While getting to the NHL is hard enough, getting to the NHL after growing up in Australia brings a whole new set of challenges. For Capitals forward Nathan Walker, he did both by making the Capitals’ Opening Night roster, albeit as an extra. But while being a hockey player on a continent that is more known for fielding soccer and rugby teams bring its own obstacles, for Walker, the journey has been even more difficult than many might realize.
In a recent article written for The Players Voice, an Australian version of The Player’s Tribune, a website where various sports figures write about personal experiences, Walker revealed some personal details about his life growing up, setbacks he suffered throughout his hockey career, and life playing in the Czech Republic.
Very early on in his hockey career, Walker had to make a decision. While most boys his age took to rugby, Walker chose skates over cleats and a stick and puck over a rugby ball. His father signed him up for a junior hockey team in Cronulla, and it was there where Walker began his hockey journey. Growing up, Walker’s favorite player was Danny Nutley. Many know that at the age of 13, Walker moved to the Czech Republic to pursue his dream of one day playing in the NHL. His coach at the time, Slovak Ivan Manco, contacted clubs in the Czech Republic to get Walker tryouts, as his contacts within the United States were limited. As one can imagine, moving to a foreign country at the tender age of 13 is no easy task. For Walker, it came as a huge shock.
“As a 13-year old, the culture shock was huge. I went from sunny Australia to the cold and gray Czech Republic. I was living in a city called Ostrava with a family that didn’t speak any English. I didn’t speak Czech, and didn’t know anyone, so the first year was really hard. It would take me ages to do simple things like travel five minutes down the road for practice”
Walker had to adjust to life away from his family, and often called them, feeling incredibly homesick. To help him adapt, Walker simply focused on playing the sport he loved, and despite wanting to give up and return home, he persevered through the tought times. As one might expect, Walker had difficulty communicating with his coaches and teammates, but over time, learnt both Czech and Slovak, as well as some Russian. Despite the obstacles he faced, Walker moved quickly through the junior levels in the Czech Republic.
However, Walker’s career was put on hold when he broke his neck shortly after moving to the United States to play for the United States Hockey League’s Youngstown Phantoms. After getting hit from behind, Walker explained how his head collided with the boards, and immediately knew something was wrong.
“The doc said one inch to the left and it wouldn’t have looked good for me. At the end of the day though, that’s hockey – it’s a quick game and that stuff happens. I wouldn’t hold a grudge if things had turned out differently. Thankfully enough, it didn’t.”
Walker then goes on to explain about his experience being the first Australian drafted into the NHL, and how because of the time difference between the United States and Australia, he received the news at 3:00 A.M. that he had been drafted. And while his historic accomplishment has made headlines throughout the United States and his native Australia, Walker says that the significance has sunken it just yet.
Walker then tells about his experiences playing in American Hockey League with the Hershey Bears, and in particular, his role throughout. He talks about his experience playing last season with the Bears, and what he describes as “some of my best hockey yet”.
While he has yet to play in his first official NHL contest, there’s no denying that Nathan Walker will be a key component of the Capitals this season. His work ethic has been apparent from the moment he began his hockey career and through thick and thin, he has done what some may have said is impossible and made history.
The full article can be read here.
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By Michael Fleetwood