WASHINGTON – Nathan Walker made history on Saturday night becoming the first Australian player to dress in a National Hockey League game playing for the Washington Capitals in a 6-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens and scoring a goal in his premiere.
However, Saturday’s historic moment could’ve easily come with a different club altogether.
During the summer of 2013, Washington invited a then 19-year-old Walker to their training camp. After an impressive showing, the Capitals extended a contract to the teenager, but the NHL would not register the contract.
“Everyone had overlooked the fact that he was still technically a European player,” explained Allan Walsh, Walker’s agent. “The European signing deadline had gone into effect. I don’t even think he was eligible to go to camp.
Walker grew up in Australia but moved to the Czech Republic as a teenager to improve his hockey and at Vitkovice Ostrava he worked his way up to the senior pro league.
“No one really caught it. In the alternative, they put him in Hershey because he could still sign an American Hockey League contract, which he did. Then they were just intent on drafting him the next year and then putting him on an NHL deal.”
Walker scored five goals and six assists in 43 AHL games with the Hershey Bears during the 2013/14 season – enough for the Capitals to make a trade with the New York Rangers to move up and pick Walker with the 89th selection in the third round of the 2014 NHL draft.
After an impressive showing at Washington’s training camp last month, the Caps finally decided to give him a look in regular season action.
The 23-year-old, who was born in Cardiff, Wales, but moved with his family to Sydney, Australia at the age of two, scored a goal and had a team-leading four hits in the win.
Walker gave the Caps a 6-1 lead with 1:55 to play in the second period when a Devante Smith-Pelly shot re-directed off his leg and past Habs goaltender Al Montoya.
“That’s incredible and really proud moment too,” Walker said after the game. “(The puck) hit part of my body, just on the left leg. At first I wasn’t 100 per cent sure if it was a stick or the puck, but I guess they reviewed it.”
The 5-foot-9, 186-pound forward had 11:23 of ice time playing primarily with Smith-Pelly and Jay Beagle. Walker also saw time on both the power play and penalty kill in the win.
Saturday was another chapter in the lengthy journey within the game for Walker.
At 13, Walker decided to leave home and move to the Czech Republic with the hope it’d bring him closer to his dream of playing in the NHL. He played several seasons on the junior teams of Vitkovice Ostrava and spent two seasons with the senior pro team in the Czech Extraliga.
“I think it definitely made me more independent at an earlier age just considering the fact that I went there a little early,” Walker said during a conference call with reporters prior to Saturday’s game. “I had to be independent whether I was cooking for myself and similar stuff like that.
“In relation to on-ice, I was on the ice twice a day, every day of the week so it definitely gave me the chance and the opportunity to work on my skills.”
On the international stage, Walker produced six points in four games helping Australia win the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division II tournament in 2011. One year later ad the higher Division I Group B level he contributed two goals.
Following the 2014 draft, Walker spent parts of the next three seasons with the AHL club scoring 29 goals and 68 points in 159 regular season games. Walker also contributed five points in 20 playoff games helping Hershey reach the Calder Cup final in the spring of 2016.
“The organization has done a really good job in regards to players within the organization in Hershey,” said Walker. “The coaching staff down there has done a really good job at getting guys prepared for moments like this.”
At Capitals camp last month, Walker showed enough to earn an extended look from the NHL club. After sitting out as a healthy scratch in Thursday’s 5-4 shootout victory over the Ottawa Senators, he made his much anticipated debut on Saturday.
“The guys love him because he lays it on the line every shift, every moment,” said Capitals coach Barry Trotz. “He chased his dream across the world and there was no fear, absolutely no fear. He left his home at a young age, went continents away and he’s a great story.
“That’s a great inspiration to any person who is passionate not only about hockey, but any sport. It’s not traditional, but it could happen. He’s a real good story and he gave us some energy.”
Walker is hoping Saturday’s milestone will show young Australian hockey players that anything is possible.
“Hopefully I can inspire them a little bit,” he said. “Now that it can be done from Australia and if they have dreams (to play) definitely follow them and do what it takes to get where they want to go.”