Beer league rookie: Matt Walker’s journey from the NHL to the NBC

Injuries ended his hockey career. Beer helped him move on with his life.

Former NHL defenceman Matt Walker in his new home at the Nelson Brewing Company.

Matt Walker doesn’t care for the office printer.

A delivery man drops off a drum unit for the printer and asks the Nelson Brewing Company owner if he knows how to install it.

“I try not to touch anything that turns on or off,” says Walker. “I’m usually around when people are staring at it. There’s usually about five of us circling around it.”

The visitor mentions he’s from Kimberley, where Walker says he hasn’t been since a training camp with the WHL’s Portland Winter Hawks.

“No shit. You’re a junior player?” asks the delivery man.

Walker was more than just a junior player. The 36-year-old former defenceman played 314 games in the NHL before retiring in 2012, but Walker doesn’t mention it and the hockey fan leaves without knowing who he just dropped off office supplies to.

This happens all the time, which is how Walker prefers his life in Nelson to be — under the radar and focused on the beer.

Walker took ownership of NBC in April. He’d been searching for a passion project since moving to Nelson in January 2014, and found it in a century-old cramped brewery that smells of hops and has a stream leaking through the foundation.

He gets giddy as he shows off the building.

Sometimes, he says, he likes to drop by on weekends just to sit alone with the machines and stacks of six packs.

“I love cruising through,” says Walker. “I like knowing what’s going on with all the employees and their thoughts on the equipment and production and how things are working. I have my finger on the pulse.”

The brewery is Walker’s second life, one made possible by the death of his hockey career.

 

Breaking in

Walker grew up in the northern Alberta town of Beaverlodge, which as of 2011 featured a population of just over 2,000 people.

He had an older brother who played in the WHL, and Walker followed suit when he made the Winter Hawks roster out of midget hockey at 17 years old.

In his first year, Walker won the Memorial Cup with Portland, then later played in another with the Kootenay Ice.

That much would have been more than enough for Walker, who thought just making it to the WHL would be his major accomplishment.

But then he got an invite to the 1998 NHL draft in Buffalo, N.Y. He chuckles at the memory of how boring it was to wait through the initial rounds. Finally, a timeout was called in the third round and Walker’s father turned to him.

“This is you,” he said. Moments later Walker was selected 83rd overall by the St. Louis Blues.

Walker made his NHL debut in 2002. His first locker-room stall was between star Blues defencemen Al MacInnis and Chris Pronger.

“So my stall was about four inches wide,” says Walker. “I didn’t let my stick cross the invisible line.”

In the 2005 off-season, Walker was invited to Christina Lake. His Blues teammates Barrett Jackman and Mark Rycroft had cabins there, and Walker went down for an August long weekend party. That’s when he met Kate.

Kate, the daughter of former Nelson mayor Dave Elliott, was living in Vancouver at the time. The pair hit it off, then spent the next several months exchanging text messages before Walker finally convinced her to fly to St. Louis for a visit.

Kate had a backup plan if the airport meeting became awkward.

“She said she had a return ticket in her pocket and had a friend on speed dial ready to pick her up at any moment,” says Walker. “She said she thought she was getting out of there.”

But her phone stayed in her pocket, and she moved to St. Louis a year later. The pair were married in 2008.

Walker joined the Chicago Blackhawks for the 2008-09 season. He made headlines during the playoffs after shattering his finger in the first round but playing anyway. That effort, he thinks, is what got him a four-year offer from the Tampa Bay Lightning, which he signed in the off-season.

Before his body later turned against him, every game was a highlight for Walker.

“Just playing in the NHL,” he says. “You could pick a random Wednesday night game. You’re in warmups, you might be in Dallas, there might be hardly anybody in the crowd and you pinch yourself every day. [You] try not to take anything for granted.”

 

Breaking down

Walker’s back started to bother him in his first year with the Lightning. At one point he couldn’t bend over to tie his skates and started missing games.

The team’s medical staff ran tests but found nothing wrong. They told Walker he had ‘hockey back,’ which of course is not an actual diagnosis. So he kept playing.

