Bemidji State sophomore forward Shea Walters smiled when asked how important the Minnesota firearms deer season was to his family.
"I know one thing for sure," Walters said. "This weekend will be one of the only series my Dad will miss this year - it's the opening of deer season."
Like hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans who will take to the woods Saturday for the 2009 Minnesota deer hunting opener, Walters said hunting and fishing are a big part of his life. Just as he can hardly remember a time when he wasn't on skates or around the game of hockey, Walters has just as deeply rooted memories of outdoor pursuits, both with his family and on his own.
"Hunting is a very strong tradition in my family," he said. "It's definitely one of my passions in life. I love to fish, both on open water and ice fishing. Hunting - well, I like to hunt anything and everything."
Walters smiles when asked to recount the biggest deer he's ever taken.
"When I was 17, I went out hunting by myself one weekend because my parents were watching my brother play hockey out of town," he said. "It was very cold that fall - all the lakes were frozen and there was about six inches of snow on the ground. The first day out, I shot the biggest deer of my life - a 5 and a half year-old 10-pointer.
"My Dad taught my brother and me at a young age how to take care of everything once the deer is down." Walter field dressed and dragged the buck out of the woods by hand. He then loaded it up, drove home, and hung it up.
""My Dad was pretty surprised, and happy, when he got home," Walter said. "We went back hunting the next day and I shot another buck - a nice nine pointer. I guess it was just my year."
The same thing could probably be said for Walters freshman year with the Bemidji State men's hockey team - it was just his year. Walter played a key role as a member of the Beavers historic 2008-09 season - a CHA regular season championship, a CHA playoff championship, a NCAA Midwest Regional Championship and a berth in the 2009 Frozen Four.
Not a bad way to start a college career.
Walters' hockey journey to becoming a member of the BSU squad was also filled with highlights of which every hockey rink rat dreams - a pair of trips to the state tournament, leading the tournament in points as a sophomore and making the all-tourney team as a junior.
His junior year was also the first unofficial trip Walters made to Bemidji State. "I loved everything about the town, the university, and the hockey program from the start," he said. "Even though I didn't make a commitment to them, the coaching staff stayed in contact and really helped me along."
Walters then went to the USHL where he played in Green Bay for two years. At the end of the second year Walters made it official and signed with BSU.
"We got together after my final year in Green Bay and the coaches suggested I play one more year of juniors," Walters said. "It was the best thing that could have happened."
Walters played for North Iowa in the NAHL, ending the season third in the league in scoring and being named Forward of the Year.
Even with the extra year of seasoning in juniors, Walters chuckled when looking back at his first games last season. "I do remember being in Mankato thinking, "man, this is fast," he said. "I found out right away I had a lot of learning to do. With so few games each season every one of them means so much. Each one is played at such a fast pace."
Walters learned fast, obviously. As the end of the regular season drew close, the line of Walters, Ben Kinne and Ryan Cramer began to hit their stride. They were a puck control line that specialized in maintaining puck possession, keeping it low and cycling. The line played a major role in the end of the season run.
Advancing to the pinnacle of college hockey last season only whetted the appetites of the returning BSU players for more, Walter said. "The little run we had last season was a driving force for me to work hard over the summer," he said.
That hard work was immediately noticed. "He came back to school in great shape," said BSU head coach Tom Serratore. "From a strength standpoint, he improved dramatically. We were very proud of his effort over the summer - he proved he wants to become a better player.
"So far this season we've been playing him in just about every type of situation - regular shifts, power play and penalty kill. With more responsibilities as a player comes higher expectations from the coaching staff. We all believe Shea is up to it.
"We believe his best hockey is still ahead of him."
Walters shakes his head when asked about the future. "Things could not have gone better - I'm a northern Minnesota kid who got the chance to play Division I hockey in northern Minnesota. It's a great university and a great town where I'm able to participate in my other passion - hunting and fishing. Then, I get to be part of the program as it closes one chapter with the end of the CHA, playing in the John Glas Fieldhouse, and moving to a brand new arena and playing in the WCHA. Wow ..."