MEDICINE HAT, AB — In front of a building rich in hockey history, with the sun glaring down on a hot July afternoon, former Tigers captain Curtis Valk reflects on his fondest memories playing in the Medicine Hat Arena.
"Getting to play my first game in the Western Hockey League with the Medicine Hat Tigers was pretty special for myself," the Hatter said smiling.
That first game, way back on September 19, 2009, was against the Lethbridge Hurricanes. Valk finished with a +1 rating and two penalty minutes — an immediate presence as a 15-year-old.
The first of 270 career WHL games, all of which played for his hometown Orange and Black.
"The last one when I was 20... that was an unbelievable experience for me," he continued. "The team we had, we played so hard. To lose in the Conference Final was tough, but we had a great series that went to seven against Kootenay in the second round.
"Memories like that, they'll be with me forever."
That was 2014.
Three years later, after two injury ridden campaigns split with the AHL's Utica Comets and the Kalamazoo Wings of the ECHL, he's official property of the Florida Panthers.
"It's a lifetime goal of mine to sign an NHL contract, and to have it finally come true on Saturday was really special for me," the 24-year-old said.
Valk was quick to say it came with a lot of hard work over the last few years, dealing with a severe knee injury that took him out of the lineup for more than 70 games over two seasons.
"My junior career I was healthy pretty much my whole way through," he said. "Then in my first year of pro I tore my ACL and MCL in my knee, so it was kind of a rough start to my pro career."
Valk returned to Utica last fall, healthy and ready to make an immediate impact.
The 5'9" undrafted forward scored 16 goals and 46 points in his first full season with the Comets, finishing second in team scoring.
"It was good to finally get a full season under my belt and to have it all be with Utica was great for me," he added.
The Comets are now a thing of the past.
Come September, Valk will travel down to Florida for Panthers training camp. If he impresses the coaching staff and management enough, he could earn a spot on their roster. Otherwise he'll join the Panthers AHL affiliate the Springfield Thunderbirds.
Valk said several NHL teams reached out to his agent last week, but agrees Florida presents the best chance at excelling his NHL career.
"There is opportunity there if you play well. They have a young group both (in Florida), and in Springfield they're going to be young," he said, noting Florida only has 10 forwards signed on their roster. "I'm just hoping to play well and get a chance this year in the NHL."
Although his hockey career has taken him all over North America, home lies in the sunniest city in Canada.
Valk spends his summers at his own place in Medicine Hat, training out of Temple Fitness beside the old Arena.
"I call it paradise for the people that know me," he said of his hometown. "I love coming back here. All my friends are here still in town, and you can't beat the weather here."
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