For Ben Walter, the opportunity to play close to home was simply too good to pass up.
The Langley product, coming off a career year with the AHL’s Lake Erie Monsters, inked a two-year, two-way (NHL/AHL) deal with the Calgary Flames on Saturday, the second day of the unrestricted free agent signing period.
Cracking the Flames’ roster is Walter’s ultimate goal, but if that doesn’t materialize, playing for the Abbotsford Heat would be a pretty nice consolation prize.
“Either way, whether I’m in Calgary or in Abbotsford, I’m closer to home than I ever have been in my career,” Walter said, speaking to The News on Monday. “My family lives in the Langley area, and my wife’s family is from the Ladner/Tsawassen area. We always come back in the summer – we’re living in Vancouver right now.
“So that definitely played a big part in it.”
Walter, the son of former NHLer Ryan Walter, was born in Beaconsfield, Que. during his dad’s nine-year tenure with the Montreal Canadiens. He moved with his family to B.C. when he was seven years old after his father signed with the Vancouver Canucks.
Walter played his junior A hockey for the Langley Hornets before earning an NCAA scholarship to UMass-Lowell. The Boston Bruins drafted him in the fifth round in 2004, and he has 24 NHL games under his belt with the Bruins, New York Islanders and New Jersey Devils.
The 27-year-old centre put together a terrific 2010-11 campaign with Lake Erie, the Colorado Avalanche’s affiliate. He finished ninth in AHL scoring with 70 points (23 goals, 47 assists) in 77 games, marking the fifth straight season he’s hit the 20-goal and 50-point plateaus in the AHL.
“I pride myself on playing well at both ends of the ice,” he said. “I try to make the guys around me better. I’m more of a set-up guy than a shooter, and I like to help the guys out and make things happen a bit.”
As an experienced forward who can generate offence, Walter is precisely the type of player the Heat needed more of this past season. The NHL parent Flames certainly saw a lot of value in adding Walter to the organization – his two-way contract is worth a reported $275,000 annually in the AHL.
“Ben is a consistent goal scorer and point producer at the AHL level who is also very good on draws,” Flames general manager Jay Feaster said in a press release.
“He is a player our scouts identified during the season last year as someone with very good hockey sense who would significantly add to our depth. At the same time, his character and work ethic are such that we are pleased to have him leading the way for our younger players in Abbotsford.”
Walter, who wore the captain’s ‘C’ in Lake Erie last season, said he relishes the opportunity to mentor younger players.
“It’s part of the game,” he said. “When I was younger, the veteran guys helped me adjust and made me feel welcome, helped me with all the little things that go into pro hockey. If I can help some of the young guys coming in, that’s great.”
Part of Walter’s comfort level in joining the Flames/Heat organization is from chatting with David Van der Gulik. The Abbotsford native and former Heat player (2009-10) was a linemate of Walter’s with Lake Erie last season.
“We talked during the year about it (playing in Abbotsford),” Walter said. “He said he liked living at home, being close to his family and everything. It definitely played a part in my decision, knowing what I was getting into.”