and Vancouver Canucks, winning a Stanley Cup in 1986 with the Canadiens.
“In minor and junior hockey, I know guys would say (to him), ‘How come you are not as good as your dad?’” said Ryan Walter, who serves as the Heat’s team president these days. “There were all those negative things. I am sure it bothered him but it didn’t seem to dissuade him at all.
“Part of the maturation process of a professional hockey player is the mental toughness side,” he added. “It was probably a disadvantage when he was in minor hockey — you don’t want your kids to go through that — (but) on the other hand, when they go through that, they learn a lot.”
From the younger Walter’s perspective, those ripples of adversity were well worth the hassle.
“I didn’t pay attention to that, I was just having fun playing hockey,” he said. “I think the pros definitely outweigh the cons, anyways.”
From an early age, Ben Walter was hooked on hockey, and it was at the junior A level when he got his first inkling that hockey could be a career.
After a solid rookie season in the BCHL with the Langley Hornets — he had 30 points in 50 games as a 16-year-old — Walter had a sensational sophomore season, leading the team in assists (47) and points (76) while scoring 29 goals in 52 games.
“During those years, it kind of dawned on my that maybe this was something I might be able to do,” he explained. “It was always a dream and I could always picture myself playing pro hockey.”
Walter’s play with the Hornets landed him an NCAA scholarship to UMass Lowell, where he amassed 49 goals and 90 points in 107 games over three seasons. It also got Walter on the NHL’s radar and the Boston Bruins selected him in the fifth round of the 2004 NHL entry draft.
Turning pro in 2005, Walter spent two seasons in the Bruins organization, mainly in the American Hockey League with Providence, and suiting up in 10 NHL games.
Following a trade to the New York Islanders organization, Walter played the bulk of his time with the AHL’s Bridgeport Sound Tigers, but he did manage his first career NHL goal in a game against Tampa Bay.
Walter then spent a season in the New Jersey organization and then last season with the Colorado Avalanche. He led the team’s AHL affiliate, the Lake Erie Monsters, with 70 points in 77 games, good enough to finish ninth in league scoring.
His hockey odyssey continued, landing with the Calgary Flames organization this past off-season.
The Langley product has been a staple for the Abbotsford Heat, returning to the Lower Mainland after an extended absence.
“This year it was just strange being close to home, being able to see my family whenever I wanted,” he said. “I had Thanksgiving with my family this year, which I haven’t done in a long time.”
As of press deadline, Walter was third on the Heat with 27 points in 40 games.
And while Walter — like his teammates — strives to play in the NHL, he bides his time, waiting for another shot.
“People always say the hardest part is sticking (in the NHL),” he said. “You just have to stick with it and stay hungry and work to get back there.”
Having the right outlook is essential.
“At the end of the day, you still get to play hockey for a living, which is great, but you still have to have that drive to try and get better,” Walter said.
Last season, Walter captained Lake Erie for the second half of the year, a new experience for him.
“I enjoyed it, it was certainly something new, especially at the pro level,” he said.
While some leaders are the type who may deliver a fiery locker room tirade to rally the team, that is not his nature.
“I am not the kind of guy who is going to stand up and make speeches all the time; I am the kind of guy who is going to lead by example and say something once in awhile and hope that it means something.”
Walter marvels at his father’s public speaking skills — the elder Walter is a renowned motivational speaker and author — something he admits he lacks.
“I have always been kind of nervous when I have to speak in front of people,” Walter said.
Instead, Walter lets his actions on the ice do the talking.
“I have always tried to keep an even keel on the ice,” he said. “That is my personality off the ice as well, so I think it just transfers over.
“The biggest thing is just leading by example; you don’t want to say too much or try to be an ‘in-your-face’ guy.”
Heat head coach Troy Ward called Walter “a quiet guy who leads with his stick.”
“He is a calming influence who has great poise with the puck and makes the players around him better,” he said. “A great demeanor – never too high and never too low.”
And while some players may develop a negative attitude for what they may perceive as not getting their shot, Walter remains the consummate pro.
“He understands the business,” Ward said. “He just keeps plugging away. He knows if he keeps working, he is going to get his chance.”
Even though they are competing to catch the attention of the Flames and earn a call-up, as one of the Heat’s elder statesmen — Walter is 27, the fifth-eldest on the team — he takes pride in showing the younger guys how to be a pro.
“You have to look at it like you are the example, you have to show them the way to be a pro, how to conduct yourself on and off the ice,” Walter said.
“I looked up to the older guys (when I came into the league) trying to see what they were doing.
“Off the ice is the biggest challenge for any young pro hockey player; you learn along the way and try to pass that on as you get older.”