Leeds Knights: Netminder Harrison Walker keen to make the step up to NIHL National
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There’s little doubt Wild player-coach Rich Haggar would have gladly kept him on board, too, the then 19-year-old goalie posting a .915 save percentage and steering his team to a third-place regular season finish.
But having already had a brief taste of life at NIHL National level - firstly with Leeds Chiefs and then, last season, getting one start with Leeds Knights, Walker knew he had to make the leap on a full-time basis should the opportunity ever present itself.
Earlier this summer, it did just that when Ryan Aldridge asked him if he would be interested in being the Knights’ No 2 netminder, backing up Sam Gospel.
It will not have been a simple decision for Walker - giving up regular starts for more time on the bench - but he preferred to look at the bigger picture, choosing to test himself against higher-quality opposition, even if it will be on a less regular basis.
It’s impossible to say how many starts Walker will get for the Knights during the forthcoming campaign but there will be some, enough to help convince him he had to make the switch.
“I knew I needed to make the step up at some point and I didn’t want to wait too long in case the opportunity passed,” said Walker. “In one way, I suppose you’re making a sacrifice by giving up the amount of game time that I had with Widnes last year, but I feel like now is the right time for me.
“It seemed like the only way forward for me and my career this season was to come to Leeds. Obviously it’s going to be a completely different role to the one I had at Widnes - I was obviously the starter there and now I’m the back-up - but I feel like I work well with Gossy and I get along with him.”
Like everyone else, Walker - who came up through the Bradford Bulldogs junior system alongside the likes of Knights’ team-mates Kieran Brown and Jordan Griffin - was frustrated by the Covid-enforced break.
But his time in Widnes - firstly behind-closed-doors before a full-time return to action in 2021-22 - proved ideal in enabling him to get back into some kind of welcome routine.
“I needed the starter role after Covid and not getting many games for a long time,” added the 20-year-old, whose first taste of senior hockey came at hometown club Bradford before two seasons at Blackburn Hawks.
“It was nice to get back in net on a regular basis. It did a lot for my confidence, especially having a good year like I did. I felt like I played okay and we won the Cup final, so it was a successful season.
“It was just good to be playing at a decent level on a regular basis again, especially after the long break we all had through Covid, that didn’t help anything. It was good to get back to some kind of normality.
“It’s a nice stepping stone towards playing for the Knights and I’ll bring the confidence gained from playing for Widnes into next season.”
The need for a regular No 2 for Leeds was made clear last season when Gospel - regarded by many as the second tier’s best netminder - got injured.
In his enforced absence, Leeds turned to a multitude of different goalies, sometimes only finding out late on Friday night who they would have starting for them that weekend.
Eventually, Gospel returned and the Knights settled on Niks Trapans as his back-up. But, this season, Aldridge was keen to have an established goaltending duo and, in Walker, he feels he has the ideal partner for his first-choice.
“It takes a special kind of person to be a back-up goalie,” said Aldridge. “With Harrison, it was quite an easy move for him to make as he wants to try and push himself at this level.
“That in turn is good for me, but I also needed a goalie who can push Gossy more. I like competition in my team and Gossy will thrive on the competition.
“Obviously he is the starter but at least now, in Harrison, he’s got somebody who’s going to be pushing him every day in practice and, for me, that was a massive thing when it came to sorting out the back-up.”