BY EILEEN McALEER
This year’s rookie camp at Kettler Capitals Iceplex brings together players from around the country and the world with dreams of making the Washington Capitals’ 2013-14 roster. Included among these players is 19-year-old, Nathan Walker, who hopes to be the first Australian to play in the National Hockey League. Walker has spent his career thus far all over the world, playing for the Sydney Ice Dogs of the Australian Ice Hockey League (AIHL), HC Vitkovice Steel of the Czech Republic’s Czech Extraliga, and in Ohio for the Youngstown Phantoms of the United States Hockey League (USHL).
Walker has played hockey since he was a child, following in the footsteps of his older brother Ryan. “He started playing, and as a little brother you just want to do what he’s doing,” Walker said. Walker has remarked to numerous media outlets that both he and Ryan were heavily influenced by the 1992 Disney film The Mighty Ducks. When his brother went to play high school hockey in Faribault, Minnesota, Walker had the opportunity to see NHL hockey live and in person at a Minnesota Wild game. He identified the Wild as his favorite team while growing up.
That does not, however, mean his NHL tastes are limited. Walker said he really looks up to two current players in the NHL: longtime player Martin St. Louis of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Zach Parise, currently of the Minnesota Wild. “[My NHL role model would] have to be either Zach Parise or [Marty] St. Louis. Just because they’re not the biggest guys on the ice but they’re probably the hardest workers,” Walker said. He hopes to model his career after one of them if he does in fact make it to the NHL level.
Despite being young, the 5’10”, 185-pound forward has been playing overseas for a long time—since the age of 13. Because of this, he truly noticed a change in style of play when he came to North America last year. “It’s a lot more physical here,” Walker remarked, “Which is good, because I like that part of the game as well. I’m definitely not the biggest guy on the ice, but I like getting hit around, it’s the fun part of the game, I guess. There’s [also] smaller ice over here so it’s a lot different hockey.”
Walker accepted the challenge of a different style of play and managed to have a successful year with the Youngstown Phantoms before suffering a season-ending neck injury in early April. In his 29 games played for the Phantoms, Walker made a noticeable impact registering 7 goals and 20 assists. In order to come back from his injury, Walker has been giving it his all. “I’ve been working hard all summer. So far it’s looking good. I’ve changed up my training a lot back home. We got a personal trainer and a lot of stuff so he was running me through a lot of the explosiveness and hockey specific training.” Walker is a strong proponent of maintaining a hard work ethic. He points to players such as Parise and St. Louis as examples of where hard work can take you. During his stint in the Czech Republic, Walker received similar advice from his teammates: “There was a few [former NHL players] in the team that came in and that just kind of helped me out a little bit. Just kept telling me to keep pushing. If it’s not going your way, you just got to keep training harder. There’s no point giving up if it’s not going your way.”
The young forward has clearly taken this advice to heart, seeing as he has modified his training and worked hard to come back from a devastating injury. While he has been focusing on himself, he makes sure to focus on the future of Australian hockey when he is home. “I try to do everything I can when I’m back home. I try and hold clinics for little kids, but like I said before, it [the game] needs to keep growing and growing. I don’t know [what the future holds for Australian hockey]. I don’t think much will be happening just because of the way the sport is promoted. I think we need to step it up a little bit with promotion and sponsors and that type of thing,” Walker said.
As for his dream of being the first Australian in the NHL, Walker knows that the reach of such a feat would be broad. “I think my family would be absolutely ecstatic. I left home at a very young age so they gave up a lot as well. It would be really good for not just myself and my family but for Australia,” Walker said. If he does not receive a place on the Capitals roster for this upcoming season, he hopes to be selected in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft in Philadelphia. Even though Walker hopes to make a name for himself in North America through his skill and strong work ethic, there are a few comforts of home he will be thinking about. When asked what he missed most about Australia, Walker remarked, “It’s probably the beaches. Yeah, just laying out in the sun.”