By Mark Giannotto
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, March 6, 2010;
Scott Walker still remembers being inspired by Washington Capitals General Manager George McPhee, then just beginning his front-office career, close to 20 years ago.
Just 5 feet 9 and 170 pounds, McPhee made an instant impression on the 5-foot-10, 196-pound Walker, a teenager at the time playing in juniors for the Ontario Hockey League's Owen Sound Platers. After checking out some of McPhee's game film and fights from his six-year NHL career, Walker thought, "maybe you don't have to be 6-foot-2 to make it," and started molding his game into the gritty, hard-nosed style the Capitals eventually traded a 2010 seventh-round pick for Wednesday.
He has come a long way since then, though. At a news conference announcing the team's trades earlier this week, McPhee quickly downplayed any suggestion he and Walker were comparable as players.
"Scotty Walker has played a lot more than I ever played," the typically stoic McPhee said with a smirk. His organization selected Walker in the fifth round of the 1993 NHL draft when McPhee was an assistant general manager in Vancouver. "And Scotty's tough. He's tougher than I was."
Added Walker: "I think I was always a smaller kid growing up, and once you get to juniors and the minors, they start saying, 'I don't think he's tough enough,' or, 'I don't think he's big enough,' so I guess I kind of adapted my game so people would say, 'Well, he can handle it.' "
If his debut for the Capitals during Thursday night's 5-4 victory over Tampa Bay is any indication, the transition from Carolina, the NHL's third-worst team, to league-leading Washington shouldn't be much trouble either. Walker scored two goals, including the eventual game-winner, despite receiving less ice time than any other Capitals player.
Although he has two 25-goal seasons during his 15-year pro career, Walker, 36, has survived in the NHL because of a feistiness and will that only an undersized role player can muster.
His stats are modest -- Thursday night's goals were his fourth and fifth of the season -- but Walker has played the role of pest to near perfection. Known for an unwillingness to back down to anyone and a penchant for getting under an opponent's skin, Walker has scars on just about every part of his face and is missing several teeth. Since 2001, he has suffered 15 injuries that have forced him to the bench, most recently shoulder surgery that sidelined him for two months this season. In addition, he has been in 71 fights during his career, according to hockeyfights.com, including five in the preseason.
"Just like anything, you can't be willing to pick your spots; you just gotta do it when it's needed," said Walker, who also spent seven seasons with Nashville. "It doesn't matter if it's preseason or the regular season."
While the Capitals' acquisitions of defenseman Joe Corvo and center Eric Belanger were intended to fill specific needs heading into the playoffs, the trade for Walker was made in hopes of adding a new, ornery side to the league's highest-scoring team. "He's a gritty, gritty guy, something we don't have," Coach Bruce Boudreau said Friday.
But Walker's style of play presents a tricky moral dilemma now that his 7-year-old son, Cooper, has picked up the sport. Known as a quality locker room presence and soft spoken off the ice, Walker has had to answer questions like, "Why do they say all these things like you're a mean or bad person?"
"I start by saying it's part of our game and you still get penalized for it," said Walker, who is married and also has a 5-year-old daughter back in North Carolina. "So you gotta tell them it's not something we do without any repercussions. You could hurt your team, you could hurt yourself, but it is also in some ways a tactical aspect."
"He's got a family at home and I think he wants to do things the right way on the ice," said Corvo, who played with Walker for Carolina. "There's kind of an unspoken code that he goes by, and he respects everyone out there. But on the other hand, you gotta play and you gotta stick up for your teammates, and he understands that fine line."
A different kind of fine line came up earlier this week when Walker told Cooper about his trade to the Capitals. According to Walker, his son only had one question: "Do I have to get a Walker jersey or can I get an [Alex] Ovechkin jersey?"
"Cooper's just starting into hockey in Carolina with all his friends and you can imagine who their favorite player is," Walker said. "They like all the great players, but he's pretty excited. I am, too."