NEWARK, N.J. – Just over 23 years ago an unlikely story was born in Wales. An Australian raised child who’d soon develop aspirations of playing hockey was welcomed into the world. That dream to play in hockey’s best league in the world will come true tonight for Nathan Walker who will become the first Australian to play in the NHL.
Forward spots are aplenty like they’ve never been for the Washington Capitals, and Walker came into this year’s training camp on a mission. On day one of training camp, he blew everyone out of the water on the conditioning test. The American Hockey League (AHL) standout was given a chance to play in Washington’s first game of the pre-season Monday night against New Jersey. It didn’t take long for Walker to make an impact:
— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) September 18, 2017
In the game, every time Nathan was on the ice the puck found its way to him. He created several scoring opportunities and nearly scored a second goal in the second period. He was a physical presence refusing to back down to opponents with a size advantage over him. Capitals head coach Barry Trotz was complimentative of his player to the media after Monday’s game.
“He has an effect on the game,” Trotz said. “He may not be the most natural goal scorer, but he has [an] effect on the pace of play, the zone play. He wears people out. He’s in your face and gets people off their game, so there’s a lot of good things about Nathan that you like.”
The journey to this point has been long and winding for the 23-year-old. Like most young promising hockey players, Walker took a leap and home at the age of 13. He began his hockey career in the Czech junior leagues with HC Vitkovice in the Czech Extraliga. He became the first Australian to play in the Czech senior league in the 2011 season.
In 2013, he made the jump to North America and the USHL’s Youngstown Phantoms where he scored (courtesy Youngstown Phantoms) on his very first shift there. Walker’s secret was quickly out of the bag when people began to take notice. Everett Fitzhugh, Director of Broadcasting with ECHL Cincinnati, was working for the USHL league office at the time Nathan Walker was in the league.
“Being from Australia, we knew about his story and his journey. He was a sleeper, but we all knew he’d be a great player. It wasn’t hard to see what he was about when he was on the ice,” said Fitzhugh.
After being named to the USHL/NHL top prospects game in 2013, Walker spoke with Fitzhugh about his experience and hockey beginnings. In it, Walker cites the 90’s Disney classic “Mighty Ducks” movie franchise for his inspiration to play hockey in Australia. You can check out the full interview courtesy of the USHL here.
The Capitals were also very impressed with his play and invited him to attend training camp to begin the 2013-14 season. As a draft-eligible player, the Capitals could not sign him out of camp, but Hershey did. Walker appeared in 43 games for the Bears that season, registering 11 points.
The Capitals hoped to be able to keep the Aussie under their wing. After being passed over on two of the previous drafts, Washington selected Walker in the third round of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft making him the first Austrailian to be drafted in the National Hockey League. He signed a three-year entry-level deal shortly afterward. After an injury-riddled 2014 season, Walker’s production skyrocketed to 41 points in 73 games with AHL Hershey in 2015-16. Walker added to his game by filling in at center when the Bears were short on center depth.
His role steadily became more than just a sparkplug in the lineup; he could score too.
Nathan Walker makes it look easy. pic.twitter.com/5Z3YxE82Vt
— Sin Bin Bears (@SinBinBears) September 20, 2017
In his fourth season in the AHL with the Bears, Walker’s production dipped slightly, but the sparkplug mentality remained every shift. In the first game of the 2017 Calder Cup playoffs, it was Walker who scored the game-winner in overtime over Lehigh Valley. He’d finish the playoffs with two goals and four assists for a total of six points in 12 playoff games.
To make the NHL it requires an unbelievable amount of work, and sometimes, the stars have to align in your favor. For Nathan Walker, he’s beat the odds so far, and with one last battle to go, he’s not about to back down from a challenge now.