Medicine Hat product Curtis Valk makes NHL Debut

Story appears courtesy of Ryan McCracken, Medicine Hat News

Curtis Valk’s lifelong dream just became a reality.

The Gas City product and former Medicine Hat Tigers captain was called up to the NHL’s Florida Panthers on Sunday evening, giving him his first opportunity to shine in the big show.

“It’s a pretty cool experience for me. As a kid growing up it’s what you dream of doing, playing in the NHL,” said Valk, from the Panthers’ practice facility in Coral Springs. “When they called me into that coaches office the other night it felt pretty good to hear that I was going up and that I have an opportunity to play in an NHL game.”

Valk has been on a tear since starting the season with the American Hockey League’s Springfield Thunderbirds. Through his first 16 games, the 5-foot-9, 170-pound centre has compiled six goals and nine assists to sit tied for eighth in league scoring and earn a look from his big league affiliate. But Valk stressed the fact that his Thunderbirds have been struggling in the early portion of the season, and individual success always takes the back seat.

“I don’t know if I’ve changed a whole lot but the coach in Springfield has been giving me a lot of opportunity. I’m playing a lot of minutes and I think that’s really helped with the confidence,” he said. “It’s allowed me to get off to a good start so far this season, but I’m kind of looking forward to getting some more wins with (Springfield). They’ve been struggling. It’s nice to have personal success but it would be better if the team was winning.”

Tigers head coach and general manager Shaun Clouston says if it’s true that you get what you put into something, then Valk is finally cashing out.

“We used his story today, he was an in-and-out guy for the majority of his 17-year-old year. He was in and out of the lineup, a healthy scratch then played some games. It’s taken him seven years —he was an undersized guy who wasn’t overly fast, and quite undersized when he was younger, he was not big. He just willed himself, he just worked his way into this situation,” said Clouston. “He’s such an inspiring story for so many young players and we’re just really proud of him. He should be so proud of himself.”

Valk played four full seasons with the Tigers, logging more than 90 points in each of his final two years with the team for a total of 255 points in the span of his WHL career. Valk’s long road to the NHL continued past major junior when he earned a place in the Vancouver Canucks system. While he never made it into a game with Vancouver, he signed a contract with the AHL’s Utica Comets and spent the next three seasons with them and the ECHL’s Kalamazoo Wings. Valk entered this summer as a free agent, but was signed to a one-year entry level deal by the Panthers on July 1.

Injuries to centres Jared McCann and Derek MacKenzie opened up a spot for Valk on the Panthers. The 24-year-old Hatter is expected to start on the fourth line for Florida in tonight’s home game against the Dallas Stars. Valk heard the news following his three-point performance in Springfield’s 4-3 win over the Providence Bruins on Sunday night.

“I’m just going to try and keep it simple out there,” said Valk. “I want to help the team any way I can.”

Clouston — who was behind the bench for the entirety of Valk’s 270-game WHL career — added the achievement is a testament to Valk’s hard-nosed approach to training and development, and he hopes his story will light a fire under the Tigers who hope to follow in his footsteps.

“I think it’s inspiring and it illustrates what’s possible if you’re willing to do it. There are no simple solutions, there are no shortcuts. Curtis just did way more and worked way harder than the vast majority of hockey players, that’s why he’s there.”