I t could be said for forward Dylan Walchuk that more than two roads diverged in a Canadian wood – and he went forth and explored them all.
Walchuk – the Spokane Chiefs’ final edition to this season’s roster after being picked up on the Western Hockey League’s trade deadline just more than a week ago – scored his first goal at the Spokane Arena last Saturday.
The goal helped the Chiefs take one of their biggest wins of the season, a 5-3 victory against the top team in the league, which happens to also be their biggest rival – the Tri-City Americans.
With his father in from their home in northern British Columbia to catch the televised game, Walchuk came up with the winning goal in front of 9,667 of his newest, biggest fans.
“That was pretty cool,” Walchuk said. “I don’t think I’ve played in front of a sold-out barn like that. You can tell the teams hate each other and that it’s a special game.”
He’s obviously learning quickly – and he has no choice. Not many 19-year-olds can count themselves as rookies in the WHL. It’s not that he couldn’t have made it to Spokane sooner, but Walchuk initially chose a different path.
“Now that I’m here I wish I would have come when I was 17,” Walchuk said. “I have limited time (in the WHL). I have to make the best of it. I’ll just have to battle.”
It’s easy to forget that so many WHL players begin “battling” and uprooting their lives before they are even teenagers. Some begin moving away at 9 years old – like Walchuk did when he started playing spring hockey in Kamloops, four hours from his hometown of McBride – all in pursuit of a childhood dream to play in the NHL.
“I really started playing when I was 4,” Walchuk said. “It’s a lifestyle.”
The snipers and playmakers, the skilled kids, the grinders, character guys, the players with a built-in desire to compete, the elusive-type player that avoids being checked and is slippery with the puck – there’s a need for all of them on a complete team.
Walchuk’s connection to Spokane began when he met Chiefs Director of Player Personnel Chris Moulton as a 16-year-old playing Junior B hockey for the Nelson Leafs in the KIJHL. That was in 2008 – after Spokane had won the Memorial Cup – and the Leafs were in town to play the Spokane Braves.
Moulton – who describes Walchuk as a “competitor with skill” – caught the game, and Walchuk was added to the Chiefs’ 50-Player Protected List that December. But Walchuk didn’t come to camp the following August. Instead, he committed to playing Junior A hockey for the British Columbia Hockey League’s Vernon Vipers and pursue a collegiate hockey career at Northern Michigan University.
“I was 16 and had to make a choice – college or the WHL,” the 5-foot-9, 175-pound Walchuk said. “As a smaller player, I thought the extra time would be good for me to develop. They offered me a full-ride scholarship, how am I supposed to turn that down?”
He spent two more years in Vernon, leading the Vipers to the Canadian Junior A National Title in 2009-10, and led the team in scoring last season with 24 goals and 32 assists as they lost the national title game.
Then, at the beginning of this season, he went off to college. Almost immediately, he knew he had made the wrong decision – though he kept that feeling to himself.
“I wasn’t happy there,” he said. “The city was kind of dark, and I didn’t like the school aspect much either. I kind of just wanted to focus on hockey.”
Out of the blue, Moulton got back in touch.
“I hadn’t talked to him for two years,” Walchuk said. “I didn’t even think I was on the protected list anymore. Then there was a rumor of me leaving (college) so they called my dad. That’s when I knew I had somewhere to go.”
Spokane wasn’t the only place he could go. Still interested in a college scholarship at a bigger program, Walchuk returned to Vernon for six games with the promise of being their go-to guy this season.
Then, on Jan. 10, the last day to make a roster addition in the WHL, Walchuk broke the news to his coach in Vernon. He decided to forego his NCAA eligibility and commit to play for Spokane in the WHL.
“I felt bad, like I was ditching the team,” he said. “Hopefully, they understood. I still feel bad, but I have to make choices for myself, and not everybody else.”
“Some people might say, what’s the deal with this kid? He goes from Nelson to Vernon to college to Vernon to Spokane,” Moulton said. “But what it comes down to is that he’s always done things that he feels were best for him. All of his coaches say the same thing about him – that he’s a coach’s player and he has a great work ethic.
“He’s always been a tenacious competitor, regardless of his size. At 16 he was playing against 19- or 20-year-olds and was a prolific scorer and never got the respect he probably deserved. We were disappointed when he didn’t pick us first, but we’ve never been a club that’s forceful or pressures kids to come to Spokane. I’m just glad I made the call on a whim at beginning of December.”
Moulton isn’t the only one.
“He’s done real well,” Chiefs coach Don Nachbaur said. “He’s got skill, and he’s going to be a big asset for us.”
Perhaps most important, however, is that Walchuk feels like he’s finally made the right choice for his ultimate goal.
“If I can play well in the WHL – I’m playing against future NHL players,” he said.
He hopes to be one of them. Perhaps that’s just farther on down the road.