At the age of only 13, Nathan Walker packed his bags and moved more than 14,000 kilometers from home to pursue an ice hockey dream
Growing up in the heat of Australia, the chances of fulfilling dream of becoming a professional ice hockey player were arguably pretty slim.
But thanks to his coach at the time, Walker was able to secure a move to the Czech Republic and try out for professional club HC Vítkovice.
Not knowing a single word of Czech, Walker says he was unable to make friends for his first two years in the country.
“It was definitely a tough time,” he tells CNN Sport’s Patrick Snell of the move to Europe. “But it was huge. I had to go over there, I just couldn’t get the ice time and all the availabilities back home.
“So in order for me to try and make something out of hockey, I had to leave home at a young age and um … it was tough.
“The culture shock was huge and, like I said, the language barrier was definitely hard.”
The Mighty Ducks
Originally born in Wales, Walker’s family moved to Sydney when he was two years old. His passion for ice hockey initially came from watching his older brother play, but he was further inspired after watching American comedy “The Mighty Ducks.”
Such was the film’s influence, Walker first started playing ice hockey at the age of six.
“I think it was how much fun they had in the movie playing,” he recalls. “You know, just how much fun they had and what they got up to.
“I think that just pulled me toward the sport and just made me want to play.”
Walker’s performances in the Czech Republic convinced HC Vítkovice to give him a place in the club’s youth team.
He quickly progressed through the age groups, before making his senior debut soon after to become the first Australian to play professional ice hockey in Europe. He was also the youngest player in the Extraliga — the Czech first division — at the time.
Walker soon caught the eye of NHL scouts and he became the first Australian to be signed in the NHL draft, after being chosen as a third round pick by the Washington Capitals.
He admits the idea of finally making his NHL debut was a tantalizing prospect after featuring in the minor leagues for so long — he played first for South Carolina Stingrays and then the Hershey Bears — but Walker always remained confident his time would come.
“You’re definitely close,” he says. “But you know, its not easy to make that jump and it’s definitely something that you gotta keep working at every day — and every year.”
His debut, when it finally arrived on Saturday, was the culmination of a story that even the script writer for “The Mighty Ducks” would be proud of.
With Walker’s parents and fiance watching on proudly from the stands, the Capitals’ #79 scored his first NHL goal — the sixth in a 6-1 rout of the Montreal Canadiens.
There was an element of good fortune with the way his goal arrived, with Walker able to deflect the puck into the net from Devante Smith-Pelly’s long range shot.
“You know to have the family there, it was definitely really special to share that moment with them as well,” he says. “That was huge.
“It was definitely very special stepping out on the ice with all the guys. It was definitely a dream come true and, you know, to kind of put the cherry on top with a goal was definitely really special.”
Hockey back home
Walker is now hopeful that his profile in the US will lead to an increased awareness of ice hockey back home in Australia.
In a country where cricket, both forms of rugby and Aussie Rules dominate, that’s not going to be easy. Walker is aware of the challenge he faces but remains confident of creating a breakthrough.
“I definitely hope that it grows the game,” he says. ” As I’ve said in previous times, it’s a lot easier for kids to go buy a rugby ball and a soccer ball than for them to find a hockey shop, somewhere and get kitted out with all the gear.
“it’s going to be tough, but hopefully the game will grow back home.”
On Tuesday, Walker got more ice time — 7mins 43sec against Tampa Bay — but was then brought back down to earth when he was left out of the Capitals’ squad to play the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins. Washington lost 3-2.
Washington are scratching three players per game as only 20 players can be on a NHL team’s squad on game day.