Last year, I spent some time speaking about my struggles with mental health and its impact on my sporting endeavours.
Instead of beach cricket or Aussie rules as a child, Sydney’s Nathan Walker chose hockey on the cold, clear ice.
While kids around the world grew up with Hollywood’s The Mighty Ducks trilogy, in Australia strapping on pads and picking up a hockey stick never seemed viable.
But in a huge week for Australian sport – that saw Dante Exum and Cameron Bairstow picked in the NBA draft – Walker becomes Australia’s first NHL player.
As the Washington Capitals announced his name with pick number 89 on Saturday, Walker reached a milestone for our country – having now had an Australian play in all major American sports leagues (NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL, MLS).
Walker now has a seat at Australian sport’s roundtable alongside Luc Longley (NBA 1991-2001), Colin Ridgway (1965), Joe Quinn (MLB 1884-1901), and Danny Allsopp (2010) as the men who reached America’s big leagues first.
What makes Walker’s story that much more interesting is the lack of facilities for ice hockey in the country. Unlike basketball, soccer, or baseball, Sydney holds just five ice rinks for 4.5-million people.
Compare this to Prince George, Canada – a hockey hungry town 10-hours north of Vancouver – with a population of just 70,000-people, but four hockey complexes with up to three rinks in each.
Then add the 21 community outdoor rinks available in minus-10 degree winters. Not to mention hosed down backyards. You get the idea. Everyone plays puck.
So how do you make it to the National Hockey League – ice hockey’s NBA or NFL equivalent – from Sydney?
Walker wasn’t wasting his time trying from Australia.
In a sport where many skills don’t translate – due to the whole being on ice skates and getting body checked thing – it would be near impossible to make a transition like cricket to baseball or AFL players heading to the NFL.
So he convinced his parents at age 13 to send him to the Czech Republic. Walker joined HC Vítkovice, a hockey club in Ostrava, a city slightly smaller than Canberra close to the Polish border. From there, he worked up into the club’s senior team by age 17, then headed for the land of the NHL – North America.
The left wing signed with Youngstown in Ohio, a Junior A team made up of 16 to 20-year-olds, last year before impressing the Washington Capitals in a training camp.
After catching the eye of an NHL team, players are often sent to ‘farm teams’ –the league’s development squads.
Walker scored five goals and had 11 points – goals and assists combined – in 43 games for Hershey Bears last season in the American Hockey League, Washington Capitals’ development team.
And with that, he hoped his NHL hopes would be reached.
“Walker has great speed and a strong work ethic,” says Mike Vogel, a senior writer for the Washington Capitals website.
And in a league that often drafts prospects – not ready to take the NHL ice for two to three years after signing – the Capitals think 20-year-old Walker is ready for next season.
“He already has a season of pro hockey under his belt and is quite familiar with the Caps’ organisation.”
The timing of Walker’s selection is perfect for promotion of the Winter Olympics most popular sport. International Ice Hockey, a company set up to promote the game around the world, is headed to Australia in July.
This is the third time International Ice Hockey has sent a team of Canadians across the Pacific to take on a team of Americans in front of Australians.
Last year 18,000 people turned out over two nights in Melbourne, while over 20,000 fans came in Sydney.
Due to that success, this year the teams will play in Perth, Brisbane, Melbourne, and Sydney between July 11-26 for the Douglas Webber Cup and title of International Ice Hockey champions.
To ensure fans are entertained, the series winner is decided by which team scores more goals over the four games.
As Nathan Walker lines up next to Capitals superstars Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom and other Russians, Swedes, Germans, Canadians, and Americans, hopefully he will enjoy a long and successful career like Luc Longley or Joe Quinn. But whatever happens on the ice, no one can take his title of first Aussie in the NHL.
Follow Lachlan @LachlanRoss89