June 8, 2012

Friday's Forgotten Bruin: Ben Walter

By Jesse Connolly

Bruins beat writer Jesse Connolly takes a look back at one Bruin from years past every Friday, shining the spotlight on a former member of the Black and Gold that most fans have likely forgotten ever existed.

Doug Mientkiewicz (left) celebrates before stuffing his "retirement fund" -- the ball Keith Foulke threw to him to record the final out of the 2004 World Series -- down his pants.

Today, he's traveling back to the dark, post-lockout days when UMass-Lowell product Ben Walter thrived in Providence and had a few cups of coffee with the big club.

It was the fall of 2004. The city of Boston was preparing for the biggest celebration of my lifetime, as the Red Sox had just won the World Series for the first time in 86 years. In between Keith Foulke making the toss to first for the final out and the Sox taking to the duck boats, a professor whose name I can’t recall in a history course I can’t remember the exact title of at UMass-Lowell sarcastically offered the greatest theory I’ve ever heard. 

The professor quipped that a championship parade – especially one guaranteed to draw millions into the city – was the perfect time to rob someone’s home. Think about it. Makes a lot of sense, right? Professor What’s-his-face was obviously kidding, but that line still pops in my head at least half-a-dozen times a year, all these years later.

As forgettable as the class was otherwise, so too are the identities of my classmates. In fact, I can only name a single person I remember from it. His name was Ben Walter, a star forward for the school’s hockey team who had been drafted in the fifth round by the Boston Bruins that summer.

Following a junior season in which he buried 26 goals in 36 games, Walter decided to turn pro. A 21-year-old at the time, he had a solid first season with Providence, picking up 40 points in 62 contests. That earned him a call-up to the big club in the second half of the season. Walter made his NHL debut on Jan. 12 in a game at home against the Kings. The B’s lost 6-0. Joe Corvo scored the game-winner for L.A.

Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli gave up on Ben Walter after just two seasons, trading him for a former first-rounder in Petteri Nokelainen.

Walter -- whose father, Ryan, played in over 1,000 NHL games for the Caps, Canadiens and Canucks – stepped it up in his second pro season with 67 points in 73 games, placing him right behind David Krejci (74 points) for the team lead. The Quebec native played in four games for Dave Lewis’ dismal squad in March that year, but once again failed to register a point, putting him at 10 NHL games and counting without a goal or an assist. 

That, in turn, likely led to the Bruins essentially saying, “Thanks for exceeding the expectations most teams would have for a fifth-round draft choice, but your time is up.”

Walter, who was drafted by Mike O’Connell’s regime, was traded in September of 2007, as GM Peter Chiarelli packaged him with a second-round pick in order to reel in Petteri Nokelainen from the Islanders.

Walter led the Isles’ AHL affiliate in Bridgeport with 46 assists in 2007-08, and notched his first career NHL goal, as he appeared in eight games for New York. But after a solid 50-point campaign in 2008-09 for the Sound Tigers, he was on the move again, as the 6-foot-1 forward was dealt to New Jersey for Tony Romano, who unfortunately is not related to comedian Ray Romano (to the best of my knowledge, at least).

The 2009-10 season found Walter back at Tsongas Arena in Lowell. Despite leading the Devils’ farm team with 58 points, he saw just two games at the NHL level. However, that wasn’t nearly as silly as what happened to Walter the following season.

The former River Hawk had his best pro season yet with 23-47-70 totals in 77 games. The next best player on the Monsters had 45 points. Despite performing leaps and bounds better than his teammates, the Avalanche never called him up once during a 2010-11 season in which they finished with 68 points. Only the Oilers (62) were worse.

And it’s not like Colorado didn’t give guys on the farm a chance. In fact, not even counting goaltenders, the Avs used 36 (!) different players over the course of the season. And yet, their leading scorer in the AHL couldn’t get a nice little pat on the back with a call-up. Waiver rules be damned, folks. That just isn’t fair.

Make sure you lock your doors and set your alarm the next time you head into town to watch the duck boats parade through the streets of Boston.

Walter inked a deal with the Flames last summer and spent 2011-12 with their farm team in Abbotsford. He led the team with 75 games played and ranked first with 40 assists. His 59 points only trailed former BC forward Krys Kolanos’ 61. He still hasn’t played in the NHL since getting a two-game call-up with the Devils in January of 2010.

With yet another rock-solid AHL season in the books, the 28-year-old forward has one year left on his deal with the Flames. While Walter’s seemingly been robbed of getting a legitimate shot at the NHL level throughout his seven seasons in the pros, the good news is he’s bumped his salary up considerably over his last few deals.

Walter made $60,000 in the AHL in 2008-09 with Bridgeport, $105,000 with Lowell in 2009-10 and $135,000 with Lake Erie in 2010-11. His current deal pays him $275,000 a year in Abbotsford. If he jumps up to the big club, his NHL salary would be $550,000 in 2012-13.

Add it all up and Walter probably won’t have to resort to burglarizing homes during championship parades any time soon, but I’d be willing to bet he’d gladly trade nearly every cent he’s earned as one of the American Hockey League’s most consistent players for a genuine chance to be a regular in the National Hockey League.

Jesse Connolly can be reached at jconnolly@hockeyjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JesseNEHJ.