'He's fun to play with,' linemates say after Sammy Walker's first NHL game in Minnesota
It had been years since former Mr. Hockey winner and Minnesota Gophers captain Sammy Walker had skated at Xcel Energy Center, but it all came back to him in his home debut for the Minnesota Wild.
ST. PAUL – While he’s proud of his time with the state’s most revered and most hated high school program, where he was named Mr. Hockey in 2018, Minnesota Wild rookie forward Sammy Walker used to joke that he wasn’t “real Edina,” citing the dented Nissan he drove throughout college as evidence.
As of Monday night, when he played his first NHL game in his home state, Walker certainly has the fiscal means to live the “real Edina” lifestyle, but when asked about his wheels following the team’s morning skate, he admitted some things haven’t changed.
“It’s parked in Des Moines right now,” Walker said of his ever-aging Nissan with roughly 150k miles on it. “It’s still got the dent in the back left.”
Called up by the Wild last week after a blistering start to his professional career with their top development team in Iowa, Walker got the rookie lap and his NHL debut out of the way on the road, logging nearly 10 minutes of ice time in a win Saturday at Vancouver.
On Monday, he could concentrate more on just playing hockey, albeit with his parents and three of his four siblings in the audience. Down in section 120, in the corner of the rink, was a gathering of roughly 15-20 immediate family members, friends and relatives unofficially named “Camp Walker” on this night. Sammy’s father Ron – inexplicably wearing a Tampa Bay Lightning cap – was all smiles after 40 minutes on Monday night, even after what was announced as Sammy’s first NHL point was then taken away after a review.
sammy walker is so very fun pic.twitter.com/7dyBK81xa7— Hockey Wilderness (@hockeywildernes) December 13, 2022
The Iowa Wild were on the road when Sammy was called up and told to report to Vancouver, so he returned to the Twin Cities on Sunday with two changes of clothes and not much else. Taking advantage of his parents’ close proximity, Ron said Sammy stopped by the family home for dinner and to wash his limited wardrobe.
“He’s the youngest boy,” Ron said, as co-workers gave him a hard time about the Lightning hat, offering to buy him some Wild headwear. “He doesn’t need much.”
Hours before the game, Sammy was basking in the idea of playing a NHL game in his home state, and not at all worried about what he would wear after the game or tomorrow.
“Growing up here, since you could barely walk, it’s a dream,” Walker said, with his trademark toothy smile as he sat in a corner stall of the home dressing room, with his nameplate above him and a hanger for jersey number 74 – the same digits he wore in training camp.
Walker admitted that he had never before been in the Wild locker room, and his last game at Xcel Energy Center was a 4-2 Edina loss to Duluth East in the 2018 State Tournament semifinals. The Hornets beat Centennial for third place that year, and Walker was the tournament’s leading scorer with three goals and eight assists in Edina’s three games.
He is just eight months removed from his final game for the Minnesota Gophers, where Walker was a captain three out of his four years in maroon and gold, and was named the Big Ten’s top rookie in 2019. Originally drafted by Tampa Bay, he signed with the Wild in August after the Lightning's failure to offer a contract made him a free agent. After a pair of preseason games (on the road) he was sent to the AHL club in Iowa where Walker had 21 points in his first 22 pro games.
Wild coach Dean Evason liked what he saw from Walker on the road versus the Canucks, a 3-0 Minnesota win.
“The way that he conducted himself maturely, not only physically on the ice but around the guys and his preparation before the game…he just had a presence about him. He wasn’t intimidated,” Evason said, anticipating that he might feel a few more butterflies in a home game, but the fact that Walker is 23 and has played high-pressure hockey for the past four years could make a difference.
“We talked about this, that he’s not a 19-year-old kid. He’s an older first-year player,” said the coach.
Walker’s dream of starring for the Wild in his home state almost had a fairytale quality in the opening minutes of Monday’s game versus Edmonton. On his first shift, skating at left wing with Frederick Gaudreau and Matt Boldy, a puck popped out to Walker, springing him on a 2-on-1 rush with defenseman Caden Addison. Fully intending to shoot, Walker was unable to test Oilers goalie Stuart Skinner when the puck rolled away without a shot.
“I don’t know. Spaz fingers or something,” Walker joked after the game. “I think I got too excited and it bounded off my stick.”
Still, both linemates had nothing but praise for the local kid and his potential at the NHL level.
“I’m very impressed. He’s coming in and plays with so much speed, confidence,” Gaudreau said. “He’s fun to play with. He always has a smile on his face. He’s got great energy. He’s a treat to play with, and it’s fun to see.”
He’s still looking for his first NHL point, but the Wild are 2-0-0 with Walker in the lineup, and nothing that happened on Monday – not even a mouth-first collision with the glass that briefly left him with a loose tooth – could wipe that smile off Walker’s face.
“It was unbelievable,” Walker said in the postgame locker room. “The first couple shifts I was a little nervous, but man, a dream come true.”
Sammy Walker is movin' he's groovin' pic.twitter.com/uL1854NWto— Spoked Z (@SpokedZ) December 13, 2022