Washington Capitals Nathan Walker is no stranger to achieving firsts in his hockey career, so it’s fitting the 24-year-old chose to use the newly established Next Level Performance Centre in Brisbane, Australia as a casual meet and greet.
Officially opened at the beginning of the year, this facility provides coaching and an informal space to hone skills. It is a typical example of hockey ethos: friendly, supportive and passionate about the game.
It’s yet another example of Walker’s efforts to promote the sport in a country where hockey is largely overshadowed by bigger, better-developed sports. The recently crowned Stanley Cup Champion was humble and polite to fans and staff in what was a busy evening as waves of hockey hopefuls young and old came to meet the nations’ star.
Capitals Nathan Walker Brings Hockey Down Under
Although he calls Sydney home, the winger takes his unofficial role across the continent; promoting hockey across Australia.
Everywhere he goes, a small contingent of eager fans awaits.
“It’s been great, you know, the support I have received back here — it’s been phenomenal,” Walker smiled, obviously still overwhelmed by his success.
“The hockey community here isn’t overly big, but the Australian ice hockey community is really proud and it’s a strong tight-knit community,” he continued.
The hockey community is certainly intimate, particularly the further North you venture.
There is no longer an Australian Ice Hockey League — the country’s top-level league — team in the State Of Queensland, after the Gold Coast Blue Tongues failed to find a suitable new home in 2015. The team simply could not compete against the support and funding of the main sport of the state, the National Rugby Leauge.
The Brisbane United Ice Hockey League (BUIHL) is the state’s senior league based in South East Queensland, but it only sports a handful of teams competing at each level.
Other states have managed to weather the storm; there are currently eight teams in the AIHL. That league will commence its 18th year in a few weeks time, but like most things in Australia, it is relatively young in comparison to other countries.
Nathan Walker As Aussie Ambassador
“I like to consider myself a little bit if an ambassador,” Walker continued. “I like to think I am kind of paving a way for Aussie kids to show them its possible to live out their dreams — to pursue a dream playing ice hockey — and trying to grow the game back here as well,” he said.
“There are little things I am trying to do here and there. Whether it’s getting kids to be more passionate about their game, or to try and involve their parents a little more; just having that I think goes a long way with kids that really love the game and just wanna play,” he noted.
It is no surprise Walker’s first thoughts go to family support given what he sacrificed to play hockey growing up. The NHL may still be waiting for it’s first Aussie had Walker been born to different parents.
Originally from a non-hockey type background, his parent’s Ceri and Wayne realized their son’s potential and sent him to the Czech Republic to further his development. With limited facilities on home soil, Walker could only train once a week. It’s a problem most Australian hockey players still face. One Walker finds solidarity in – and hopes he can be part of the solution.
Building From the Ice Up
“Facilities like this definitely help, you know a Next Level Performance centre like this is just incredible,” he beamed.
Sitting in the middle of the Next Level Performance Center, Walker is surrounded by an abundance of innovative training facilities to excite any aspiring player. From the synthetic ice area — for those on skates — to the Inline Court for blades, the NLPC caters to every player. Even those who enjoy the tough fast-paced game of sledge hockey.
The para-equivalent is an area where Australian players are already showing promise. The country hopes to have a squad ready for the 2022 Beijing Olympics.
Still, the gap between where the country is, and where they hope to be, is plain to see. Although the kids and adults present Wednesday night had decent hockey skills, when Walker entered the shooting lanes and joined in it was clear to everyone that the standards to play at the sports highest level were stratospheric. It was a stunning display that again emphasized the need for facilities like this one; and the need for them to be more widespread and promoted if there’s be another Nathan Walker.
“When I was a kid I wish I had something like this! I [would] probably wake up every morning with Blisters all over my hands from shooting that many pucks,” he laughed.
“It’s awesome what they are doing here, I think is definitely the right direction; where hockey needs to go. I am sure in the next few years it will just continue to grow as it has been and its great to see young kids playing the game.”
From Sydney to Stanley — Australia Eyes the Future
Even though Walker spends most of the year nearly 10,000 kilometres away from home, the Aussie hero is still having a profound impact on the burgeoning sport back home. His involvement in crowd-pleasers like the Ice Hockey Classic, for example, gives the country a presence across the globe, and a goal for Australians to aspire to.
But Walker does more than that.
His continuing care and support for the close-knit Aussie hockey communities, the ones who teams battle for ice time in small ice rinks on the outskirts of town, the passionate places like the Next Level Performance Centre — where the real spirit of hockey will develop in the next few years — is what makes him truly invaluable.
There is much hard work still to be done but it’s on the rise with help from number 79.
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