There’s a saying amongst hockey players when they leave Yarmouth after playing junior A – Once a Mariner, always a Mariner.
Although for one former Mariner, the rule isn’t so clear-cut with the Yarmouth Mariners and the Valley Wildcats meeting up in a three-game playoff mini-series.
“It’s good and bad at the same time. There’s a little bit of mixed emotions,” says Digby native Andrew Walker, who played with the Mariners for four seasons and was the team’s captain in his final season in 2011-2012.
Walker is now an assistant coach with the Valley Wildcats – the team looking to oust the Mariners from the playoffs.
“Once a Mariner always a Mariner,” says Walker, “But…”
And it’s a heavy ‘but.’
“But right now I’m a Wildcat,” he said in an interview a few days prior to Game 1.
Game 1 was played in Yarmouth on March 10, which saw the Wildcats defeat the Mariners 4-2. Game 2 will be played tonight in Kentville.
A Game 3, if needed, will be played in Yarmouth on March 13.
Walker suspects there aren’t many players in his shoes, let alone his skates. As an assistant coach for the Valley team, he finds himself on an opposing bench from former teammates, former coaches and fans that made him feel welcome every time he skated onto the ice.
And while the Yarmouth fans also live by the adage, ‘Once a Mariner, always a Mariner’ – as can be witnessed whenever there’s a former Mariner in the arena – this time around they won’t be pulling for Walker.
Walker says it’s a strange circumstance to be in, given his affinity for the Mariners.
“It’s really weird to describe because it’s almost like you’re home, but in the same sense you’re trying to beat ‘em,” he says.
In the standings the Mariners finished around 20 points ahead of the Wildcats. But the stats don’t tell the entire picture of what happened when these two teams met up during the regular season. There have been blowouts on the ice, which included 7-1 and 6-1 victories for Yarmouth. But Valley had a 6-3 win over Yarmouth and two of the Mariners’ victories were only squeaked out in overtime and a shootout.
“We’re coming in as the so-called underdog, but if you go back . . . there’s been some close games,” says Walker. “It’s definitely going to be a hard-fought series.”
Mariners head coach Laurie Barron agrees that you can never count out a team or take them for granted, no matter what the standings say.
“We respect Valley. They’re well coached, they’ve got a good team. They’ve got good goaltending,” he says.
Still, Barron says the Mariners do not intend to lose this mini-series. Yes, it would have been nice to have avoided the mini-series, Barron admits, but towards the end of the season he says the main concern was on how the team was playing as opposed to where it was ending up.
“The bottom line is we’ve got to beat three good hockey clubs to win our division,” he says. “And to win a championship you’ve got to win 12 games. Now we’ve got to win 14. It’s not the worst thing in the world.”
Interestingly enough, when Barron steals glances towards the opposing bench, he won’t just see one former player he used to coach. The Valley’s head coach Nick Greenough used to play midget AAA and affiliated junior B with the team Barron coached. Asked how that makes Barron feel, he laughs and says, “It makes me feel old.”
Greenough admits it’s another unique situation on the Valley bench.
“When I was in midget he was coaching the Royals and I was affiliated with the Royals.
It’s fun being the coach against the guy that you had as a coach on the way up through,” Greenough says, adding, with a laugh, “I don’t want to age him, but…”
Greenough says his team is pleased to be in the position it’s in, with the chance to go deeper in the playoffs depending on the outcome of the mini-series.
“All year, except for two games, we’ve had great games with Yarmouth. They’ve been back and forth and we’ve gone to overtime a couple of times,” he says. “I think it’s going to be an evenly-matched series. Both teams have some great skill up front and some strong defensemen and good goaltending.
“If both teams are playing well, it’ll be exciting hockey for the fans to watch,” Greenough says. “Hopefully, though, I can get the bragging rights over Laurie.”
As for Walker, he’ll still always be a Mariner – but only starting again after the mini-series ends.