As the Nashville Predators make their first appearance in the Western Conference finals in the team’s 19-year history, a Cowichan Valley product is right in the thick of things.
Brandon Walker is the manager of hockey operations for the NHL team, and is on the front line as the team tries to make history, just a few wins away from a potential Stanley Cup finals appearance.
“The whole organization wants this and can feel it,” Walker said over the phone from Nashville on Wednesday. “They’re willing to do whatever it takes to get to the next step.”
As he describes it, Walker’s specific job with the Preds is to get the team “from point A to point B. From plane charters to hotel reservations, anything the players do off the ice goes through him.
“It’s busy, but it’s good,” Walker said.
Between the second and third rounds of the playoffs, with the Preds unsure who they would face next, and Anaheim and Edmonton squaring off in their seventh game, Walker had to have plans in place to get the team to either city, including international and domestic manifests.
Then, when Anaheim won, he had to cancel all the plans in Edmonton.
“I had to call everyone and say, ‘Thank you very much, but we’re not going to need any of that,’” he recalled.
Walker’s journey to the big leagues arguably began when he started working as the Citizen’s sports reporter about a month after finishing high school in 1992. He planned to work at the paper for a month or two, then stayed for five years.
“It kind of gave me the opportunity to get the experience I needed to get my degree [in broadcast journalism] at BCIT,” he said.
That degree led to play-by-play gigs for minor pro hockey teams in Tupelo, Mississippi and Shreveport, Louisiana. He got on board with the Preds in 2002.
“When I started, they were moving their scouting system from paper into a computer system,” he said. “It was administrative stuff, but it was a great way to get my foot in the door.”
The Predators like to promote from within, and have kept a lot of their employees in the organization for many years.
“We are really fortunate to have great leadership with David Poile and the rest of the staff, which gave us an opportunity to move up and grow with the organization,” Walker related. “A lot of people enjoying it have been with the organization a long time, through the ups and downs, so to be going through this with the team is special.”
The Predators have been on the cusp of making a Stanley Cup run for a few seasons, but things have really fallen into place this year.
“I think every year, you hope it is [the year],” he said. “We’ve had some really good teams in the past, and for whatever reason, it hasn’t worked out. The stars just didn’t align and it didn’t happen.”
Between the trades for centre Ryan Johansen in January 2016 and defenceman P.K. Subban in June of the same year, and some clever drafting — including taking regular-season leading scorer Viktor Arvidsson in the fourth round in 2014, Mattias Ekholm in the fourth round in 2009, and goalie Pekka Rinne in the eighth round in 2004 — the Preds have found a recipe for success.
“David [Poile] has made some incredible moves, and that’s why he’s a finalist for GM of the year,” Walker said. “A lot of things have come together through the years.”
Everyone in the organization is concentrating on getting the team to the next level, Walker noted.
“They see the bigger goal in view, and they’re not going to stop until they get there,” he said. “We are 100 per cent focused on what we’re doing.”
Adding to the excitement is that the entire city of Nashville is getting behind the team, in a way many people in the organization say they haven’t seen in the NHL since the Calgary Flames’ memorable Red Mile in 2004.
‘The atmosphere around the city is unbelievable,” Walker said.
Big name fans of the team include Carrie Underwood, who is married to Predators captain Mike Fisher, as well as Keith Urban, Luke Bryan and Dierks Bentley, all of whom can be seen in the stands and boxes at home games.
“It’s a big city, but this is the thing to do,” Walker said. “It’s not just a place to be seen; people want to be part of it all the time.”
The atmosphere is rubbing off on the players, too, who rode the excitement to a 2-1 lead over the Anaheim Ducks going into game four of the Western Conference final series on Thursday night.
“Home ice advantage is starting to have a big impact on the guys,” Walker said. “It’s great.”