Two years ago, one of the NHL’s most memorable “tough guys” said he was worried about the importance of the enforcer role in the game today.
Tie Domi spoke to CBC (https://www.cbc.ca/sports/
Since Domi’s retirement from the NHL following the 2006 season, the number of fights in a game has dropped from an average of 0.38 percent to 0.19 percent (according to the statistics at hockeyfights.com).
But just because there is a lack of the so called “on-ice policemen” doesn’t mean they have completely evaporated from the game; maybe, just like the evolution of analytics, the enforcers have evolved as well.
Enter Daniel Walker. The third year forward for the North Bay Battalion who leads the league with 74 penalty minutes in 24 games played (as of Friday, January 4, 2019). In eight games less played than last year, he has already surpassed his career high by 10 PIMs.
At 6’5” and 212lbs he has the size, physicality and intimidation factor of that throwback role.
“He’s an old school guy that brings [a different] element to the game,” says North Bay Battalion Assistant Coach Adam Dennis.
But along with that “old school style” Walker brings with him the skills needed to play a depth role in the Ontario Hockey League, something he had to learn to develop as part of his game.
“My first year in the O, I knew I wasn’t a skilled guy,” says Walker.
“I wasn’t going to score a lot of goals. But I had to do something to help the team, something that would make me stick around with the boys and that’s just when the physicality kicked in.”
Walker had accumulated 56 penalty minutes in 56 games played during his rookie season of 2016-17. He also dropped the gloves three times that year, and he’s added eight more bouts to his resume (including pre-season, regular season and playoff fights) in his OHL career.
“Now that the physical part has kicked in, and it’s well known [as part of my game] I can slowly start going back to my skills. Hopefully score some more too,” he adds.
With the physical play and the willingness to go toe to toe against the opposition, the Val Caron, Ontario product says he’s disappointed the majority of the old school days have started to take a back seat, “it’s nice that it’s still there, it’s definitely dying off, which kind of sucks, but it’s fun for me.”
Walker is also aware of the reputation he’s earned in this league, one that sometimes puts fear into whoever may have the unfortunate task of matching up against him that night.
“It’s happened a couple of times when you’re talking to people, or when you get into scrums, and sometimes I get apologies, so that’s kind of funny,” he says.
Dennis says it’s never a bad thing to have those guys on your team, “I know as a former player when you’re out there and a guy like Dan Walker is in or out of the lineup, everybody knows.”
“Everybody is aware of when he’s on the ice and what a lot of people don’t give him credit for is, he’s got a lot of skill,” says Dennis.
And this is where that new breed of “enforcer” comes in. The power not just in the hits, but the way they push the puck and the velocity they put into their shots is what makes them an all around threat on the ice.
“He’s got a great shot,” continues Dennis, “he can find open ice and he creates room for his line mates. He’s an important piece for us.”
Walker showed off the offensive side of his game in a recent contest against the Kitchener Rangers. It was a two-goal night for the third line left winger, including the game winner in an 8-5 win in front of the home fans at Memorial Gardens.
It was an impressive goal for Walker who received a pass in the neutral zone, just behind the Rangers defenders. He raced down the ice all alone and just over the blue line, raised his stick to the rafters and unloaded a bullet towards the back of the net – putting North Bay ahead 6-5 at that point, and gave them the first of their current seven game winning streak, snapping a seven game winless streak in the process.
With six goals on the season, Walker says that night proved a little more that he can trust his own skills, “I know I have a heavy shot, and I basically just stick to my soap box.”
“I don’t try to dangle, I don’t try to beat you one on one. I’m just going to walk in and try and out muscle you and rip the puck,” said Walker, who also spent one season in junior 'A' with the Voodoos before joining the Troops.
But he acknowledges that role of protecting his line mates is still something he feels he has to do, “I don’t think we’ve had anyone [from other teams] hit anyone dirty [on our team] this year.”
Walker adds, “I’m not saying that’s all because of me but it definitely helps the boys. They feel more comfortable that somebody is out there watching their backs. It also opens up ice for me, I get a little bit of extra time, and every second helps.”
His coaches acknowledge they love all facets of his game, but the approach for Walker the rest of the season is staying out of the penalty box, while still being that intimidating factor. Dennis says “you like the way the player plays, but he’s not playing if he’s in the box.”
“We’ve also had him out there on the penalty kill,” continues Dennis, “so we’d rather have him out there killing penalties instead of sitting there in there when we might have to have someone who’s not as polished playing in that spot.”
“It’s something he knows and he’s working on, it’s tough to turn the switch off when you’re playing a game at that level and all of a sudden you have to pull back, but it’s something that’s a challenge for him, and for him to get to that next level it’s something he will have to fix.”
And there are plenty of opportunities for a big player to play somewhere that could be considered the next level, whether it’s in North America, or across the pond.
Walker’s family does have roots in Europe as his mother is from Denmark and while the Danish junior hockey program is not up to the level of some of the other elite European nations, Walker says seeing where they are going is exciting.
“My mom, she never watched a hockey game until she came over [to Canada]. But it’s cool that if I get the opportunity, I could play there a couple of years and maybe get considered for the national team, if I’m good enough to make it,” he says.
Walker adds, “my mom loves supporting them at the World Juniors, even though we get killed almost every time, it’s still cool that they are one of the teams in the tournament.”