WHEN it comes to American sports, there remains just one top league Aussies are yet to have conquered. Not one Australian has ever played in the National Hockey League. But Washington Capitals head coach Barry Trotz says Sydney’s Nathan Walker is the man who will break that duck.
Walker was in line for a call-up earlier this year from the Capitals-affiliate American Hockey League team, Hershey. However an unluckily-timed broken hand suffered blocking a shot in a game delayed his promotion to the NHL.
“I thought for sure he’d be one of the guys playing, but unfortunately he got hurt,” Trotz said, exclusively speaking to Fox Sports Australia from Washington.
“It set him back but I still believe he’s going to be that trailblazing Australian player.”
With the trade deadline approaching on March 1 when more experienced players may be recruited by the Capitals, and with just a few months of the NHL regular season remaining before the playoffs start on April 12, the window for Walker to still get a call-up has narrowed somewhat while the left wing enters the final week of his injury rehab.
There’s still a flicker of hope the Aussie will get a shot this season with Washington though.
“There is a chance, there’s no question there’s a chance,” Trotz said.
“Obviously he’s got to get back, to get playing, and be playing well.
“I’m sure if he didn’t get hurt, he would have been up here playing some of his first NHL games.”
Tenacious. Brave. Heart.
Those are just some of the words Trotz uses to describe Walker.
The enthusiasm Trotz has for the ice hockey prospect, and the incredible journey he’s undertaken to be in the position to soon become the first Aussie to play in the NHL, it’s nothing short of infectious.
“It’s like Eddie the Eagle and Cool Runnings, the Jamaican bobsledders,” he said.
“Here’s this surfer dude from Australia who lives near the beach and he’s going to be a hockey player. There’s a story.”
Walker was drafted by the Capitals in 2014. By that time he had already played professionally in 2011 in the Czech Republic having moved there as a 13-year-old to help pursue his ice hockey dream.
Walker moved to the US following his European adventure and in just over a year he was drafted 89th overall as a fresh-faced 19-year-old.
“Most players go through the process, learning how to play the game at the junior level,” Trotz said.
“He’s come in and played in the AHL and been a regular at an earlier age than kids are required to play at, so he’s actually head of the curve even though he’s not from a traditional market.
“I’ve had a lot of players who’ve never been drafted, or took the long road to the NHL. I really love those players who have unique stories because those are the guys that have the heart to endure; the heart to believe.”
Since being drafted into the Capitals organisation Walker has battled through serious injury and overcome some form struggles to become a genuine star of the Bears line-up today in a league just one tier below the NHL.
Among Hershey fans Walker is one of the most popular players.
The team have fully embraced their pocket-rocket left wing, even making a special edition snow globe in his honour that has a figurine of Walker in full hockey gear standing beside a little kangaroo.
That popularity could be because of his unique background, but it’s probably got more to do with the 23-year-old’s instrumental role in Hershey’s success in recent seasons. In the same year Walker had a breakout, career-best season scoring 41 points in 73 games, the Bears almost won the Calder Cup.
That is no coincidence.
“What we’ve learned with Nathan is he’s got exceptional speed, he’s got a drive that is undeniable, and he’s got a sense of bravery — not for fighting — the bravery to win that battle when you’re going 30mph into the corner and there’s guys bearing down; bravery to block that shot when a guy is teeing it up; he’s fearless in all those areas,” Trotz said.
“In the standings we’re a top team in the NHL, so we’re a deep team, but when I would call Troy Mann [Hershey’s head coach], his name would come up all the time. He’s playing exceptionally well.
“Even though he’s not 6-foot-4, he’s very strong, and he works at it, his game, his conditioning.
“He is going to be a National Hockey League player.”
That’s music to Walker’s ears.
Naturally he’s hoping it’s sooner rather than later that he gets that elusive call.
Luc Longley was the first Australian to play in the NBA in 1991. Colin Ridgway became the first Aussie in the NFL in 1965. And in MLB, Queenslander Joe Quinn made his debut way back in 1884, a whole 102 years before the next Aussie would play in the majors.
Nathan Walker wants to join this elite club of Aussie sporting pioneers.
“I think I am ready,” Walker said.
“I’ve matured a lot, not just on the ice but off the ice as well. I think the experience is there, playing close to 200 games in the AHL now, so I’m ready to make that step and it’d just be nice to finally get up there and have a chance to prove that I can play.”
Walker broke his fourth metacarpal bone three weeks ago, but his doctors say he’s right on track to return to team practice within the next week.
“I just need to make sure I come back strong enough and play well enough in order to have my name in his [Barry Trotz] thoughts again,” Walker said.
“They’ve got such a great team as it is [Washington Capitals], and for them to be calling up guys when they’re winning games like that, it shows how invested they are in the young guys and prospects. It’s a really good organisation to be a part of.”
Trotz admitted that when Walker does get called up, he might not stick — at first.
The gritty, fearless, go-hard-on-go-home work ethic Walker brings to his game will serve him well in his burgeoning NHL career though, Trotz says.
“Every time that he got a chance to come up again on good play, it would be harder and harder to send him back because he’s a guy that wouldn’t allow himself to get comfortable,” the Caps coach said.
“There’s some guys that make it to that NHL game, then they take the foot off the gas pedal. I don’t get that feeling with Nathan Walker.
“When he gets that opportunity he would say, ‘There’s no way in hell I’m going to give you any reason to send me back because of my poor play and I’m going to make sure I do everything I can that you can’t look the other way.’
“Is he going to make it? Yeh, I really believe he’s going to make it. He’s not going to let himself not to make it.”