Walcott, Syracuse a perfect fit

Photo: Scott Thomas

Patrick Williams, TheAHL.com Features Writer

Whatever the Syracuse Crunch have needed to be done, Daniel Walcott has been there for them.

Handle a job on the blue line? Step in as a forward? Provide energy? Chip in goals? Be a leader? Community work? A team holiday sing-along?

In his nine seasons in Syracuse, Walcott has ticked all of those boxes.

Still, the franchise’s all-time leader in games (403) found himself looking around at his options this past summer. Walcott made his NHL debut with the parent Tampa Bay Lightning back in 2021, and the hunger for another NHL opportunity is there for any AHL player. Did he need a new start?

But Walcott also had a lot pulling him to stay in Syracuse. His wife, Jackie, is from the area. Central New York has become his hockey home, and a trip back to his native Ile Perrot, Que., is an easy drive. The Lightning-Crunch set-up means a top-notch operation on and off the ice.

Then came the hiring in June of new Crunch head coach Joël Bouchard, who was Walcott’s coach in 2014-15 at Blainville-Boisbriand of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. The chance to reunite with Bouchard was enough to entice Walcott to sign up on a one-year AHL deal with the Crunch for another go.

Now Walcott has nine goals this campaign, just four off the AHL career-best that he established last season. The Crunch hit the Christmas break in second place in the North Division, once again looking like a team that can contend for a postseason run.

Early in his career, Walcott found himself used both on the Syracuse back end and as a forward. Not easy, especially for a young player, but it allowed him to gain a foothold in the Crunch lineup. Adaptability may well be his strongest career asset.

“I always consider myself a ‘hockey player’ – not someone who just goes and plays hockey,” Walcott pointed out, “So just put me in any situation… As long as I’m on the ice I’ll find a way to make things work. I really love the game and try to educate myself so when different situations present themselves, I feel like I’m ready for whatever is thrown my way.”

Teaming up with Bouchard again also made a familiar fit even more so. The two have long maintained a relationship, and Bouchard was always someone that Walcott could contact for career advice, whether it was long-distance or each summer when Walcott returned to the Montreal area and caught up with his old coach.

Back when Walcott found himself shifting between roles as a defenseman and a forward, he turned to Bouchard – who played 14 pro seasons as a defenseman – for advice.

“We’ve been in touch throughout the years,” Walcott said, “and it has just been a smooth transition. I kind of knew what to expect coming in. There’s not much that’s different (since 2014-15). His personality is something that I feed off of because I’m a big personality guy as well.

“He’s been true to himself throughout the years. He hasn’t changed much as a person: high-energy and delivers the message as well.”

So it has been a blend of Walcott’s past and present this season in Syracuse. He remains in a city where he is a fan favorite, part of a Tampa Bay organization that treats him well. Those are no small considerations.

“They always find a way to bring in great people, great players, players that are good people first before their hockey talent,” Walcott said of the Lightning.

Walcott has built a link with his adopted city as well. He is a four-time team winner of the IOA/American Specialty AHL Man of the Year award for his work in the Syracuse community. His dogged, energetic style wins him praise from Crunch fans, but his influence goes well beyond the rink.

It even goes into the recording studio, where Walcott and five teammates recently recorded the “Twelve Days of Crunchmas”. The performance was the latest addition to Walcott’s lengthy recording repertoire that has also featured lip-synching and karaoke battles.

“We like to show our personality, and it humanizes us a bit in the community, which is nice,” Walcott said. “I just hope that we can keep doing things like that because whether the younger guys know it or not, that’s a big part of sticking around in places. You don’t want to be 100 percent focused on hockey and not do anything else. There will be a time that we’ll have to be doing other things.

“I think it builds some skill sets and puts you in some vulnerable positions socially, and you just grow from that.”

Whatever is asked of him – whether it’s filling in a certain spot in the lineup on a given night or stepping forward for a community role or, yes, even singing – Walcott is there.

“Syracuse is a blue-collar city, and I think the way that I’ve played throughout the years is just something that fits. Everything about Syracuse to me is great, and I love the people here.”