Connor Walker started last summer planning to study business at the University of Massachusetts by the time September rolled around.
But when the former star goalie for the Princeton Day School boys’ hockey team was offered the opportunity in August to play for the Phoenix Firebirds, a high-powered Tier 1 travel program, and learned that he could defer his freshman year at UMass, he ended up in Arizona this fall rather than in New England.
As Walker reflects on his time in Phoenix, he believes the experience has helped him grow up a lot.
“Almost all of the kids on the team are from the area, I am the only kid from the east,” said Walker.
“I was the odd kid in, it is working out well now. I am hanging out with them. The team finds a family within the organization and I live with them. I am working full time at a jewelry company boxing up jewelry in a warehouse. I feel independent. I wake up every day at 6 in the morning to go to work. I have a lot more responsibility.”
Walker has been working harder on the ice for the Midget U18 AAA team. “We are in the North American Prospect League (NAPL),” said Walker.
“We practice Sunday through Wednesday and often do dry land training after the practice. I would say the level of play is similar to high school but the teams are more consistent. There is no drop off from the first line to the third line. In high school, the first line might be good but there is a drop off.”
As the season has gone on, Walker is getting up to speed with his new team.
“At PDS, I played with some of the same guys for four years so things were more consistent,” said the 5’8, 180-pound Walker, who posted a goals against average of 3.21 in his first 21 appearances for the Firebirds.
“No one knows me out here, it took a while for us to figure each other out. It is much faster, I had to adapt. I am much faster than I was before. I am a small goalie so I need to be fast.”
Former Princeton University goalie Craig Fiander, who was worked with Walker in several clinics, believes that the young netminder can handle himself.
“Connor is agile, quick, and technically sound,” said Fiander, who has been running his Textbook Goaltending summer camps in the area for more than 15 years. “He has a great demeanor.”
Noting that Walker served as a guest counselor for Textbook Goaltending last summer, Fiander said the goalie inspired the campers.
“I have worked with a guy like Kalemba [former Princeton University goalie and New Jersey native Zane Kalemba] and it was good having another Jersey local kid like Connor on the ice for a couple of sessions,” said Fiander.
“It is great for the kids to see what he has done. It is important for the kids to know his story and have some one to look up and aspire to.”
In Fiander’s view, Walker should aspire to keep playing the game.
“At the end of the day, I think he has the skills to play at a higher level, like D-III college or juniors,” said Fiander. “If he gets an opportunity, he will really, really shine.”
While Walker has enjoyed his time in Phoenix, he is looking for opportunities closer to home. “I met with the coach here two weeks ago and he said there was a possibility I could play tier 2 juniors,” said Walker.
“I am going to try to find a team out east in the EHL or the USHL. I want to try to play as long as possible.”