Aussie Nathan Walker Pursues NHL Dream in Youngstown
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio - Not even a dozen games into his career with the Youngstown Phantoms and left wing Nathan Walker has already made quite the impression. The 19-year-old winger aptly nicknamed "Stormy" has, well, stormed onto the United States Hockey League scene, scoring a goal on his first shift and endearing himself to fans and NHL scouts alike with his tenacious play on the ice.
Walker possesses a rare blend of speed, high-end offensive skills, hockey sense and relentless work ethic. Although listed at just 5-foot-10, 185 pounds, he doesn't shy away from the physical aspect of the game, either. There are former NHLers playing in the Czech Extraliga that can attest to that.
After being passed over in last year's NHL Entry Draft in Pittsburgh, Walker is even more determined to hear his name called at the draft this June in New Jersey. He is far from a unique in that regard, but where he differs from countless other USHLers is the journey that has brought him across three continents and two oceans, to achieve that dream.
So just how does an Australian kid pick up ice hockey? That's a question that Nathan Walker, who was actually born in Wales, but moved "Down Under" with his family at age 2, has been asked a lot over the past few years.
The answer is the same way most youngsters across U.S., Canada and Europe pick up the sport - or any sport for that matter.
"Probably through my older brother Ryan," Walker said. "He started playing hockey and as the younger brother, I wanted to do what he did.
"Also the movie Mighty Ducks pretty much set me up for it."
For Walker, it was hockey films like The Mighty Ducks and Mystery Alaska that helped cultivate his passion for the sport because, as one could guess, Australian television didn't broadcast too many games. In recent years, he said, there's been progress on that front with as many as four NHL games shown a week, but growing up he looked up to Charlie Conway, the main character in the Mighty Ducks trilogy, not the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Brett Hull or Mario Lemieux.
The reality of playing hockey wasn't much easier. A survey in the Ice Hockey Australia 2011 Annual Report recorded the number of registered ice rinks at 20. If that number looks small, also take into account the continent itself is nearly 3 million square miles with a population of more than 20 million. Walker only had the opportunity to skate a few times a week, and even then, the climate did not always cooperate.
"I remember this rink - it's shut down now - but in the summer it used to be a swimming pool," he said. "Like it would just be melted. It was so good, though, because we were all just kids and we'd just throw on some trackies (track pants) and pretty much just skate across the ice and slide into the water."
When he did get the chance to play, however, Walker shined. By the time he was 13, he was playing in Australian leagues with 20-year-olds, and dominating. He sought a new challenge.
"Every time after practice or every time after games I was coming home and saying, "Mom I want to go overseas. I want to see what I can do against players my own age from different countries,'" he said. "I wanted to see what I got against the world."
His parents, Wayne and Ceri, eventually granted his wish and later that year, Walker embarked to pursue his dream in the Czech Republic.
Ostrava is the Czech Republic's third-largest city and straddles the border with Poland. When rich coal deposits were discovered near the turn of the18th century, Ostrava blossomed into the industrial epicenter of the region and during the Soviet era it was often referred to as "the steel heart of the republic." The city's hockey team, HC Vitkovice Steel, references that heritage.
Nathan Walker arrived in Ostrava in the fall of 2007. His youth coach, Slovakian-born Ivan Manco, arranged for weeklong tryout with HC Vitkovice. He wowed the staff and at just 13 years old and unable to speak a lick of Czech, Walker began skating the HC Vitkovice Under-18 Team. Manco also set him up with a local family to stay with his first season, but the following year, he began living on his own.
"The first three years were probably the toughest," Walker said. "I was still pretty young and I didn't know anyone."
Despite a new country, new language and new team, Walker flourished. He became fluent in Czech and He became a mainstay on the U-18 squad in 2008-09. The next season season he averaged more than a point per-game and earned a promotion to the junior team. In 2010-11 he was among the junior league's leading scorers, racking up 20 goals and 22 assists for 42 points in just 37 games most of which before his 17th birthday.
On Oct. 9, 2011, Walker made history when he suited up for HC Vitkovice senior team, becoming the first Australian to play in a professional European hockey game. He was the youngest player in the Czech Extraliga - a league populated with dozens of former NHL and AHL players - and recorded 4-5-9 in 34 games in 2011-12.
"It was a lot different than playing juniors. Everything's so much quicker. You don't have much time," he said. "I sort of had my head on a swivel and didn't really know what to do the first couple of games, but the coaches and players helped me a lot to adjust to that style of play."
Walker broke more new ground in December 2011 in Davos, Switzerland. HC Vitkovice was invited to participate in the annual Spengler Cup, the oldest professional international hockey tournament in the world.
The Czech club drew Team Canada in the first game of the group stage. The game was a blowout.
With a roster loaded with former, and some soon-to-be, NHLers and a Stanley-Cup-winning coach in Marc Crawford behind the bench, Canada jumped out to a 6-0 lead after two periods. But 8:23 into the final period, with HC Vitkovice on its fourth power play of the game, a Canada defenseman fanned on a clearing attempt in front of his own net. Walker pounced on the puck, shrugged off the collapsing defense and banked it off the post and past former NHL All-Star Marty Turco to become the youngest player to score a goal in the tournament's 88-year history.
It also proved to be the lone goal for the Steel as Canada cruised to a 7-1 win. HC Vitkovice, however, went on to earn a berth in the semifinals, only to fall to eventual champion, and host team, HC Davos 4-2. Walker finished the tournament with 2-1-3 in four games and captured, a performance that put him on the NHL's radar.
