The cold winters in the Czech Republic’s steel city Ostrava are a far cry from the warm summers in Sydney, Australia. But for 18-year-old Nathan Walker, there no place he’d rather be.
The 175-cm tall left winger plays for Vitkovice Ostrava in the Czech Extraliga, and he still gets a few strange looks when people find out he’s from the land down under.
“Yeah, people are definitely surprised,” laughs Walker, who has progressed rapidly through the Vitkovice junior system and has played regular minutes in the men’s first team. He registered 4 goals and 5 assists in 34 games for Vitkovice this season.
Walker will now lead Australia in the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B against host nation Poland, Korea, Lithuania, Romania and the Netherlands.
And he hopes to take the 34th-ranked side – and ice hockey Down Under – to even greater heights.
“I do think we have a good chance of medalling,” says Walker. “But all our games will be tough.”
While with the Ostrava-based club, he featured at the 2011 Spengler Cup, scoring two goals and an assist, and catching the eye of NHL scouts. Central Scouting has the gritty winger ranked 25th among European-based skaters for the upcoming 2012 NHL entry draft.
Walker can also lean on plenty of Vitkovice’s experienced players for guidance.
“It’s awesome playing with former NHLers,” says Walker, whose teammates include former NHL defencemen Marek Malik and Pavel Trnka.
“I am always listening to what they have to say trying to learn as much as I can.”
The club has nurtured his development from an early age, and he has been rewarded for his hard work with a regular roster spot with the first team.
Growing up in Australia, Walker played more traditional local sports such as rugby league, but was also a talented ice hockey player and a regular top scorer on his team.
He practised skating every day and his hard work paid off, with a little bit of luck thrown in. His big break came courtesy of his youth hockey coach who secured him a tryout with the Vitkovice club in 2007, aged just 13.
“[Slovak-born] Ivan Manco coached me in Australia and he knew one of the coaches here at Vitkovice,” Walker explains. “So he asked if I could go for a tryout.”
His quick skating and hard shot impressed the coaches, and he was rewarded with a place on Vitkovice’s U18 team that same year he became a regular on the squad a season later.
In the 2009/10 season, Walker’s production exploded, scoring 22 goals and 20 assists in 28 games, earning a place on the U20 team, where he posting a solid contribution.
Yet despite is rapid ascension through the Vitkovice system, Walker keeps his feet firmly on the ground.
He recently signed a three-year deal with the club and has adjusted to the Czech language and lifestyle with the help of family, and coaches.
“I talk to my parents two or three times a week,” he says. “There are a lot of people who have been my mentors, but particularly my brother Ryan.”
Australia’s national team coach Vladimir Rubes – another Czech native – has followed Walker’s career progression closely.
“He’s very talented for his age,” says Rubes. “To be playing at that level and at such a high calibre with the big boys, is really amazing. He is an excellent skater, has a great shot and plays like an experienced player.”
“He has a good chance at being selected in the NHL draft,” Rubes adds. “Even though he may be a little under-sized, the style of hockey he plays will mean he puts up a lot of points.”
Walker’s remarkable start to his career saw him selected to Australia’s senior men’s team for the 2011 championships in Melbourne, and was named the team’s best player, helping the Mighty Roos gain promotion to Division I.
“It was an awesome feeling winning in front of the home crowd,” he says.
Here’s hoping he can replicate that impressive form in Kyrnica.
After the Australian national team held its camp fittingly in Ostrava, the team will open the tournament in Poland against Korea.