Brenden Walker led the Gwinnett Gladiators in goal scoring as a rookie last season and has signed to play for 2014-15. (Photo: Amanda Hertel)
DULUTH — Brenden Walker scored the first goal and the last goal of the 2013-14 season for the Gwinnett Gladiators.
They bookended a rookie campaign in which Walker led the team in scoring. But what happened in between was also something of a rollercoaster for the 22-year-old.
“He is an exceptional talent and a quality individual,” Gladiators president Steve Chapman said. “There were some learning phases that Walks made his way through last season. He also had to deal with some personal loss in his family.
“That’s a lot on a young pro and he certainly had his ups and downs. But as the season progressed and he adjusted and overcame, we think he really began to show what he is capable of doing.”
Last season, Walker was assigned to the Gladiators by their NHL affiliate Arizona.
This season, Walker has signed outright with Gwinnett.
“There were other (discussions) going on and agents talking to other places,” Walker said from his home in upper Manitoba. “But I stuck with my guns and I stuck with the Glads organization. I’m happy to be back. I know they’re behind me and I think it was a good choice.”
Walker had a strong second half to the season — after going through some admitted growing pains.
“It wasn’t the best first half of my life,” Walker said frankly. “I wasn’t sure where I stood with the team and I think I was thinking too much of the higher league.
“The second half, I came to the reality that I needed to work hard where I was. I respected who I was playing with and where I was playing.”
Walker captained the Saskatoon Blades in 2012-13, but going from a billet’s house and the relative control of a major junior club to living on his own was not an easy transition. Probably not unlike the first semester of college for a lot of kids — athletes or not.
“I was a young guy just trying to learn the way,” Walker said. “The second half, I was a much better person. I was eating better and sleeping more.
“You’re living on your own, but you still have to wake up and play hockey in the morning.”
Walker had at least one goal in seven of his last 11 games and 14 points over that same span. He was also a plus-9 and earned his first pro hat trick in the final game of the season.
“He can be one of the best players on the ice every night when he makes that commitment — dangerous to play against,” Chapman said. “We think that this could be a break-out year for him.”
Walker certainly benefited from playing with Marshall Everson and Casey Pierro-Zabotel, both of whom have already re-signed with the Gladiators. Walker has talked quite a bit with both during the offseason.
“I loved playing with those guys,” he said. “I couldn’t ask for two better linemates. It was a good learning experience. I got some confidence and was playing the way I should have been.”
Not coincidentally, Walker and Gwinnett were both bigger threats in the final months of the season. And everyone is looking to carry it through to the start of 2014-15.
“This year, we’re hungry,” Walker said. “We really want to make a point that the Glads won’t be easy to beat. It’s going to be great to be back on the ice.”