Nathan Walker has become a fan favorite among Washington Capitals and Hershey Bears fans everywhere, but none may be bigger than Mike Lyons. Lyons, like Walker, has Australian roots, as he grew up in Melbourne. In a country where cricket, basketball and rugby dominate the sports pages, one American team Lyons liked while living there was the Redskins. He got his first taste of hockey when he stopped in Los Angeles after moving to the U.S. in 1994 and attended a Mighty Ducks game in Anaheim.
Four years after that experience, he was in the stands at the brand new MCI Center for one of the Stanley Cup Finals games in Washington where the Capitals fell to the Detroit Red Wings.
“Great game, sad result,” Lyons recalled.
20 years later, the Capitals are four wins away from making a return trip to the finals.
Lyons currently resides in Northern Virginia and is an IT instructor over at George Mason University. When NoVa Caps asked Lyons how he became interested in hockey, we found out that his love for hockey and the Capitals increased when his youngest son Brendan became a rabid Caps fan three years ago. He had learned about Nathan Walker when the Capitals signed him nearly one month after drafting him in 2014.
“I was expecting him to have to work his way up through the system, so his first game came quicker than I expected,” said Lyons.
Walker’s first game with the Capitals was a memorable and historical night as he became the first Australian-born athlete to both play in a NHL game and score a goal as the Capitals defeated the Canadiens 6-1 in their home opener.
“I was bummed I couldn’t go to his first game, especially when he scored but it was great to see his parents at the game,” said Lyons.
When Lyons was asked about how great of a story it is seeing a hockey player from Australia make it to the NHL level he responded, “It’s bonzer, mate! There have been a few Aussies in the NFL, especially punters, since that style of kicking is part of Aussie Rules and rugby, and a few in baseball. Racecar drivers have done well but for Nathan to succeed at this level in a sport which is still developing in Australia is phenomenal.”
There has recently been an uptick in interest in ice hockey over in Australia. Lyons’ hometown in Melbourne is now home to two ice hockey teams and has an arena with two rinks.
“When I was in my teens ice rinks, that were used just for skating, were closing down so I find it interesting that ice hockey is on the rise,” said Lyons.
Walker had an odyssey like no other this season. After he wasn’t getting much playing time, the Capitals placed him on waivers in early December with the goal of giving him more playing time with the Hershey Bears. That plan backfired as he was picked up by the Edmonton Oilers.
“I was devastated! To have him in my backyard, then off to the frozen north so soon,” recalled Lyons.
Lyons hoped to see him play in Washington at some point the next time the Oilers came to town but luckily enough this fellow Aussie got to see him play sooner thanks to the Oilers placing Walker back on waivers a few weeks later. The Capitals took advantage and claimed him right back!
“I was ecstatic for me, for him, and all Aussies! Tip of the titfer to the Caps management for snagging him again so quickly,” Lyons said. “I’m sure they were hoping to sneak him through waivers. The Oilers let him get away!”
After Walker rejoined the Capitals and the NHL roster freeze expired, Walker was sent back to Hershey. Mike gathered his family and made the three-hour trip up to Chocolate Town to see Walker play up close and personal.
“It was well worth the drive. The facility is awesome, the local fans are very friendly and the fried cheese curds are perfect for watching hockey, with a beer or two of course!,” said Lyons. “We’ve been a couple of times now and met Nathan afterwards each time. He’s very good about autographs and photos with fans and they love him up there too. As a bonus, the first time we met him we also said ‘G’day!’ to coach Trotz who was scouting while the Caps had a couple of days off.”
Walker registered 22 points (9 goals, 13 assists) in Hershey and when the Bears season came to an end, Walker was recalled by the Capitals since teams are allowed to expand their rosters for the playoffs. Walker made his playoff debut on in Game 6 of the second round on Monday night against the Penguins and had a critical assist on Alex Chiasson’s goal in the second period to give the Caps the early lead. You guessed it, more Aussie history! Walker became the first Australian athlete to play in an NHL playoff game and register a point.
“I wasn’t surprised he got into the action in Game 6. He plays his heart out every night and deserves it when good things come his way,” said Lyons.
When Lyons was asked about what kind of advice he would give to Walker as the Caps make their chase toward the Stanley Cup, Lyons simply said, “He doesn’t need any advice, whatever he’s doing is working for the team and he seems to be enjoying it immensely. Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!!”
By Michael Marzzacco