BRIDGEPORT, USA – To say Nathan Walker has taken the long road to playing North American pro hockey is an understatement.
Walker was born in Cardiff, Wales, but his family moved to Sydney, Australia when he was two. That’s where he learned to play and fell in love with hockey. After playing in Australia he moved to play junior and professional hockey for Vitkovice Ostrava in the Czech Republic (see separate story), made the Australian men’s national team and now has worked his way onto the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears line-up as an undrafted free agent and quite unknown player this fall.
There was no Hockey Night in Sydney to whet his hockey appetite. Walker did it the old-fashioned way picking up a stick and skates and learning on the fly starting at age 5.
In Australia, a nation where rugby and football (soccer) are king, picking up ice hockey as a sport of choice was outside the box.
“I started playing the game with my brother (Ryan) and I got hooked on it. I really liked it, skating was a lot of fun!” said Walker.
In North America, ice skating rinks are plentiful in most areas. In Australia there are not many and ice time was in very short supply. Currently, there are just 20 rinks nationwide with the most in New South Wales.
“We were on the ice about once or twice a week. In most other places you have daily ice sessions,” Walker said. That underscores just how far this journey would be.
The growth and development at his early age came from one of his first coaches with the Australian junior program, Ivan Manco.
“I owe a lot to him because he helped me get started and saw the potential in me and I’ll always be grateful to him and others in Australia for helping me.”
In his late teenage years Walker played a couple of games for the Sydney Ice Dogs of Australia’s top league AIHL during summer but the last few seasons of his junior career he mostly spent in the Czech Republic where he also had two seasons in the top men’s league of the country, the Extraliga.
A former teammate, Rob Malloy of Cheshire, Connecticut, the captain of the Ice Dogs who won this year’s Goodall Cup title in Australia, remembers Walker distinctly and is not surprised he has made the Bears.
“You always knew ‘Stormy’ was special. He had very good speed and a good shot. I’m not surprised at all he has made it to the AHL and I think he will play in the NHL.”
Walker recognizes how special that experience was to play in Australia.
“It was great to play before family and friends and I appreciate the chance I got with the Ice Dogs, but I want to play at the very highest level (NHL),” he said.
But how did he wind up with the Vitkovice junior program in the Czech Republic?
“Ivan knew some coaches in the Czech Republic and he knew I wanted to play more and he made some calls and off I went.”
It was a bit more difficult than that since he was just 13 years old.
Walker had to convince his parents to let him go. After making his case that he wanted to follow his dreams his parents relented with just one condition. His brother Ryan, seven years older, had to go with him.
Current teammate Brandon Segal is amazed by his journey.
“I left home when I was 16 years old and it was hard. I cannot imagine doing it at 13. You’re still a baby. That shows how much he loves hockey and what a big person he already is,” he said about Walker.
He played on junior and professional teams in a hockey country where he had to overcome inherit obstacles like language then toss in hockey pride and his youthful age to the mixture.
“They came to see me as one of their own eventually. There were challenges at first, but it worked out and it was a great experience. We played mostly in the Czech Republic and on an off day we went to see places, there are some great sites to see,” he said.
It was there Walker learned the differences in ice surfaces was not only the size of ice, but also the quality of.
“I figured a sheet of ice was a sheet of ice. I really learned the larger surface and it helped my game greatly and we had two sessions a day on ice which I never had before. They obviously had more rinks than we had in Australia. It was a harder surface so you could say that’s when I really started playing.”
Walker played the last two years with a team that featured former NHLers such as Marek Malik, Filip Kuba and Michal Barinka.
He was based in the city of Ostrava and but his sights were set even farther and that was North America. He got a pretty famous Czech agent in Petr Svoboda.
Svoboda played as a defenceman 16 years and 1,028 games in the NHL with his top years with Montreal, Buffalo, Philadelphia and Tampa Bay. The switch from the Czech Republic landed Walker a try-out with the Youngstown Phantoms of the United States Hockey League (USHL), one of the two major junior leagues in the U.S.
“I really wanted to try the North American game. It’s more physical and my game is more suited for that kind of play. Petr made some contacts and the chance came,” Walker said.
After a disappointing 20-game stint with just one assists with Vitkovice’s senior team after 24 points in 13 games with the U20 team and a three-game loan to minor-league team HC Sumperk, Walker took the gamble. He set off to play in North America on January 8th and laced up the skates for the Youngstown Phantoms in Ohio, racking up 27 points in 29 games and 63 penalty minutes in a half season of action.
Now with his age working against him he had to seek a professional chance being too old to continue in juniors and this time his Youngstown coach Anthony Noreen’s connections with the Washington Capitals scouting staff paid off.
Walker got in two NHL exhibition games this fall in Belleville, Ontario and Baltimore, Maryland and even pre-season crowds were bigger than he experienced growing up in Australia.
“That was awesome. The feel, the energy. It was pretty overwhelming actually. A few more fans than I have ever been in,” he said.
Walker also got to witness Russian superstar Alexander Ovechkin up close and personal and he was as dazzled as the audiences are.
“He is such a talent. He does so many things so well and to be honest I was really struck at first. You find yourself watching him. He’s that amazing,” remarked Walker.
He admires the skills of another small NHL player who has had big success in Tampa Bay’s Martin St. Louis, who was an undrafted player out of the University of Vermont and was deemed too small to play in the NHL. He recently just surpassed the 1,000-game mark in the NHL.
Walker signed an AHL standard players’ contract to start the season to play for the Bears, the Capitals’ top farm team in the AHL. At age 19, he’s one of the youngest players in the league.
Hershey is the top leader in AHL attendance with an average of 9,040 fans and Saturday nights it’s a 10,000 plus crowd at the Giant Center, a major added bonus for Walker as he begins his pro career in North America.
Bears head coach Mike Haviland, who was with the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in 2010 as an assistant and won an AHL Calder Cup title, marvels at Walker’s play, background and determination.
“What I have really noticed is how well he knows the game. He knows where to go without the puck, he really has good instincts. Considering where he came from starting the game, he’s only going to get better with time,” the coach said.
Haviland has been around hockey for many years and is happy to see Walker’s enthusiasm.
“He really wants to learn, he asks a lot of questions. He is not afraid to ask the older guys,” Haviland said. “He loves the game so much, has a lot of passion and respect for the game. When you have that you get more out of the game. He’s a driven young man. He always has a smile on his face. It’s a breath of fresh air to have him here.”
Segal, who is one of the older guys on the team along with Jeff Taffe and captain Dane Byers, has gained respect for his young teammate and admiration of his skill set.
“It is a pretty unique story. He’s come a long way and he is only 19. His speed is unbelievable. He’s one of the fastest players I have seen in a while. He’s only going to get better. The sky is the limit. He is that Aussie guy, but he has told us what it’s like on the mainland there, it is amazing.”
Like any player who is 9,787 miles (15,759 kilometres) from Sydney, he misses his family having not been back since last June before leaving for the Capitals’ prospect camp.
“I miss them a lot and haven’t been home and won’t get a chance till the season is over with the schedule like it is.”
It’s been a long strange trip already and many more miles to go for Stormy, his mother gave him the nickname, will be causing a bigger stir in the hockey world.