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SIx years ago, brothers Jamie and Jordie Benn stood on the ice at Bear Mountain Arena during Victoria Grizzlies camp.
They were looking over the names of the remaining players on the roster.
“Who’s this 1993 kid still on here?” Jamie said.
“That’s me,” said Mark Walton, who was standing behind them. At 14, Walton was the only 1993-born player still in camp.
Jamie was impressed. It’s a moment Walton never forgot.
Earlier this week Walton, now 20, was named the captain of the Victoria Cougars.
The Cougars host the Westshore Wolves on Sunday (Sept. 8), 3:30 p.m. at Archie Browning Sports Centre.
Spending his final year of junior hockey in the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League is far from the B.C. Hockey League career Walton had expected. He never did make the Grizzlies, despite practicing with the team as an under-ager during head coach Geoff Courtnall’s tenure.
But he’s honoured to lead the Cougars all the same, he said.
“(Walton) has all the qualities of a great leader and the qualities to rally a team to a common purpose,” Cougars head coach Mark Van Helvoirt said. “His work ethic is second to none.”
Walton is the remaining piece of last year’s leadership trio of captain Brody Coulter and assistant captain Sam Rice, who have moved on to college teams this year.
With 14 new players, Walton is leading the Cougars into a new era.
“Brody and Sam are two of my best friends so it’s going to be different. It’s nice to be able to follow in their footsteps.”
A couple of regime changes kept Walton from ever playing for Grizzlies and it’s been to the Cougars’ advantage.
Walton was named the VIJHL’s unsung player of the year in 2012-13 and was a major role player in getting the team to the provincial gold medal final the past two seasons.
“This season will be a learning curve and take longer than years previous, but the team is coming together well and we can already see improvements.”
In other words, a third-straight trip to the Cyclone Taylor Cup is still the goal, but this team is not expected to repeat last year’s record season, when the Cougars marched through the 48-game schedule with one regulation loss.
“(The Cyclone Taylor Cup) will be more difficult this year but if we put the effort into practice and games, it will all come down to work ethic.”
Along with his season-long expectations, Walton will also have to change daily expectations. When the team wasn’t playing its best, he wasn’t shy about showing his displeasure. And that’s no way to go about mentoring younger players, he said.
“In the past I was probably one of the guys to get mad if something goes wrong, so I’ve got to control that.”
All indications are that the Cougars are in good hands with Walton. A product of the Juan de Fuca minor hockey program, Walton has been groomed in the same Victoria hockey pipeline as the best of them. He came through Spencer middle school’s hockey academy under Grizzlies on-again-off-again assistant coach Craig Didmon. At Spencer, a melting pot of some of the city’s best middle school players, he played with Wade Murphy of the NCAA’s North Dakota hockey, formally known as the Fighting Sioux, and with Travis Stephens and Braden Pears of the BCHL Trail Smoke Eaters.
Walton’s had his own taste of the BCHL, having played about a dozen games over the past two seasons for the powerhouse Powell River Kings, including the playoffs.
“My only time playing junior A at Bear Mountain Arena was against the Grizzlies so that was special,” he said.
“I’m not sure I’m in the (Kings’) mix anymore as a 20-year-old but, it was a great experience playing for them during seasons they came close to winning the BHCL championship.”
The number of key contributors returning to the Cougars is low this year. Graham Zagrodney and Jake Stolz lead the defence with Jake Daughtry, Jordan Davie, David Marshall, Howard Howden and Jesse Nixon all looking to take on bigger responsibilities.