At the end of the season the couple bought a house, which Walker says now was the kiss of death for his time in Tampa. That summer they flew to Vancouver for a players’ association meeting.

They’re plane was still on the runway when Kate’s phone started buzzing with messages from Walker’s agent. Walker cracked a joke that he must have been traded.

“So I’m laughing and she listens to it and we’re still landing, we’re cruising down the runway, and she just breaks into tears.

“I’m like, ‘Shit, we got traded!'”

Walker had been dealt to the Philadelphia Flyers. He and Kate sold their house and moved to their fourth city in four years.

That summer Walker did what he usually did, which is to say not much. He always took it easy in the off-season before starting to skate again about a month before training camp opened.

“Which thinking back now, I was a terrible skater. I probably should have stayed on the ice.”

Then-Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren was at the rink prior to camp when he noticed Walker could only push off with one leg as he went onto the ice.

He asked that Walker get tested again by the Flyers’ medical staff. Hockey back, it was found by the Flyers, actually meant Walker had chronic inflammation and torn labrums in his hips as well as a degenerative bone disease in his lower lumbar.

Walker had several surgeries but still felt pain when he eventual began rehab.

He still hadn’t met any of his teammates, and felt like he was on his own. He started playing only when other injuries put the Flyers in need of a defenceman.

Walker’s return lasted just four games in early 2011. After a home game against Washington, he was alone in the locker-room when he squatted down to put away some dirty laundry and heard a snap.

His knee buckled as he tried to stand and pain flashed when he pressed on it. A team doctor found a cyst the size of a golf ball behind his knee, and a torn meniscus.

That was effectively the end of his NHL career.

Walker ended up playing 11 games with the Adirondack Phantoms, the Flyers’ AHL farm team, that season despite the knee and back injuries.

His first game with the Phantoms was just a day after Kate gave birth to their first child, Georgia. Walker hadn’t slept in days, felt guilty for having to leave Kate and was still playing injured. That, he says, is when he knew his career was finished.

Walker struggled through one more season to finish off the contract he had signed years prior in Tampa. He retired after just four more games with the Flyers and 33 more with the Phantoms.

He thinks it was for the best. He could blame his body and the Lightning doctors for the end of his career, rather than a game that was getting too fast for him to keep up with.

“I have friends now, they’re retired at 34, 35,” he says. “They feel like they’re literally at their best, but because they’re 35 years old, there’s now a 19-year-old that [teams] want to put in place. There’s such a young push for years now.”

 

‘I’m a rookie again’

The family moved to Vancouver in 2012 where Walker continued his rehab. But they wanted to relocate to Nelson after spending summers in the city, which they finally did in 2014. Walker dabbled in local real estate and owned an apartment building, but that mostly meant cleaning toilets and shovelling driveways. He wanted to do something else.

Kate’s father had been one of the initial investors in the Nelson Brewing Company in 1991.

He left the company but connected the owners to Walker in 2013 when they expressed interest in selling.

Walker had gotten into craft beer while playing in Chicago, but the NBC sale fell through. Shortly after Christmas 2015, however, Walker was asked if he was still interested in buying NBC.

“[Kate and I] looked at each other and about five seconds later sent ‘yes’ back,” he says.

Walker considers himself lucky. NBC was an established brand, the staff knew what they were doing, and he could still meet with the former owners for advice.

Now Walker has the thing he has longed for — stability. The Walkers have three daughters, Georgia, Lennox and Taylor, and Kate also helps her husband with the brewery’s paperwork.

He also doesn’t watch much hockey anymore.

“I don’t have jerseys and pictures up in my house,” says Walker. “It was a part of my life that was really, really cool and obviously special and dear to me. But so is this, now.

“It’s like two lives. You get to start over. I’m a rookie again.”

Recently, Walker’s former teammate Eric Brewer visited to see the brewery. He ended up sitting at the canning line snapping in six packs for over three hours.

Walker already has his pitch to any other retired players interested in joining him at the brewery.

“The pay’s not going to be anywhere near what your last cheque was,” he says, “but I’ll buy you a beer at the end of the day.”

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