Nathan Walker becomes first Australian NHL player, celebrates with goal

'G'Day Nate': Australia's first NHL player Nathan Walker was instantly embraced by the Washington Capitals fans on his debut. Picture: Washington Capitals Photography
'G'Day Nate': Australia's first NHL player Nathan Walker was instantly embraced by the Washington Capitals fans on his debut. Picture: Washington Capitals Photography

Australian ice hockey has produced its first NHL player with Nathan Walker breaking into the final pillar of American sports.

Walker created history by stepping out for the Washington Capitals against one of ice hockey's most storied franchises, the Montreal Canadiens. Born in Wales but moving to Australia when he was two, Walker was the first Australian player to play an NHL game.

But as a man who has had to break new ground every step of the way to get to the pinnacle of ice hockey, Walker wasn't quite finished there. He wrote his name into the history books once again when he became the first Australian NHL goalscorer, deflecting a slap shot from line mate Devante Smith-Pelly in the second period. He also claimed the second star for the match, meaning he was rated the second best player on the ice.

"That was pretty special. The first couple of shifts, I wasn't really sure what happened, I was just skating around but I had a lot of fun out there," Walker said.

"As a kid you're always thinking that you're going to play in the NHL one day and to be there, I just tried to take it in and enjoy myself. I'm lost for words, it's incredible. It's a really special moment and a really proud moment as well."

The story of Nathan Walker started at the now-closed Blacktown Ice Rink when a 6-year-old Nathan took up the game, following in the footsteps of his older brother Ryan. Hailing from the Sutherland Shire, Walker was also a budding Cronulla Sharks junior but eventually chose to stick with his first love of ice hockey. 

A huge talent from an early age, Walker wanted more and begged his parents to allow him to move to the Czech Republic at 13 to chase his hockey dream with HC Vitkovice Steel. The move to the Czech Republic was instrumental in his career development.

"I think it definitely made me more independent, just considering I went there a little earlier,” he said.

Picture: Washington Capitals Photography

Picture: Washington Capitals Photography

"At the age of 13, I was cooking for myself and stuff like that. And I was on the ice twice a day every day so it definitely gave me the chance and opportunity to work on my skills.”

Walker moved to the US in 2012 and appeared on the Capitals radar. In 2014, he was drafted into the NHL with Capitals trading for a higher pick in the third round in order to snatch up Walker. He is the first Australian-raised player to be drafted into the NHL. 

After plying his trade with the Hershey Bears in the American Hockey League – the second tier of professional American hockey - for the past three years, Walker was hugely impressive through training camp and forced his way into the NHL side.

It's a journey that has covered a lot of ground and Walker has blazed a trail for future Australian ice hockey players but it has also been hard for his family. Walker said it was a "special moment” and that he was thrilled to be able to play in front of his parents Ceri and Wayne, brother Ryan and fiancee Tayla.

Picture: Washington Capitals Photography

Picture: Washington Capitals Photography

"The whole family was here - my fiancee as well so it was really special. To play on a stage like this is really incredible," Walker said.

"It was quick and fast. It was everything that I thought it would be and I felt a little more comfortable on the ice as we got towards the third period."

Almost an afterthought to the sense of history for Walker, the Capitals won the game 6-1 with captain and one of the league's leading players Alex Ovechkin scoring four goals including two within the first minute, his second straight hat-trick to start the season. Despite that result, he still had time to praise the young Australian.

"I was in his position - first game, first goal – he's going to remember that for his whole life,” Ovechkin said. "In front of his family, his parents were here, it's a great moment for them as well.”

Coach Barry Trotz was pleased with the performance, especially after the start to the match. He said it "wasn't a 6-1 game” and thought the Capitals found it tough in the second period. But after two wins to start the NHL season, he praised the energy in the side, particularly from Walker.

"We're getting some young guys in the lineup and we got some energy tonight obviously with Nathan Walker," he said. 

"I think that's a fabulous story for any young person anywhere in the world that wants to be part of this great game. He focused on something he wanted and had a passion for and it's a pretty good story."

After all the sacrifice and hard work it has taken just to get Walker to the NHL, he has some advice for those looking to follow in his footsteps. 

"Follow your dreams,” he said. "You need to set goals for yourself and in order to meet them, you need to pursue those dreams you want to follow.

"The road was definitely a long tough one but I think the will to keep at it and keep working hard definitely paid off."


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