As a boy growing up in the hockey-mad mining town of Buchans, Phil Walker figured he knew exactly what he wanted to be when he grew up: professional rink-rat.
It seemed a natural, if not particularly ambitious, career choice. After all, he already spent virtually every waking moment of his young life hanging out in the hockey arena his father managed. Why not make it his life's work? In his more go-getting moments, he thought he might even aspire to drive the Zamboni!
Fortunately, Phil's father had bigger plans for his athletic son. When Phil completed grade 11, Frank Walker made it quite clear that his boy was destined for much more than the upkeep of the local ice surface. And so the junior Walker set out to find a way to legitimize his rink rat dreams.
Today, on the phone from Chicago, Illinois, Walker is discussing his most recent career development: In June 2000 he signed on as assistant coach, strength and conditioning, with the Chicago Blackhawks.
And while he still spend most of his time hanging out in hockey arenas, his skates are now planted firmly in the big leagues, applying a methodical mix of sports medicine and fitness savvy to a roster of big-money, big-ego hockey machines.
That's Mr. Rink Rat to you.
A full year before the Roman Catholic school was built, two years before electricity flowed into the town, the first rink was constructed. It was a 59-foot-wide natural ice surface housed in a converted ore shed, and it quickly became the focal point of community life.
Throughout the '30s and '40s, the rivalry between the Buchans Miners and the Grand Falls Cataracts was legendary. After a hard day underground at Lucky Strike or Oriental #2, the workers, with their wives and children in tow, would fill the bleachers to watch their team vie for the coveted West Coast Championship.
In 1948, in a bid to improve their chances at the provincial Herder trophy, Buchans became the first team in the Newfoundland Senior League to import hockey players from 'upalong,' bringing them in from leagues across mainland Canada.
That's how Frank Walker came to town. He was drafted from the Sydney (Nova Scotia) Millionaires, relocated smack dab in the middle of the Newfoundland wilderness, given a job in the mines and a lead position on the hallowed hockey team.
And that's how Phil Walker came into the world, the son of a Buchans hockey family… and of a legendary hockey town.
"In the winter time I grew up in the rink, and in the summer time I lived in the swimming pool, waiting for the rink to open. Everything revolved around hockey for me."
Naturally, when it came time to leave the Walker nest for the world of higher education, Phil looked for a course of study that would continue to feed his hockey addiction. He settled on the physical education program at Memorial.
"I went to junior college for two years in Corner Brook and did the base work to get into the phys. ed. program in St. John's, and it was an easy transition for me to do.
"I played hockey. I was involved in intramural sports. I worked at the swimming pool. I coached. I refereed. I was involved with the senior hockey teams and the Winter Games hockey teams."
In 1989, shortly after he graduated with his B.Ed. (he earned his B.Phys.Ed. the year before), Phil Walker made another transition: to his first job in the NHL, this one with the Winnipeg Jets.
"These players make a lot of money," he understates, "and if you're going to have a million dollar player, you want to have him in top physical condition so he can play his game at the highest level."
After eight years coaching the Jets to their highest level, Phil spent one year with the Phoenix Coyotes and three with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Along the way he completed course work in massage therapy and other conditioning techniques, earning certifications with the National Athletic Trainers Association and the National Strength Conditioning Association.
(An aside to anyone who doubts the importance of continuing education, Walker testifies: "I'm still learning. It's non-stop. There's not a year goes by that I don't do something.")
In the summer of 2000, Walker followed coach Alpo Suhonen to Chicago, where he now oversees the entire fitness program for the Blackhawks organization. That includes the NHL team in Chicago, non-pro drafted players in the junior and European elite leagues and the farm team in Norfolk, Virginia.
It's the first time the club has had a strength coach with the rank of assistant, and Phil discovered that he had his work cut out for him. He had to implement a rigorous on- and off-ice conditioning program, one that seeks to keep the players in shape year-round and throughout their fifty or sixty thousand miles of travel each season.
"This has been one of my bigger challenges," Phil admits, "for a number of reasons. They didn't have a real structured program before and there were a lot of things I had to do. But we've seen some good results. We're on the right track anyway."
Most likely, it's not a track that will skyrocket them to the Stanley Cup finals this year. At press time, the injury-plagued Blackhawks were still struggling to grab a berth in the western conference finals.
Phil Walker's not too concerned. If you'll pardon the cliché, he's in it purely for the love of the game. And the desire to live life as one very successful rink rat.
"There are not too many places where you can go to work in the morning and still have bed-head and no one will really care because everyone else has come to work with bed-head too!
"I always say a bad day at the rink is better than a good day at the office."
Inset: Buchans in the early half of the 20th century was a company town where dreams were made out of two main staples: iron ore and hockey pucks. Their mine was their livelihood, but their hockey... well, that was religion.
Inset: In the heyday of the Buchans Miners, the physical fitness of hockey players was not a huge priority. Those star players probably didn't know an ab crunch from a hammer curl. But in today's NHL, strength and conditioning are essential. That's where Phil Walker comes in.
© Copyright 2002 Memorial University of Newfoundland
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