Walker Gelbard came into Cranbrook Bucks camp last fall as a 15-year-old just looking to get noticed by a coach or two and maybe stand out enough to get an opportunity to come back the following year and have a chance to make the team.
As it turned out, he made such a strong impression that, combined with fallout from the pandemic, he was able to speed that process up.
“Walker was a 15-year-old, so he went back to Midget [after camp],” said Bucks head coach Ryan Donald. “We wanted to affiliate him right away. Over the course of the extended training camp season in the fall, we identified him as a guy that would be ready to play in this league as a 16-year-old.”
Shortly after he was sent back to his U18 team, their season was shutdown, along with the rest of organized hockey in the province, due to strengthened restrictions around COVID-19, which meant that Gelbard’s stint with the Vancouver Northwest Hawks did not last long. He remained affiliated with the Bucks, and when the BCHL got approval to play its 20-game pod season in the spring, Gelbard was a fixture on the Cranbrook roster as soon as the puck dropped on opening night.
Although he kept his affiliate status, the recently-turned 16-year-old was an offensive producer right away. Despite missing the final eight games of the season due to injury, he managed to tie for the team lead in scoring, finishing with nine points in 12 games.
Some may be surprised to see such a young player be so productive in his first taste of Junior A hockey, but Gelbard had been preparing for that situation all year long.
“I think the fact I was always training with bigger and better guys, training with guys from the BCHL and the WHL all summer, really helped improve my game,” he said. “It gave me a feel for what the league was like early on. That helped me a lot.”
“Coming in as a young guy, it’s more of a mindset that you need to be able to keep up with the big guys.”
One of the biggest factors that went into Gelbard choosing Cranbrook as his BCHL destination was the fact that his brother Hayden was on the roster as well. Hayden is three years older, so the two had not had the opportunity to play together much over the years.
“I hadn’t really played high-level hockey with him before, so it was a great experience,” said Walker. “It was really special, being able to put on the same jersey with the same last name. There were a few games where we got to be on the same line, which was really cool.”
For Donald, coaching such a young talent can sometimes be a challenge. Coaches are typically set on treating all players equally, but with a player that young and with that much talent, sometimes exceptions need to be made.
“A young player like that needs some guidance and structure and players around him that can help him and lead him a little bit,” said Donald. “Within the scope of the team, he proved that he was the best in certain situations and we rewarded him for that. We gave him an opportunity and he certainly ran with it.”
Looking to the future, it seems the sky is the limit for Gelbard. He is a person who values education and also wants the opportunity to advance his hockey career, which is why he currently sees the NCAA as his ideal path forward to meeting his career goals.
“I’m hoping to accomplish everything that a regular hockey player wants,” said Gelbard. “I want to play in the NHL one day. In the BCHL, I want to be the best that I can be and be a good representative of myself and my family.”
His coach agrees that Gelbard has a bright future, but he knows that it takes more than raw talent and ability to achieve some of those loftier goals.
“Walker has a ton of potential,” said Donald. “He has the ability to be an offensive producer in this league for however long his career is in the BCHL. I think he can be a Division I hockey player as well. This is all potential and what we envision for the young man, but it’s all incumbent on him and he has to help himself achieve that.”
“We just want to help him grow and develop, so he can take his talents to the next level.”