The Colorado Avalanche are back atop ice hockey's mountain after dethroning the two-time defending champions. Behind a goal and an assist from Nathan MacKinnon,…
The long, difficult path Nathan Walker has skated from Sydney’s Sutherland Shire to Las Vegas for the National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup finals is one of Australia’s great sporting stories.
There have been dark times in distant lands, a broken neck, a torn knee ligament and other crippling injuries.
Walker does not dwell on them.
“It’s pretty exciting times right now,” Walker told AAP.
The 24-year-old has always battled the odds.
He stands just 175cm tall, but has excelled in a foreign sport populated by violent giants.
Australians know little about ice hockey, but Walker, at the age of six, not only discovered the sport – he fell in love with it.
Walker’s speed and toughness caught the eye of the NRL’s Cronulla Sharks and he became a member of the club’s junior development squads, but unlike other kids from the shire a professional rugby league career was not his dream.
When he was 13 he had the foresight and drive to convince his parents to take him to the Czech Republic and leave him there with strangers because he knew Australia did not have the facilities, coaching or competition to nurture his dream of playing in the world’s number one league, North America’s NHL.
Walker did not know how to speak Czech and did not have friends.
But he worked on his game and was promoted from Czech junior to senior teams.
He caught the eye of NHL scouts and in 2013 signed with Ohio’s minor league Youngstown Phantoms.
A year later he fulfilled a dream to become the first Australian to be selected in the NHL Draft.
It was the Washington Capitals who saw something in the determined young Aussie and on Monday he will be a member of the team in game one of the Stanley Cup Finals when they take on the Las Vegas Golden Knights.
But even that road has been rocky.
This season he was cut by the Capitals, picked up by the Edmonton Oilers, cut by the Oilers then re-signed by the Capitals.
“It has definitely been a wild ride not just over the past 10 years or so, but even the last season it has been nuts,” Walker said.
Walker’s Cinderella story is just one of many in the best-of-seven series to decide the NHL champion.
The Capitals have never won an NHL championship, while the Golden Knights is an expansion team in its first year of existence stocked with discarded players.
The Capitals are led by Russia’s Alexander Ovechkin, perhaps the sport’s greatest player, but who has never won a NHL title.
There’s a good chance Walker may spend the entire series on the bench, just as he did in the Capitals’ seven-game Eastern Conference win against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Or coach Barry Trotz could toss him into the game like he did on May 8 when Walker made a game-changing assist to Alex Chiasson that led to the Capitals eliminating reigning champion Pittsburgh Penguins from the second round of the playoffs.
Walker, as he has proved throughout his long journey, is ready for anything.
“You always have to be ready to go,” Walker said.