Why the Western Hockey League?

Every player has their own path in hockey. Day in and day out, players are traded called up or sent down, players are given contracts or cut. There are youth teams, professional teams, university teams, and Junior teams. I’ve seen players go from High School hockey to NCAA and to the NHL, I’ve seen players go to the Western League and to the NHL. Players go through the minors and Tier 1, 2, 3 juniors, or guys slide into the beer leagues out of their youth days. No player has the same path, no player pays the same dues though we all pay them.

Minnesota, where I spent most of my life, is a state that breeds NCAA players. It’s a state that over the years has preached “Stay in high school and go to the NCAA.” Growing up a North Dakota native I was a die hard UND fan. Jonathan Toews, Ryan Duncan, T.J. Oshie, Zach Parise. Those were my guys. I followed Duncan even after he made the move over to RedBull Salzburg. I even had a Sioux flag hanging in my bedroom. 

So why did I make a move to the Western Hockey League? This has been a question posed to me since I signed in Victoria. It’s a question that followed me throughout my junior and professional career and has continued to be asked now that I’m retired from playing and started coaching.

So why did I choose the ‘dub? It’s simple, style of game.

Hockey has always been more than just a game, it’s a lifestyle. For as long as I can remember I wanted to play professionally. I dreamed of putting on an NHL sweater and finishing my career nice and easy in a beautiful European city in my 30s. It didn’t matter to me which route I took as long as I got there. 

In November 2011, I was preparing for my senior year at Edina High School. I was named captain and that week a top-10 Mr.Hockey finalist. I was set and ready for a breakout year. Tryouts were starting in two days and I had just finished a solid Elite League season. I was sitting watching my youngest brother at Ridder Ice Arena when P.J. Atherton called. P.J. was a familiar name, he played for the University of Minnesota a few years prior. P.J. asked to sit down with me and discuss the Western Hockey League. I figured it was a general informative conversation that would be had and I happily accepted because learning more about this game was something I couldn’t get enough of. 

P.J. came to my house the next night and sat down with me and my parents. He talked about his personal career and how he finished in the ECHL with the Victoria Salmon Kings. P.J. since had taken a position with the new Victoria Royals of the WHL. He continued to inform me that he had been watching elite league and this team was requesting me to come join their roster. I was blown away to say the least. I had never truly thought about going up there, mostly because coaches over the years had pushed away the ‘dub as being a goon league, but now this seemed more like a legitimate option for me. The only dilemma was that I was set and ready to be in the drivers seat at Edina. 

I ended up going to tryouts that next night with the intentions of staying. I was a senior, but because of my birth year, all my friends I had played with over the years had been the kids one and two grades ahead of me. I still had friends around me but I felt that my brother’s had moved on, and I was ready for the same.

The Muskegon Lumberjacks of the USHL had drafted me but cut me from their roster. They decided that one more year in Edina would be best for my development. To me, a door closed and another opened. But how could I leave my team this late, after tryouts had started? Especially since my brother had a fighting chance to make the team as a freshmen. It would have been the first time for us to play on the same team. 

I called my coach Curt Giles and spoke to him about he league and what I should do. Curt, didn’t feed me a line of dirt. He truthfully spoke of the league and about the benefits of both going and staying. He told me regardless of my decision the team would be okay. And regardless of where I went, I’d do well. I highly respected that of Curt and always will. He’s a stand-up guy and phenomenal coach. Then, my assistant coaches called, my agent called, big names in hockey from my town called, and then the Muskegon Lumberjacks staff flew out to Minnesota. Everyone said don’t go, it’s the wrong move. But there was something deep in me that said this is the right path. I spent the entire night doing homework not for school but on the WHL. I watched highlights, read stats and read articles. This league had me hooked. 

The WHL is an amazing route for players that eat, sleep and breathe the game. It’s for players that want to excel and grow in the game the fastest possible. It’s a league that mirrors the rules systems and play of that in the NHL. What better way to become a pro, then to learn to be play like one? People told me going up there is a roll of the dice because if you don’t go pro, you’re done. But research said other wise. The WHL offered a scholarship and the CIS (now USports) also occasionally sends guys into the pros. More importantly to me though, was the stats of professional major junior hockey players outweighing the stats of NCAA players. Checkmate. 

What really drew me to the league the most was the style of play. I can tell you from experience and an injury report that its a tough league. It’s a high-intensity, physical game with extraordinary skill. The league had guys like Nic Petan, who could feed a power-play pass through even the most congested traffic. Josh Caron that to me was the scariest man on the ice. It also had players like J.C. Lipon, who looked a lot like Gordie with his 89 points and 115 penalty minutes. Watching the highlights that November I knew that this league had tomorrow’s NHL engraved in it, and I wanted to show that I could compete.  

The WHL was more than I imagined. It was fast paced: the speed of players and the puck movement is a huge step from high school hockey. One mistake could lead to a puck in the back of the net. A bad pass and turnover could lead to an odd-man rush. Missing the net could lead to an easy breakout. Losing an edge could cause a highlight reel breakaway. And nearly all missed chances come back to haunt you. The league was serious. I was no longer playing a game, I was playing to keep my spot in the line up. A bad game can get you off the power play and onto the fourth line. Two bad games can get you to the press box. You have to learn quick and adapt easily or suffer the consequences. Coaches and teammates held everyone accountable for their failures to do the job. I loved the dedication of the guys on the team, the coaching staff, and league as a whole. This was my kind of hockey. 

Now that I’m retired, I look back on my career and can honestly say that the WHL was the right path for me. It was what I needed to mature as a hockey player and have the opportunity to play hockey professionally. The ‘dub was also the best three years of my hockey career: the group of guys, the tough practices, those exciting games and long road trips filled with chirps, stories, cards and wrestling matches. My time in the ‘dub was filled with memories that will last a lifetime. The WHL, Victoria and the Royals organization, I thank you. 

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    Ben Walker

    Every player has their own path in hockey. Day in and day out players are traded called up or sent down, players are given contracts or cut. There are
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