SCSU's Walker having stealthy, productive freshman season
ST. CLOUD, Minn. -- At the age of 20, Nolan Walker can easily remember a tougher transition in his life.
At 14, he left his family home in Anchorage, Alaska, to attend and play hockey for Culver Military Academy in Indiana.
"That was tough and I really hadn't hit puberty yet," Walker said with a laugh. "I left home and was thousands of miles away and it was a military academy ... it was a big change for me.
"Just being a new kid there is tough environment because they're always yelling at you. It's not like West Point where they make you do push-ups, but you had to wear a uniform and it was a really rigorous schedule every day."
Yeah, it does not sound like there was a lot of free time.
"I would wake up early, shine my shoes, make my bed, head to class, go to practice and then go back to your dorm and do homework for 2-3 hours," Walker said. "It was the same schedule every day. It was definitely a big change for me.
"I got a little homesick in the beginning, but the hockey helped out."
Being a consistent producer in hockey has been a constant through three transitions for Walker in the last three years.
Walker is fifth among NCAA Division I men's hockey players in assists (15) and is third on his team in points (21) in 24 games for top-ranked St. Cloud State. The NCHC-leading Huskies (10-2-2-1 NCHC, 18-4-2 overall) play host to Miami (3-9-2-1, 9-13-4) in a conference series at 7:07 p.m. Friday and 6:07 p.m. Saturday at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center.
Both games are available on NCHC.tv.
Walker has been a point producer throughout his career. As a junior at Culver, he had 30 goals and 45 assists in 49 games, helping his team reach the national championship game.
For a reference point, St. Cloud State All-American Nic Dowd, who is playing for the Washington Capitals, had 46 points in 45 games as a senior at Culver.
Playing juniors last season for the Sioux Falls Stampede in the United States Hockey League, Walker had 50 points in 55 games.
"You get in that 30-40 point range in the USHL and that typically translates to being a top 6 forward in college," Huskies head coach Brett Larson said of Walker, who is 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds.
Walker, on the other hand, has been a bit surprised that he has been nearly as productive as a freshman. He knew the Huskies had 21 players returning from a team that won the NCHC regular season title and was the No. 1 overall seed going into the NCAA tournament.
"Coming in, I knew we were going to have a really good team and it was going to be tough to get myself in the lineup," said Walker, who has not missed a game. "I didn't think I'd produce as much as I am right now. It's been a good adjustment, but it's definitely quicker with faster and bigger guys."
One of the most impressive parts about Walker's production has been where he has been in the lineup: all over. He's played right wing on a line with Montreal Canadiens draft pick Ryan Poehling, but he's also played center on the third and fourth lines.
"He's getting better at playing both ends of the ice and he's understanding the structure of college hockey away from the puck," Larson said. "He's always been good with (the puck), but it's the rest of his 200-foot game -- at wing or center -- that's gotten a lot better.
"That makes him a huge asset down the stretch because we can play him wherever (he's needed)."
The Huskies are 13-0-1 when Walker has at least one point in a game and he is a plus-6.
If you're looking for an example of Walker's skill set, his assist on the game-winning goal for the Huskies in its Jan. 25 win at North Dakota is a good place to start. Walker stole the puck from UND captain Colton Poolman below the goal line, came out front, put a backhand pass through the skates of senior defenseman Hayden Shaw to Patrick Newell on the back door.
"His ability to make plays with the puck, his awareness of where other players are on the rink and his ability to find a guy and make a play (separates him)," Larson said. "He's gifted when the puck is on his stick."
That assist came on some attention to detail that Walker was working with assistant coach Nick Oliver on in practices that week leading into the series.
"There was a little rough stretch (three games with no points in January) where I just wasn't on top of my game and I needed to get more aggressive on the puck and use my feet more," Walker said. "I needed better stick positioning, which is little things I've been working on to get better.
"I've got to use my feet and my speed to make plays."
Walker is pretty soft spoken off the ice, which is something that Larson said helps him play a stealthy game on it.
"His lateral movement is high end," Larson said. "His ability to change direction with the puck is really good. He doesn't look like a blazer (skating) 200 feet up and down the ice, but his lateral movement when he's attacking a defenseman really makes those 'D' have to change their angles and he's really quick in those areas."
Huskies sophomore center Kevin Fitzgerald suffered an upper body injury in a Jan. 11 game at Minnesota Duluth. He was expected to miss 6-8 weeks, but Larson said that Fitzgerald is healing faster than expected and might be able to return this season.
"That would be a huge boost," Larson said of Fitzgerald returning. He had 10 goals and 15 points in 19 games before getting injured.
Captains' practices in January
Because classes were cancelled Tuesday and Wednesday at St. Cloud State because of frigid temperatures, the team was not able to practice with the coaching staff. So senior defenseman Jimmy Schuldt ran captains' practices those days. The team was able to practice with the staff again Thursday.