The Wizard of Auz: Nathan Walker an Australian Ice Hockey Hero

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For many young Australian kids, the prospect of pulling on a jersey for a professional sports team is something which is a lifetime goal, a dream or simply a fantasy! The training, dedication, money, time and energy required to pursue this dream is extraordinary and generally includes overseas training camps, sponsorship deals and sacrifices.

(Photo courtesy of PowerPlay Photographics / TLA – Ice Hockey Classic 2018)

Being in Australia, the allure of the NHL, MLB, NFL and NBA can seem unattainable for most. However, Australia has now conquered the final frontier of North American sports thanks to a 23-year old Sydney-sider by the name of Nathan Walker.

Two dates will now be etched into Australian sporting history: October 4, 2017 — when Walker found himself on the roster for NHL team — the Washington Capitals — stamping his name as the first-ever Australian to make the National Hockey League in it’s 100 year history — and just two days later on the evening of October 6 — when Walker made his NHL debut in the Capitals’ home opener against the Montreal Canadiens at Capital One Arena in Washington D.C.

So just how did a young hockey enthusiast from Sydney end up taking to the ice on hockey’s biggest stage? It all started, like many young hockey players in Australia by watching everyone’s favourite hockey larrikins: “The Mighty Ducks.”

Nathan Walker #12 of the Hershey Bears skates against Laval Rocket during an AHL game at Place Bell on February 16, 2018 in Laval, Quebec, Canada. The Hershey Bears defeated Laval 6-3. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

Walker began playing hockey at the age of 6 and took to the game at a rapid pace. In 2007, Walker took his game overseas, being picked up by Czech Republic club HC Vikovice. Playing between their U-18 team and back home for the Sydney Ice Dogs in the Australian Ice Hockey League, Walker would soon find himself in the Senior team for HC Vikovice before North American hockey beckoned.

In 2012-13, Walker was signed by the Youngstown Phantoms of the United States Hockey League, a season in which he played 29 games before missing playoffs due to injury. That year would prove to be pivotal for Walker as he continued his training between Australia and the Czech Republic before being invited to attend the Washington Capitals’ Development Camp in September that year. After a solid camp, Walker became the first Australian to enter the American Hockey League and found a home with the team’s AHL affiliate, the Hershey Bears. Walker played four seasons with the Bears, recording a total of 202 games with 34 goals in the process.

In 2014, persistence paid off as Walker found himself on the NHL radar after being selected by the Capitals in the third round (89th overall) at the 2014 draft.

After some challenges with injuries, Walker continued to play in Hershey before finding himself back with the Capitals for the start of training camp in 2017. After a grueling and lengthy camp with fast-paced hockey and strict roster cuts, history was made as Walker was named to the Capitals’ roster, making him the first Australian in the NHL!

The past 12 months have been a roller coaster for Walker. After the dizzying high of his NHL debut and the games that followed, Walker became a healthy scratch for the Capitals numerous times, just missing out on the game rosters. As a result, he was placed on waivers. While many hoped that he would make his way back down to Hershey, the young Aussie was in demand and was soon snapped up by the Edmonton Oilers.

After playing a handful of games in Edmonton, Walker was soon again on the move as waivers came beckoning once again. Labeled “The Boomerang” by Australian fans and followers, Walker returned to the Capitals organization and back with Hershey, much to the delight of local fans.

Nathan Walker #79 of the Washington Capitals tries to control the puck in front of Justin Schultz #4 of the Pittsburgh Penguins during the first period in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Second Round during the 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at PPG Paints Arena on May 7, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

For Nathan himself, the whirlwind of three organizations in five months was a great experience.

“I was fortunate enough to start the year off in Washington and then got the opportunity to play a few games in Edmonton and then come back to Hershey,” Walker said in February 2018. “It’s definitely been a long year but a great experience.”

Playing at both the AHL and NHL level has assisted Walker tremendously in developing his game.

“Being in Hershey has helped me a tremendous amount,” Walker said. “It’s a very professional organization and the way things are done here really sets you up to play NHL.”

Affectionately known as “Chocolatetown USA,” Hershey is tucked away in southeast of Pennsylvania with a population of just over 14,000. A rich history and a tourism hotspot complete with Hersheypark and plenty of chocolate-related attractions thanks to the Hershey Company make the town a warm and inviting place to live and visit.

From a hockey perspective, the Bears are one of the oldest and most historic organizations in the American Hockey League. 2018 marks their 80th year after being established as the Hershey Hockey Club in 1938 by Milton S. Hershey. Since then, the Bears have experienced great success with 11 Calder Cups (the most recent in 2009-10) and 23 conference championships (most recently in 2015-16). The presence of Hersheypark has also allowed the Bears to participate in outdoor games. This past season, the Bears and a historic alumni team took to the outdoor ice at
Hersheypark Stadium for the 2018 Outdoor Classic against the Lehigh Valley Phantoms.

The local community embraced the first Australian in the AHL during his time in Hershey.

“The fans really embraced that side of it,” Walker said.

Walker has played a total of 217 games for the Bears since 2013 and has become a fan favourite in “Chocolatetown.”

“It’s a great hockey community here and the fans are great,” he said.

“As for the chocolate? My favourite would have to be Reece’s Pieces,” Walker concluded.

(Photo courtesy of PowerPlay Photographics / TLA – Ice Hockey Classic 2018)

Walker’s speed and talent was not going unnoticed by the Bears’ NHL affiliate, however. A season of ups and downs for the Capitals saw them find their form towards the business end of the season, ending up on top of the Metropolitan Division for the third season in a row with 49 wins in 82 games. No stranger to the action of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Capitals set themselves up in order to face their demons and the bitter disappointment of campaigns that had come before.

For Walker, another call up to the big time beckoned as he rejoined the Capitals in May of 2018, right in the midst of what would prove to be a historic playoff run for the Capitals. Walker became the first Australian to play in the NHL Playoffs, gearing up for what proved to be a series-clinching game against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 6 of the second round. He recorded an assist on a vital Alex Chiasson goal, adding more history to his already growing tally of achievements. He celebrated in the locker rooms the only way an Australian could: by mimicking a Kangaroo hop post-game.

As the Capitals continued their astonishing playoff run by taking care of the Tampa Bay Lightning and eventually taking down the Vegas Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup Final, Walker did not suit up for these games but with them every step of the way. The Aussie favourite was in full gear for the Stanley Cup-winning game and etched himself into Australian sporting history by becoming the first ever native from “Down Under” to lift hockey’s most coveted prize.

Nathan Walker #79 and Shane Gersich #63 of the Washington Capitals pose for a photo with the Stanley Cup after their team’s 4-3 win over the Vegas Golden Knights in Game Five of the 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Final at T-Mobile Arena on June 7, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Related: Washington Capitals — 2018 Stanley Cup Champions

Walker is now back at home in Sydney, having recently represented Team USA in “The Ice Hockey Classic” — an arena tour produced by former Canadian ice hockey star Kerry Goulet and his foundation, “StopConcussions,” which showcased the game to a growing fan base in cities around the country.

His story and success has and will continue to pave the way for many young hockey players from Australia to follow their dreams of following a professional hockey career.

“First and foremost you need to be working hard in whatever you’re doing,” Walker said. “I think if you have a
dream and want to pursue it then it needs to be all hands on deck and go out and do it.”

Nathan Walker #79 of the Washington Capitals hoists the Stanley Cup on June 7, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

 

 

Written by Chris McRae / @ChrisMcRae04

Special to HockeyClan

 

Main Image: Nathan Walker poses with a koala, a marsupial native to Australia. (Photo courtesy of ‘Pic By Wulos‘)

 

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