Johnny Walker was poised for a big year in 2020-21. As a senior captain for the ASU men's hockey team and someone who came into the year leading in most career goals in the NCAA among active players, it was believed that he would yet again be found near the top of the nation's scoresheets.
However, in the second game of the season, Walker suffered a knee-on-knee injury against the Michigan Wolverines. To add insult to injury, the Sun Devils were swept in the opening series of the season, and Walker knew he'd be out for quite some time.
"Once it happened, I knew it was bad," Walker said. "We went to the doctors a day or two later but I already knew it wasn't good."
After confirming with medical experts what Walker already knew, he would have to sit for the next 10 games on the schedule, which rounded out the team's 2020 portion of the year.
"It was really upsetting because he worked so hard in the offseason to be in really good shape," head coach Greg Powers said. "(In the pre-season) he was more dominant within our team than he's ever been. For (the injury) to happen so early, and he really couldn't do anything after he got it, I felt really bad for him."
Walker wouldn't return to the ice in a game until Jan. 3, ASU's first game of 2021 and the first of 14 remaining games in the season.
While it was his first time back on the ice in a while, he still found ways to contribute, quickly scoring seven points within the first four games back.
"Johnny is a legend at ASU," said freshman forward Matthew Kopperud. "Everybody knows who he is. Coming in as a freshman, everyone looks up to him and (wants to) be like him."
This season could have been Walker's last in the NCAA; his aspirations to move on to the professional levels still exist but were stifled by the injury.
So, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the opportunities created by the NCAA with eligibility rules, Walker decided to return to ASU for the 2021-22 season and a fifth season with the program.
"Once the season ended I kind of sat down with my family and decided with everything as crazy as it is, I'd rather ... get my education and get my master's and go from there," Walker said. "I really hope that everything can get back to normal, we can play a normal season next year, because that would be the best-case scenario."
Walker's presence on the team is noted by everyone in the locker room, not just on the scoreboard.
"It's a gift, for all of our guys coming back for fifth years, is to really take a dominant step as an older guy that has been through literally everything," Powers said. "We have a great schedule, 19 home games next year, so we expect to return to form and be back in the NCAA tournament next year."
Now, with Walker remaining with the Sun Devils for another season, he too will have another opportunity to play for Powers and alongside his teammates for an opportunity at another NCAA tournament berth.
"The injury really hindered his ability to showcase himself this year," Powers said. "While he could go and probably create some options professionally for himself, I think he knows the best thing for him is to come back, get a master's degree, get fully healthy, have a full regular season and really be dominant one more time."
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