ST. CLOUD, Minn. — There are several fishermen on the St. Cloud State men's hockey team. With 15 Minnesotans and a school in the land of 10,000 lakes, that's no surprise.
Nolan Walker likes to fish but has yet to fish in Minnesota.
"I haven't been able to, but it's a little different type of fishing than I'm used to," Walker said. "I don't really go on lakes a lot.
"I'm more on rivers, creeks and oceans. I'm definitely going to try to catch walleyes ... and whatever they catch down here."
Walker is from Anchorage, Alaska, and is used to fishing for salmon, trout and halibut. He said he makes an annual trip to an uncle's cabin near Homer, Alaska, during the summer.
A bit shockingly on the ice rink this winter, Walker spent a lot of time fishing for his first goal of the season. An All-NCHC Rookie Team pick last season, he picked up his first goal of the season on Feb. 8 at Colorado College. As a freshman forward, Walker had eight goals and 27 points in 36 games.
This came after Walker had 22 goals and 55 points in 58 games for the Sioux Falls Stampede playing juniors in the United States Hockey League. So when he scored against the Tigers, it felt like a large animal had been lifted off him.
"It took 25 games, so it felt really good for the confidence," said Walker, who is 21. "The other guys were really happy for me, so that was great to see. Coming back to the bench after that first goal ... was awesome.
"It's just a weight off the shoulders. I've been struggling a little bit production-wise. I'm trying to do the little things right and playing the right way, playing smart and trying to make my teammates better. It felt good to finally get one on the board."
Perhaps this was a contributing factor to Walker finally scoring: he had a season-best six shots on goal. In the other 24 games, he did not have a game with more than two shots and had 21 shots on goal overall.
"Making plays is the best thing that I do," said Walker, who has played wing and center this season. "One thing I need to do is shoot more. Against CC ... I don't think I've ever had that many shots before.
"I think that's something I'm going to be looking to do more of this year and in the future. I'm more of a pass-first guy. I'm trying to work on my shot."
Walker did not have a goal or an assist in St. Cloud State's first five games and had two assists in his first 13 games this season.
The Huskies are hoping that things began to turn around for him when they played host to a series against Nebraska Omaha on Dec. 13-14. He had an assist in both games and, more importantly, he was getting to better spots on the ice.
"I know early, he was putting so much pressure on himself because he knew how much scoring we lost and put that weight on his shoulders ..." said St. Cloud State head coach Brett Larson, whose team had 49 percent of its goals and assists either graduate or sign early after last season.
"These last 10 games, he's just allowed himself to play. He's definitely tracking in the right direction."
When Walker is playing well, what does he bring to the Huskies?
"His lateral movement is so good, he has vision and he can make plays," Larson said. "He's probably more of a pass-first guy than a shooter. But his ability to make plays in traffic and in tight areas is really high end."
In the hunt for home ice
St. Cloud State has also been moving in the right direction in recent weeks. After losing their first four NCHC games of the season, the Huskies have gone 8-5-1 in conference games, including 3-0-1 in their last four games.
That streak will be put to a tough test this weekend when St. Cloud State (8-9-1-0 NCHC, 11-12-5) plays top-ranked North Dakota (14-2-2-2, 23-3-3) in a conference series at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center. With a bye last weekend, the Huskies got some help from the Fighting Hawks in their quest for home ice for the conference playoffs.
North Dakota swept Denver, which is three points ahead of St. Cloud State for the last home playoff spot in the standings with three weekends left in the regular season. The Huskies also go into this series in better health.
"Two weeks in a row, we had 4-5 guys out of practice every day, so we never had a full team," said Larson, whose team had the flu make its way through most of the lineup. "Guys really had to suck it up and get it done. It was kind of a rallying cry for two weeks — we need everybody. Everybody that's healthy, we need you.
"For us to go 3-0-1 in that stretch was huge."
The Huskies got swept by the Fighting Hawks (4-2 and 2-1 in overtime) in a series Nov. 22-23 in Grand Forks, N.D. While the games were close, North Dakota has won five straight and six of its last seven games going into this weekend.
"I think the guys are excited for the opportunity and the challenge of having the No. 1 team in the country come in here," Larson said. "On a weekend like this, you're not thinking about standings. You're not thinking about playoffs. You're not thinking about points.
"You're thinking about having to bring your best possible game to have a chance to knock off the No. 1 team in the country."
9 Huskies receive academic honors
Walker, a finance major, was one of nine St. Cloud State players named to the NCHC Academic All-Conference team on Wednesday, Feb. 19.
To be eligible to make the team, players must have at least a 3.0 grade-point average while having completed at least one academic year at their respective school. The other Huskies named to the team include junior defenseman Tyler Anderson (Winnipeg, Manitoba), junior forward Kevin Fitzgerald (Oak Brook, Ill.), junior forward Will Hammer (St. Cloud), sophomore forward Sam Hentges (New Brighton, Minn.), senior defenseman Clark Kuster (St. Louis, Mo.), sophomore defenseman Spencer Meier (Sartell, Minn.), sophomore forward Micah Miller (Remer, Minn.) and sophomore defenseman Nick Perbix (Elk River, Minn.).
Walker, Anderson, Hammer and Kuster also were named NCHC Distinguished Scholar-Athletes. To earn that status, a player must have a cumulative grade-point average of 3.5 or better.