How playoffs' biggest villain became NHL's sympathetic underdog

We called forward Scott Walker(notes) of the Carolina Hurricanes "sinister" in our Eastern Conference finals preview and we were only half-joking: His un-suspended "sucker" punch on Aaron Ward(notes) of the Boston Bruins, followed by his first career playoff goal to eliminate Boston, was a combination attack of postseason villainy.

Yet over the weekend, perceptions about Walker were irrevocably changed after the announcement that his wife, Julie, had been diagnosed with cervical cancer during the Boston series.

It was caught early enough to be treated for an expected full recovery, but the diagnosis was an emotional burden that Walker hid from the public. Even in the interview following his game-winner, Walker chose not to disclose the cancer when Hurricanes announcer Tripp Tracy mentioned "the support of" his wife during the playoffs. 

Luke DeCock of the News and Observer chronicled Walker's struggle with the diagnosis during one of the biggest moments of his hockey career:

After the diagnosis, Walker said he sleepwalked through the rest of the Boston series in a haze. "The last couple [of] games, I don't even really remember playing them," Walker said. "I talked to [Maurice] about that. I played those games, and sometimes I would look up or at the end of the game, I'd be like, 'Wow, we just played a game.' I was trying to do my job and play as hard as I could and try and keep my mind as calm as I could. After that game [Thursday], so much emotion went out of me."

Walker held a press conference on Saturday about the situation; his reaction and bravery in the face of this adversity inspiring the Hurricanes before Monday night's Game 1 of the conference finals against the Pittsburgh Penguins:

It's incredible how athletes are able to compartmentalize their personal anguish while using both their sport and their teammates for comfort and motivation. After all, these playoffs have already seen Taylor Pyatt(notes) of the Vancouver Canucks return to the NHL weeks after his fiancée was killed in an auto accident.

Walker has coped, and will continue to cope, with his wife's cancer. And from apologizing to the Bruins for the "sucker punch" incident to speaking openly about his wife's diagnosis, a player whom Bruins announcers labeled "a villain" has been transformed into one of the most sympathetic heroes in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

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