Espanola Paper Kings defenceman Conor Walton (6) smiles while talking with a teammate during NOJHL action agains the Greater Sudbury Cubs at Gerry McCrory Countryside Sports Complex in Sudbury, Ontario on Thursday, December 15, 2022. PHOTO BY BEN LEESON/THE SUDBURY STAR/POSTMEDIA NETWORK
Sixteen-year-old defenceman playing key role for improved Espanola outfit
Ben Leeson – The Sudbury Star
Hockey has long been a family affair for the Walton clan, but never more so than in the months since twin brothers Conor and Kieron were drafted and signed by the Sudbury Wolves this past spring.
Not only did 16-year-old sons of Norma and Ron relocate from Toronto to the Nickel City, but so did their entire family, helping to support the brothers as they embarked on their junior hockey careers together — forward Kieron with the Wolves in the OHL and defenceman Conor with the Espanola Paper Kings, Sudbury’s affiliates in the NOJHL.
“It has been awesome to do this with my brother,” Conor Walton said. “I love him to death. Moving up here, we obviously don’t know that many people, so having a guy like him here, it’s great. I don’t have anything but good things to say about him. Let’s say you didn’t have a good game, but you can come home and you have someone to talk to, to get tips off of, anything.
“I like that we’re living together, because we’re honest with each other and sometimes, it’s stuff you need to hear. He’s a really good offensive player and a defensive player and he can provide me with tips, I can provide him with tips. It’s really nice to have him here in Sudbury.”
Staying in such close proximity allows the North York Rangers AAA graduates to carry on a healthy sibling rivalry, as well, borne out in battles between the two at practices and in off-season training. Sudbury’s fourth-round pick in the 2022 OHL Priority Selection, the 6-foot-4, 195-pound Conor considers his slightly older twin (by a minute or so), the Wolves’ second-round choice and an imposing figure at 6-foot-6 and 205 pounds, to be a worthy opponent for those one-on-one contests.
“You’ve got to love competing with your brother,” said Conor, reached while back in the GTA for the holiday season. “I have been competing with him for almost 16 years now and it’s great. He’s a really good hockey player and any time you can compete against a guy like that for a long time, you’re going to get better no matter what and hopefully, he takes a few things off me, too.
“I love those battles, because you have to step up. Most of the time, you’re going 110, but now you’re going 115, because it’s your brother. You can’t let him have those bragging rights in the family.”
While Kieron may be better known to Wolves fans, having already played in 24 games with the big club, Conor has made steady progress while playing big minutes for an Espanola team that features two other signed Sudbury prospects in rearguard Will Bishop and netminder Drew Gaulton, as well as 2022 U18 draft pick Justin Seguin.
“I love playing the game of hockey,” said Conor, who lines up on most nights alongside 19-year-old veteran Joshua Rumolo, the Paper Kings’ captain. “I love being an impact guy, I love playing minutes and if that’s in the OHL, in junior A or junior C, it doesn’t matter. I hate sitting there and watching. I just can’t do it.”
He has made good use of his ice time, and not just in his own zone. Conor was sixth among rookie blueliners entering the Christmas break with three goals and 15 assists for 18 points in 29 games, and 15th among all defencemen. Only three 2006-born players in the NOJHL had more points heading into 2023, and only one, Soo Thunderbirds D-man Brodie McConnell-Barker, had a higher points-per-game average than his 0.62.
Conor had one of his best weeks of the season, from a statistical standpoint, right before the Yuletide pause. After helping to shut down the Greater Sudbury Cubs’ skilled shooters in a 4-1 upset at Gerry McCrory Countryside Sports Complex on Dec. 15, he had an assist in a 2-1 loss to the always dangerous Powassan Voodoos one night later, then a goal and two helpers in a 7-5 defeat of the division-rival Soo Eagles on the 18th.
“A big part of it is having a great group of guys,” Conor said. “I’m playing at a high level, but a lot of that is on my teammates, too. It’s not a one-man show in hockey, it never is and never will be.
“I’m trying to learn as much as I can from the coaches and the older guys. I have to give a lot of credit to my D partner, Josh Rumolo. It’s a lot of little things like dump it deep, talk to your goalie, things like that, things you don’t even notice during a game, just plays and stuff like over, over, under, under, reverse, rip — just being talkative out there, being more physical, using my size. You pick up a lot from these guys.”
He also credits Jason Rapcewicz, Espanola’s head coach and team president, and the rest of the Paper Kings staff for making his adjustment from the U16 AAA to junior A level a smooth one and helping him prepare to join his brother in the major-junior game.
“I have really worked on my hitting,” Conor said. “I’m a pretty big guy and before, I hit a bit, but I didn’t go out of my way to hit. Now, I like being a force. I want the other team to hate me. I like when the other team hates playing against me. Other than that, I’m working on the hands, feet, everything. You can never be too good of a skater, too good of a stickhandler or a shooter. But I’d say in the biggest improvement has definitely been how physical I am and in a league like the Noj, you have to be physical, or you’re going to get battered.”
Rapcewicz showed a great deal of confidence in the youngster during the recent win over Greater Sudbury — not only entrusting the rookie with key assignments on special teams, but also to protect a lead against gifted goal-scorers such as Pierson Sobush, Oliver Smith and Billy Biedermann.
“Conor has been awesome,” Espanola’s bench boss said. “He’s a great kid on the ice, off the ice. He’s got a great attitude, he’s got a good work ethic and he wants to be better. When you have that want and that drive, it can only lead to success. But the best part about him is even when he feels like he’s struggling, he doesn’t let it get in his head. He works through it, because he knows what he wants — he wants to be in the O.”
Rapcewicz is confident Conor can achieve that goal and will have a chance to choice his brother as an OHLer as early as next season.
“He’s a big, mobile defenceman,” Rapcewicz said. “He still needs to get a bit more physical, to be a bit harder on guys, but he’s an ’06, he’s still a 16-year-old, and I think he’ll do well. My goal is that he’s not with us here next year. If that happens, we have fulfilled our part of the bargain, right?”
While Conor has done his share of travelling, either in hockey or on family trips, much of the North and its smaller communities have been new to him.
“Probably the wildest place I have ever played is Hearst, Ontario,” said the defenceman, noting the game-night atmosphere in the NOJHL’s northernmost rink. “I had never even heard of Hearst.
“I have nothing but positive things to say about Espanola and the people there. Our coach, Jason Rapcewicz, is an unreal guy, me and him get along great and we talk almost every day. He’s a really good coach and I like their assistants, Marc and Don, and I have nothing but great things to say about the players. They have been fantastic to me. It’s a step up and a chance for me to develop and to get my chance with the Wolves and it has been great.”
With several opportunities to view the prospect in person, Wolves general manager Rob Papineau has been encouraged by Conor’s progress.
“He’s a smart player,” Papineau said. “He’s got a good stick, he defends well and he makes simple plays with the puck. He doesn’t try to over-handle it, he just moves it up to his forwards. When I look at our group, we knew over the next few years, we would have a pretty good group of forwards and having a defenceman who can transition the puck to them as quickly as possible is going to be good. Obviously, his size is something that’s appealing and he still has room for physical growth as far as strength, but that’s typical of young guys and we’re real happy with what he’s doing this year.”