Washington Capitals forward Nathan Walker may not have been on many fans radars when he made the roster to start the season. However, in his native Australia it marked the start of something big.
Nathan Walker Scores in NHL Debut, Could be Start of Something Big
Before Washington’s 6-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday, no Australian had ever played in the NHL. However, almost as soon as the 23-year-old had skated his first shift, he’d scored, off a second period deflection from Devante Smith-Pelly to bring his sides score to six.
Ace goal, mate!
— NHL (@NHL) October 8, 2017
The world’s sixth-largest country has finally arrived in the NHL.
Walker did not grow up like the Canadians and others he is skating with on the Capitals. In his route to the NHL, Walker had to break down century old barriers preventing his countrymen from making their way to the league since 1917.
This is not to say he worked harder than anyone else on the team. However, when young Alexander Ovechkin or Braden Holtby were attending hockey camps or skating with their friends, Walker was patrolling the streets of Sydney looking for someone to play with or begging his brother to help him practice his shot.
In North America and most of Europe, hockey is for the masses, and it’s easy to get involved in. In Australia, this is not the case. Winters are warm, meaning no snow, summers are boiling, and ice rinks are scarcely present. Walker’s ice time was restricted to once per week.
Walker did not enjoy the luxury of competing against the best juniors in the world during his developing years. In fact, when he started playing with the Sydney Ice Dogs, his team’s home ice was located inside a shopping mall, with fans consisting of shoppers who happened to wander by, and a small community of hockey-mad Aussies.
Fortunately, Walker had a supportive family who recognized the futility of attempting to harvest an NHL dream in Australia. Despite his non-traditional background, Ceri and Wayne realized their son’s potential and sent him to the Czech Republic to further his development.
His family had to stay in Australia while the son fostered his dream on the other side of the world, but they were there when he made his debut against Montreal, to the cries of “Aussie Aussie Aussie”, and “g’day Nate”.
— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) October 7, 2017
Acknowledging Nathan Walker’s Big Moment
Credit to the Caps, who knew the gravity of the moment for a young man and his country. The club started the #gdayNate hashtag, put out a press release announcing his debut, and sent Walker out to skate first in front of a full and adoring Capital One Center.
— Dunc McKenzie McHarg (@duncanmcmc) October 7, 2017
Walker’s coach Barry Trotz has seen hundreds of journeys to the NHL throughout his time coaching in the top League and the AHL, but even he became emotional describing his fourth line forward’s magical night.
“He focused on something he wanted and had a passion for and it’s a pretty good story. He’s chased his dream across the world, and there is absolutely no fear. He left his home at a young age and went continents away.
“He is fearless, fearless in the way he plays, fearless in the way he pursued his passion. He’s a real guy.”
While Australia may not be a hockey country, they’re most certainly a sporting country. They rank among the best in the world in cricket, tennis, basketball, swimming, and rugby. Walker was quick to get congratulatory messages from many of his country’s famous athletes, even receiving a phone call from his country’s Prime Minister.
This may not rank among most NHL fans best moments of the season, but it will for one nation. With Walker plastered all over the news in his home country, maybe he’ll inspire the next Aussie hockey star to pick up a stick.
By his own admission, all it took for Walker to do so was seeing his brother skating and wanting to be involved. 17 years later, and he’s an NHLer.
His country’s first ever NHL player. G’day, indeed.
What does this mean for hockey in Australia?
Should we now expect an influx of Australians into the League? Probably not. But Walker’s presence in Washington is the small fire beginning to burn required for a developing nation to believe the NHL is within reach.
Australia is much like Canada and the United States. They’re all English-speaking western nations sharing similar cultures, and a love for sport. In all three countries, there is a plethora of different sports available to play and watch.
Perhaps unlike smaller, more hockey-suited nations, Australia has the population, financial means, and sporting hunger to foster a strong hockey program. Interest is where a sport lives and dies, and with Walker’s presence on television and the internet, there’s every chance hockey will become a popular viewing and playing choice for young Aussies.
The proof is in the pudding. 10 years ago, basketball was a highly niche sport in Australia, much like hockey is now. That is, until Andrew Bogut and Patty Mills arrived in the NBA.
A decade on, and the country is experiencing a basketball boom, in both popularity and participation. There was no magic tricks performed by Basketball Australia. Just the interest and exposure garnered by young Australians having someone to follow and support.
Australia now has their newest sporting star in Nathan Walker. Hopefully he will he be the first to help cultivate a hockey boom in his nation.