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Taking on Giants role helped to shape my career back home, insists former head coach Walser


Exciting role: Ex-Giants player-coach Derrick Walser is now with Peterborough Petes in Canada

Exciting role: Ex-Giants player-coach Derrick Walser is now with Peterborough Petes in Canada

Exciting role: Ex-Giants player-coach Derrick Walser is now with Peterborough Petes in Canada

He may have only been in charge for two years, but Derrick Walser speaks fondly of Belfast, both from a personal and a professional perspective.

The 42-year-old spent two seasons as player-coach with the Giants from 2015 to 2017, taking the team to fourth and second placed finishes in the Elite League (EIHL) in his two years behind the bench.

He still keeps in touch with people in the Northern Irish capital - mainly by Facebook, he says - such was the impact Belfast had on him and his family.

But at the end of those two years, Walser opted for a change in scenery. Moving back to Canada, the former defenceman was quickly sounded out by Ontario Hockey League (OHL) franchise the Peterborough Petes as assistant, and since then his coaching career has taken off.

The Petes have slowly been improving season upon season under the stewardship of head coach Rob Wilson - coincidentally, a former Sheffield Steeler and Newcastle Viper in the EIHL - and Walser's assistance as a defensive expert and special teams chief has been key to that as well.

While the Petes did not make the play-offs in his first season, they did make it there in Walser's second campaign - losing in the first round - and they were seen as one of the favourites to go all the way had the 2019/20 play-offs gone ahead but for the Covid-19 pandemic.

But while it looks like Walser's coaching credentials only flourished after leaving Belfast, the man himself claims his time with the Giants was vital in getting his coaching career up and running in Canada.

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Peterborough is a completely different challenge for Walser given there is a much bigger emphasis placed on developing young talent given all players are aged 16 to 21, while the Giants as a professional organisation were focused entirely on winning.

But while no silverware came his way at the SSE Arena, Walser believes he learned plenty from his two seasons in charge that he has been able to take back to Canada in his current role.

And, while he admits there are things he would have done differently in Belfast during his time behind the bench, the Nova Scotia native believes he wouldn't be the coach he is without his Giants tenure.

"There are things I would have changed in Belfast, things I would have liked to add. And that's come about from talking to Keefer (current head coach Adam Keefe), seeing what he's doing and how I should have pulled the trigger," said Walser.

"But, you know, shoulda, woulda, coulda, right? It was a great learning experience in Belfast and, I'm not going to lie, it helped me get this job. It gave me enough experience to land this job.

"When I was in Belfast, there's only so much one person can do. Trying to do everything yourself, there's holes, you miss something, whether it be structure, powerplay, penalty kill, how to help a player who's struggling, your family time - it's too much for one person to handle.

"In the long-term (with Peterborough) I get to work with the d-corps, which is something I really love doing as an assistant. I get to work with something I'm really passionate about."

Sadly, there will be no action for Walser to get his teeth into this season as the OHL announced their season has been cancelled - as the EIHL was - on Tuesday. However that means they can start putting all their focus on preparing for next campaign.

But Walser certainly seems to have found a role that suits him. The former defenceman admits he enjoys being an assistant rather than a head coach - although doesn't rule out making the switch back again down the line - and is relishing the chance to guide the young players not only on the ice but away from it too.

That emphasis has seen the likes of Toronto Maple Leafs forward Nicholas Robertson and Edmonton Oilers netminder Dylan Wells reach the NHL from the Petes system under Walser's watch, while several other players, such as defenceman Declan Chisholm and forward Semyon Der-Arguchintsev, are seen as elite prospects too.

While many would believe that the OHL's job is to produce players for the NHL, Walser believes that making sure players are ready to emerge from the system as better people, not just better hockey players, is key to their development.

"It's a different animal from junior to pro. There's a different maturity," he said of the difference between coaching at the two levels.

"It's really getting down to basics and teaching these kids to play, and that's what we've done over the last few years with Peterborough. I think we've done a good job in getting the Petes programme back to where it was.

"You've got guys going to the NHL, you've got guys going to school, you've got guys playing to try and get a school deal, and you have guys just here to play. So it's a wide mix, and that's a challenge for us as coaches.

"But all we're trying to do is teach them to be men - show up to practice on time and when you're here you work hard. Not all of our players are going to go on and play in the NHL, some may not play pro hockey at all, but our job is to try and direct them as best as we can.

"We're here to win games, and obviously we really want to win, but if they're out there working hard and growing as individuals, that's all we can ask of them."

And, of course, one individual he has worked with closely is Great Britain star Liam Kirk, who spent two seasons with the Petes before seeing his Canadian junior career brought to a premature end by the coronavirus.

After a slow start as he adjusted to a new style of hockey, Kirk thrived in Peterborough in his second season, stepping up into the leadership group with the Petes and finishing with a stats line of 21 goals and 50 points in 47 games.

Indeed, by the end of the season he had bumped up onto a powerplay unit with Akil Thomas, who scored the 'Golden Goal' to claim World Juniors gold for Canada in 2020, and had become one of the most rounded players on the Petes roster.

The looming question, however, is whether Kirk will ever make it to the NHL.

The 21-year-old was drafted 189th overall by the Arizona Coyotes and has been called up to a couple of training camps with the team but has yet to crack a pre-season roster for the NHL side, and the perception is perhaps his time is running out.

But, having worked closely with Kirk during his time in Peterborough, Walser does not think the forward should give up on his dream of becoming the first British-trained player to reach the NHL, even if he has to take the long route there.

"He has tremendous feet, and that's even though he didn't learn to play the Canadian style," says Walser of the young winger, who has seven goals and 12 points in 10 games for the Sheffield Steelers in the EIHL Series.

"The first year he came over, it took him a while to figure it out. He's a nice kid, never complained, good heart, wanted to win. Then he made the jump to second year.

"That next year, he was playing some great hockey. Played through some injuries but was blocking shots, was getting into some tough areas that he needs to in order to get to the next level, and then our season got cut short. He was having a great year, he was probably on pace for 40 goals, which is excellent for a 19-year-old with some injuries.

"I wish him all the best. I think there's something there in Kirky. I think he'll have to make another tough decision down the road - will he stay in the Elite League or will he try and go somewhere else in Europe and maybe get another chance to get back to North America."

In his shoes, what would Walser do?

"I would (go abroad)," says the coach. "I think there's something there in Kirky. I think he'll be a late bloomer. You learn to grow (abroad).

"You're only on this Earth for so long, and the chance to play this game and see the world... I would be jumping at the bit to go somewhere else and prove a point, and that's something he has to work out with his agent as to where is the best place for him to go to get noticed again.

"There's nothing wrong with trying. Give it your best shot and see what happens.

"No matter what happens this year I think he should get an invite to an NHL camp and I hope he shines at the World Championships because it's a chance for him to show he's been working hard.

"We wouldn't have him in Peterborough if we didn't think there was something there, and I think his jump from season one to season two proves that there is."

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