AUSSIE Hershey Bears star and National Hockey League prospect Nathan Walker scored the decisive goal in the American Hockey League eastern conference finals, and is now set to make history.
Walker’s score a few minutes into the second period of Game 5 was Hershey’s third of the night against the Toronto Marlies, and ultimately proved the difference.
Leading the series 3-1, the Bears’ 3-2 win in Toronto secured them a place in the Calder Cup finals for the first time in six years, and tees up a tantalising piece of history for Walker.
Walker, 22, will now become the first Australian to play in the Calder Cup finals.
It’s just the latest accomplishment for Walker after he achieved another first in 2014, as the only Australian ever selected in the NHL Draft. The Washington Captials saw plenty of potential in the trailblazing 19-year-old, but sent him to play for their AHL and ECHL affiliate teams to further develop his game.
A torn ACL suffered in January last year while playing for the South Carolina Stingrays (ECHL) put Walker out of action and threatened to end his rise in the sport, but in the AHL this season the Wales-born, Sydney-raised left wing has been nothing short of phenomenal at Hershey.
Playing in 73 games for the Bears, Walker established himself as one of the team’s top performers, scoring 41 points (17 goals and 24 assists) in his most consistent season yet.
And that form hasn’t slipped in the playoffs, with the goal in Game 5 against the Marlies his second in the post-season.
Walker collected a number of accolades during his breakout year with Hershey, including being named the Bears’ Man of the Year, Most Improved Player and Unsung Hero.
His performance hasn’t gone unnoticed by Hershey’s NHL affiliate, Washington, either.
Speaking to media about the Bears’ progress this season, Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan hinted at Walker making his NHL debut as soon as next season.
“I anticipate these guys all get games next year,” MacLellan said earlier this month.
“Your Boyds [Travis Boyd], your Barbers [Riley Barber], your Walkers [Nathan Walker], they’ve all had good years. Walker seems to be a little bit more ready to play, a little more energy a little more maturity.
“We’ll see how they come into [Washington Capitals] camp [in July].”
Last year, following Walker’s season-ending injury, Capitals coach Barry Trotz was adamant the Aussie would play in the NHL, believing it was simply a matter of when, not if.
“Australia should be very proud of their countryman, because he will play in the National Hockey League,” Trotz told Fox Sports Australia.
“I think that he will have his moment to play, and it will be a big story, it’ll be a great story.”
“The Nathan Walker Story” is one that has captivated Australian and Hershey ice hockey fans, and should he continue on this upward trajectory, it’s only a matter of time before the NHL learns about his incredible journey too.
Standing in Hershey’s way of claiming their twelfth AHL championship are the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets affiliate team, the Lake Erie Monsters, who are in search of their maiden title though the now-defunct Cleveland Barons won it nine times for the city between 1936-1972.
The 80th Calder Cup finals best-of-seven series will get underway at Hershey on Wednesday June 1 (Thursday June 2, Australian time).