Jan. 9, 2004
By Tim Connor
Like most kids growing up and playing hockey, Mike Walsh dreamed of one day playing in the National Hockey League.
As each year went by, Walsh continued to grow and work at his game so that by the time he reached high school, the hockey world began to take notice. Built like a linebacker, the 6-2, 215-pound left wing saw his dream become a reality on June 23, 2002.
On that day, the New York Rangers selected the Northville, Mich., native in the fifth round, 143rd overall in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft. Walsh, who had already signed a national letter-of-intent to play college hockey at Notre Dame, was on hand when his name was called by Rangers’ brass at the Air Canada Centre.
“Hearing your name called at the draft, the feeling is weird. For me, it was like that hollow feeling you get in your stomach when you think you did something wrong,” said the hard-working Irish sophomore.
“It was a great feeling especially to have a chance to share it with my family. It’s every kid’s dream to get drafted and here it was happening to me. It was great for my parents too. For all the time they put in traveling to games, taking me to practices, all the sacrifices they made, I was just as happy for them.”
Walsh has not disappointed since that day at least in the eyes of Notre Dame hockey fans. They have gotten use to seeing the hard-charging left wing battle in the corners and wreak havoc in front of the goal. Blessed with size, speed and great hands, Walsh has all the tools to someday live his dream of playing in the NHL.
“My game is going into the corners. I like to use my size and work down low. I believe that I am going to win every battle in the corner. Offensively, I try to put myself in position to get a good shot or to crash the net for a rebound. I also take a lot of pride in my defense,” says the 20-year old forward.
Walsh plays with tenacity, an incredible drive to improve himself in the game he loves to play. That became obvious during his freshman year, a year that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.
As a freshman, Mike Walsh battled back from a broken jaw and mononucleosis to play 23 games on the season.
A high hit in Notre Dame’s preseason game with the University of Toronto sidelined the Northville, Mich., native with a broken jaw. With his jaw wired shut for six weeks, Walsh lost 25 pounds, but returned to the lineup on Nov. 23 to help the Irish win at Michigan for just the second time in 10 years.
Two days later, he was diagnosed with mononucleosis, knocking him out of the lineup for another five weeks.
“I’ve never been through anything like last year. I’ve been pretty lucky throughout my career, never really getting hurt,” says Walsh.
“Sitting out with the broken jaw, I really learned a lot about myself. I had plenty of time to think. Physically it’s tough to go through that. If any good came out of it, it’s that it made me stronger as a person. Then to follow with the illness, that was really detrimental to my development. I basically had to start the season over.”
Through hard work, Walsh worked his way back into the lineup and played the final 22 games of the season, finishing with a goal and an assist and a +4 rating.
This season, he hasn’t looked back and has become one of the top power forwards in the CCHA. In 18 games, Walsh has eight goals and five assists for 13 points. Three of his goals have been game winners.
His coach, former NHL star Dave Poulin, knows he has a good one in Walsh.
“Anytime you have a guy who skate that well, you ask if you think he can grow in to a prototypical power forward,” says the 13-year NHL veteran.
“The way he’s played so far this year, the answer is yes. He’s scoring goals the way the big bangers and crashers do.”
Poulin added, “He’s really come a long way this season. I’d love to see where he’d be today if he had played all last season. He’s really worked hard to get where he is today.”
Walsh likens his style of play to a couple of pretty good power forwards – former Boston Bruin Cam Neely and current Philadelphia Flyer John LeClair.
“I never really patterned my game after anyone, but I’ve seen tapes of Cam Neely playing and I like to think that’s the way I play. Right now, it would be someone like John LeClair,” says the business major.
“They are both strong, power forwards with a goal scorer’s finesse and touch around the goal. Both players always put themselves in great position to shoot and they make the plays around the net.”
Walsh added with a big grin, “Of course, since I grew up in Detroit, I always wanted to score goals like Steve Yzerman.”
Growing up in the shadows of the University of Michigan, Walsh and his family have always had an allegiance to Notre Dame. His father, Max, was an offensive lineman on Notre Dame’s 1973 national champion football team.
“My dad always instilled in my brother and I what Notre Dame stands for. We came here as kids, so I never really had to be sold on Notre Dame,” says Walsh.
“Being so close to Michigan though, I always wanted to play hockey there. My first recruiting letter came from Notre Dame, so that made my dad happy. It was tough to turn down Michigan, but everything my dad told me about Notre Dame, I’ve seen first hand. I couldn’t be happier with my decision to play here.”
Since being drafted, Walsh has had the opportunity to attend two summer Prospect Camps with the Rangers. A college player can attend these camps without affecting his college eligibility as long as he pays his own way. He credits his two camps with giving him confidence coming into each of his two seasons with the Irish.
“Personally, I used the camp as a measuring stick. There were a couple of guys from the NHL, some AHL and East Coast League guys and some prospects each year,” explained Walsh.
“It really gives you a chance to see where you stand and how much progress you’ve made since last year.
He continued, “The things that are available there are fantastic. There’s world- class weight training and off-ice training. You are exposed to so many things that help you improve off the ice. They translate into big changes when you get on the ice. You just aren’t exposed to those things anywhere else. I’ve been very fortunate to attend the camps each summer.”
Now, midway through his sophomore year, Walsh is proving to be a clutch player for the Irish. Among his eight goals are three game winners. One came in Notre Dame’s 1-0 upset of top-ranked Boston College in October and the other came in a 1-0 win over third-ranked Maine at the end of December.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to score those kind of big goals,” Walsh says.
“I like to be in that position, to be a big-game player. I like to put it in the net and I’ve been real lucky that the puck has been bouncing my way this year.”
While being confident in his abilities, Walsh knows that there is a great deal of hard work ahead of him as he strives to complete his dream of playing in the NHL. Maybe his toughest critic, the steady forward isn’t afraid to work at his game.
“I always want to get better. For me, I will continue to work on all the little things that are important – like working in the corners, going to the net, getting myself in position to get good shots on goal. If you learn to do those things well, the scoring chances will come. Those are the things that I continue to work on,” says Walsh.
Someday, in the near future, the hard work and dedication is going to take Walsh to his next destination – the bright lights of Broadway and a New York Rangers jersey.