MINNEAPOLIS -- Ben Walker was born in Fargo and got his start playing youth hockey there, before his family moved to the Twin Cities when he was in elementary school. From that time in the Red River Valley, he always pictured himself playing college hockey in green and white someday. As much as he loves his youngest brother, Ben still cringes sometimes when he sees Sammy Walker in maroon and gold.
“Growing up, the plan and the dream ... was to play college hockey,” said Ben Walker. “Me, being a Fargo kid, I always wanted to play for the University of North Dakota. I kind of get a weird feeling in my stomach when I say my brother is a Gopher.”
Sammy was named Mr. Hockey as a senior at Edina High School. He was then the Big Ten freshman of the year for the Minnesota Gophers and was named both a team captain and most valuable player last season as a sophomore. Meanwhile, his two older brothers -- Ben and Jack -- are among a small handful of players from this region who have chosen the major junior hockey route. Just a few weeks before he was to start his senior season at Edina as the Hornets captain, Ben signed with the Victoria (British Columbia) Royals of the Western Hockey League and played parts of three seasons there.
Now 26 and retired after four seasons of minor pro hockey in Canada and Europe, Ben Walker lives in Colorado and works for a prosthetics company. Last October, he brought the youth hockey team he coaches to Colorado Springs to watch his youngest brother play for the Gophers -- and get tossed in the third period due to a major penalty -- in a win over Colorado College. Ben Walker says his sights were set on the NHL from a young age, and he viewed major junior hockey as the quickest route there.
“For me it was like, if I’m going to go the college route I’m going to go to the (United States Hockey League) first. I was uncommitted (to a college) and the schools I’d talked to, I wasn’t overly excited about,” he recalled. “So if I go to the USHL and then to college that’s potentially five years, or maybe six, depending on how long you play in juniors and then to pro hockey. If you go to (major) juniors and you’re immediately being watched by NHL guys, and that’s potentially the next stage.”
After a season in the Czech Republic and another in Germany, Walker stopped playing hockey due to recurring concussions. Since he signed a pro contract with the Winnipeg Jets minor league team, he is no longer eligible for the WHL’s education funding package. But Walker has no qualms about the path he chose, and in fact has been an advocate for all the WHL offers potential players.
“My time in Victoria was absolutely unbelievable,” he said. “It’s a beautiful town. It’s got so much to offer, and the hockey community there is a real family and they truly look out for the best interests of their players.”
The stories of Ben and Jack Walker are indeed rare in Minnesota hockey circles, but the WHL is working to educate more kids from this region on what the league offers. In the 2019-20 season, there were 52 Minnesotans who played in the NHL. Of those, 51 were former college hockey players. The lone Minnesotan who took only the WHL route to the highest level of pro hockey was Brennan Menell, originally from Woodbury, who played in five games for the Minnesota Wild without recording a point.
“Honestly, I didn’t know anything about the WHL until I was contacted by them. Growing up in Minnesota it was always a dream to play at the university for the Gophers. That was always kind of my goal,” said Menell, who played two seasons in the WHL for the Vancouver Giants and one for the Lethbridge (Alberta) Hurricanes before signing with the Wild. “I was a junior in high school and a lot of my friends were committing to colleges, and I hadn’t yet. I was drafted in the USHL pretty late. I went to their camp in the summer and they told me they wanted me to play in the North American Hockey League for a year. That’s when I seriously gave a look to the WHL. I went up there just to see what it was about at camp and ended up playing pretty well.”
A different story is that of Jared Bethune, a high school player from Warroad, Minn., who turned down the scholarship he had accepted to the University of Minnesota Duluth when a recruiter from the Prince George (British Columbia) Cougars of the WHL sold him and his family on the idea of fast-tracking his potential NHL career. Bethune played parts of four seasons with the Cougars and nine games of pro hockey with an ECHL team in Texas. Now 23, he was eventually able to use the WHL education package, and has gone to school while playing hockey at Queen’s University in Ontario for the past two winters. (Unlike the NCAA, Canadian college hockey eligibility rules allow players to return to college athletics after playing major junior hockey.)
According to Ben Walker, stories of major junior teams “using” players are often a product of those players’ own unwillingness to do the hard work it takes to succeed at an advanced and very physical level of the game.
“The guys that you hear those horror stories from are typically the guys that go up there and aren’t able to make the adjustment. It’s a league where I’ve played with guys who went through that. It is pretty cutthroat, and unless you truly are going for it, you’re going to struggle,” he said. “If you’re not willing to put in the time in the weight room and in the off season, and extra time in practice, and you don’t have your full attention to detail, it’s a league where coaches aren’t going to play you. When guys aren’t playing and get moved down ... they don’t want to say that they didn’t put in the work, they’re going to tell you they got used up and spit out and don’t go up there. It’s a victimization thing.”
For the folks from the WHL, the Walker family -- with two boys going to major juniors and another taking the college route -- is an example of the many paths players can take as they work toward getting a paycheck to play hockey someday. Even if the road does not end in the NHL, backers of both the college and major junior avenues believe that the journey is more important than the destination.
“There’s no perfect path for a player to say, ‘I’m going to do this, this and this and get to the NHL.’ It’s going to be different for every player, and even in a family, it’s going to be different for the different siblings,” said Zach Hodder, the WHL’s director of player development, who played parts of five seasons in the league. “So for us, we just want to make sure people are educated and aware of all the things that go into playing in the Western Hockey League, if they choose to come play for us.”
Next: In part three of our three-part series, a look at the recent change in NCAA recruiting that effectively gives major junior teams a head start in reaching out to talented Minnesota players, and how college hockey programs are dealing with the new rules.