NHL Central Scouting released its final rankings for 2012 NHL Entry Draft on April 9, 2012. Coming in ranked No. 25 among European skaters, the second highest rated player in the Czech Extraliga, was Nathan Walker.
Some analysts speculated Walker could go in the top three rounds, others believed a team wouldn't take a flier on him until the final rounds, but the general sentiment was that Walker would become the first Australian player drafted into the NHL.
The Walkers understandably did not make the tip to Pittsburgh two-day event held June 22-23, and instead remained at home in Australia. Day 2 of the draft, which encompassed rounds 2-7, got underway shortly after 2 a.m. in Sydney and he, his family and some "hockey mates" huddled around a webcast in anticipation.
But his name wasn't called.
Walker wasted no time dwelling on the snub, and it did not take long before one NHL club came calling. Just a few days later the Washington Capitals extended him an invitation to their Prospect Development Camp. Before he knew it, he was boarding a plane to take him from Australia to Arlington, Va.
By many accounts, he rose more than a few eyebrows on the Capitals' player personnel staff, but could not sign as an unrestricted free agent because of a technicality. Instead, Walker returned to the Czech Republic to open the 2012-13 campaign with HC Vitkovice.
"Not getting drafted made me go to the gym more and made me train more," he said. "I'm on the ice 10 minutes after everyone else and try to be on there earlier than everyone else. I'm motivated a lot more than [I would be] being drafted."
However, HC Vitkovice team struggled out of the gate and management made a change behind the bench. Walker in turn was bumped from the senior team to the junior team and he began thinking about his future - about his dream.
A change was in order.
"I decided with my advisor that the best hockey for me would be to come over here and play in the USHL," he said.
Walker arrived in Youngstown Wednesday, Jan. 9. He practiced with the Phantoms for the first time the following day, and immediately after that practice, he and his new teammates climbed on the bus to Chicago for the start of a two-game road trip.
Fair or not, the world is rife with stereotypes and the hockey world is no different. One of the most prominent and delusional views in some hockey circles is that players trained in Europe are "soft." It stems from the fact that European leagues play the game on Olympic ice sheets, which are 15 feet wider than traditional North American sheets, giving skaters more lateral room and making it that much more difficult to lay a crunching hit.
As a hockey player from Australia, Nathan Walker has had to deal with his fair share of stereotypes as well.
"Hey did you ride in here on a kangaroo -
Just don't try to pin the "soft Euro" tag on him. And for that, he can thank his development in Australia.
"They like to bang bodies. That's pretty much Australian hockey," Walker said. "I guess you could say I picked some of it up from Rugby, too.
"When I went to Czech, I just stuck to my game and kept hitting everyone.
Walker made his debut with Phantoms on the road against the Chicago Steel on Jan. 11- two days after he arrived in North America. Still jet-lagged and with only one short practice with Youngstown under his belt, He admitted he was nervous.
Before the game, head coach Anthony Noreen spoke to him.
"I told him, "don't worry about thinking the game too much. Just go out, have fun and compete,'" Noreen said. "If he did that, usually good things will happen."
Walker's first shift came about two minutes into the opening period. Steel forward Danny Fetzer was skating up the left side to dump the puck in when the Aussie came flying from the bench and bashed him into the boards. Youngstown defenseman Kale Bennett gathered the puck up in his end and banked it off the wall for Zach Evancho at the blue line as Walker came swinging through the neutral zone.
Evancho moved it up for him at the center ice dot and he went driving toward the net, straight through a crowd of three Chicago skaters. He created some separation, used his body to protect the puck and muscled a backhand shot from in tight on Steel goaltender Alex Sakellaropoulos, who made the initial save.
But Walker kept working - kept digging. The puck dislodged and he pushed it in.
"I wanted to start off with a big bang," Walker said. "I think I proved my point that I can play in this league."
The Phantoms went on to win 3-2 and the following night in Lincoln, Neb., he recorded his first assist in a 5-2 victory over the Stars. By the time the time the team arrived back in Youngstown after the 14-hour bus ride from Nebraska - a trip longer than any bus ride or flight he had taken in a decade-plus of playing hockey on two continents - Walker had become as comfortable with his teammates as he was on the ice.
"You can tell the guys like him and get along with him," Noreen said. "And obviously his play on the ice speaks for itself. He's a guy who plays the exact style that we want.
Walker recorded at least a point in each of his first seven games with the Phantoms. Even when he was finally held off the score sheet on Feb. 1 against the Muskegon Lumberjacks, he racked up a season-high nine shots and showed off his flashy stick handling skills when he netted the game-winning goal in the fourth round of a shootout.
When teammate Austin Cangelosi was forced to pull out of the USHL/NHL Top Prospects Game due to illness, Walker replaced him in the lineup. By the end of the night, he had played his way onto Team East's top line and although Team West came away with a 2-1 win, he put on an impressive performance in front of dozens of NHL scouts, staffs and decision makers.
Although the opportunity to take part in the Top Prospects Game was a special one, Walker said he knows that there are NHL scouts in the stands at every USHL game. That's what drew him to the league.
"There are a lot more scouts watching these junior games in America than there are over in Czech," he said. "There are probably a few scratching their heads a bit to see if I could compete with the physicality of the [North American] game. Hopefully I can change their minds."
Walker has faced skeptics at every level - in every league - and it may never change. That's out of his control.
But he also has the drive to chase his dream across oceans and continents, and the support of an entire nation. What he can do - and has done - is seize every opportunity he gets and trust that at least one NHL team will take notice. Because that's all it takes.
"One of my life goals is to get drafted," Walker said. "I'm going to keep pushing."
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