Matt Walker was drafted by the St. Louis Blues in the third round of the 1998 entry draft. He made his NHL debut with the Blues on Dec. 10, 2002 in New Jersey. By the time he left St. Louis as an unsigned free agent in the summer of 2008 he had appeared in 175 games over five season and had a career total of one goal and 10 assists while wearing the Bluenote. He was a minus-3 in all of that time.
And I was his biggest fan.
It became a bit of a joke within the Game Time family as someone dubbed me The Matt Walker Fan Club and it (of course) quickly became a recurring theme among the writers and readers and commenters. It was not that I had any delusions that Walker was ever on the verge of becoming a breakout player or NHL star and it wasn't even that Walker was one of the better players on the team; Big Country was a depth defenseman in St. Louis and always would be as long as he played here. His career high in games played in the Note was 54 and that was in the 2005, the team's worst season in franchise history. Most years he was a card-carrying member of the Press Box Club and it was deservedly so. I had no delusions of what his skill level was.
It wasn't Walker's off-ice persona that made me such a huge fan, either, but it definitely played a part. I have no idea if the story is true that he once told someone that he never brought movies with him on the road because, "the VCR is too heavy," but I want it to be true. The fact that his profile from the Blues 2006-2007 Media Guide says that he, "Enjoys fishing, golf, long walks on the beach, candle-lit dinners and sunsets," also helped build his reputation with the one-man Fan Club.
Matt Walker was almost always the seventh defenseman in his time in St. Louis. But when he did get into games, I admired his effort. Never flashy, never dominant, but Walker played a solid, safe, defensive game. Exactly what a seventh defenseman is supposed to do. He never won games for the Blues, but he seldom lost them either. His workmanlike attitude and ethic made me cheer for him and want for him to continue to be successful in the NHL.
Plus, he always did the right thing by his teammates:
It became a running joke in the Game Time paper about when, if ever, Walker would score his first NHL goal. As fate would have it, on Feb. 17, 2008 I was far away from the hockey rink, driving in my car. The way that my phone suddenly exploded with texts, emails and calls that night, I thought that someone I knew must have either died or won the lottery. Instead, it was a wave of well-wishers letting the Matt Walker Fan Club know that after 153 NHL games, he had broken the streak.
Just five month later Walker, as expected by everyone (including the Fan Club) was not re-signed by the Blues and became a free agent. Just six days into his unrestricted free agency he signed with the hated rivals, the Chicago Blackhawks. The Fan Club did as one would expect: wishing him personal success while hoping his new team would have none. Take that Blackhawks. You can sign Matt Walker, but I still want you to fail.
The St. Louis franchise of the Fan Club didn't reach out to the greater Chicagoland area to see if there was a new Matt Walker Fan Club growing, but evidence exists that one may have sprung up in the Windy City. Honestly, how could this not have created at least one or two big fans (albeit probably not the two chicks right behind the bench glass):
Alas, at the end of the Chicago leg of Walker's tour through the NHL just a year later after his one-year deal with the Blackhawks expired, Big Country signed a new lucrative deal with the Tampa Bay Lightning. This time he signed on the first day of free agency and for a multi-year deal worth muli-millions of dollars. Clearly someone out there saw the value of Walker on the ice, even if it was the suddenly wackified Lightning franchise.
But what of the Tampa fanbase? Are there any Gulf Coast Floridian franchisees of the Matt Walker Fan Club? It seems like a difficult proposition what with Tampa's love for offense and high-flying forwards in Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos on the roster. In fact, if most hockey fans outside of Tampa were asked to name a Lightning defensemen, it's not unreasonable to think that most would only come up with Dan Boyle, now of San Jose, and Mattias Ohlund, better known for his time in Vancouver.
But Walker had his moments in Tampa and could have created a Fan Club along the way. Could it have been his Me Versus The Maple Leafs Night when he turned the lights out at Jay Rosehill's house and then went toe to toe with noted fighter Colton Orr less than 10 minutes later? Or maybe on the night of The Matt Walker Offensive EXPLOSION! when he scored his fourth NHL goal (having scored one in Chicago and one in Tampa just three days earlier) and then added an assist later in the game, the first two-point game of his career?
I mean, if this was the first time you really noticed Matt Walker, wouldn't you think he was an offensive weapon just waiting to be unleashed?:
What are the odds that some Lightning fan saw that road game on TV, watched Matt Walker help lead his team to a big win over the Washington Capitals and decided to become Member 1 of the Tampa Area Matt Walker Fan Club?
It could happen.
And now? What of now? Walker, as any fan knows, was the centerpiece of the package that the Lightning used to land sniper Simon Gagne from the Philadelphia Flyers and will now be expected to be a part of the defense that clearly needed to be just a bit nastier in the playoffs to get past the freewheeling Blackhawks. Obviously, when the Blues open their season on Oct. 9, the crowd will be welcoming back one of their hardnosed former players on the other team's blueline. Chris Pronger will be here too.
Today the St. Louis franchise (Alpha Chapter) of the Matt Walker Fan Club has one card-carrying member and likely several other silent members. There is no hard data on the Chicago franchise (Beta Chapter), but it's probable that between his career-highest point totals (one goal and 13 assists), his frightening dispatch of Ed Jovanovski in a fight and his puck-bunny-terrifying broken digit, he likely earned a member or two. As for the Tampa franchise (Gamma Chapter) it seems difficult to believe there is a thriving group, but then again, there are people in Tampa wearing Sarich jerseys, so anything is possible.
Next up is our Philadelphia franchise (Delta Chapter). How long will it take before Big Country's play makes someone sit up and say, "You know, that dude plays pretty hard. I think he might be an OK player." Because it's a statement as simple as that that can create a local franchise.
For all my salemanship about the Matt Walker Experience, my first assertion about him remains the truest: he is a solid, if unspectacular, depth defenseman. But his hard-nosed play and his teammates-first attitude make you want to root for him. Add to that his off-ice persona - joking and unafraid to play the bumpkin role for his friends and teammates - and his great understanding for fan interaction, especially with the youngsters in the stands, and Matt Walker is a quality individual to add to any NHL team.
It may take a while, but I'm confident that at some point we'll get the Delta Chapter up and running. Any takers, Flyer fans?