It’s just a matter of time before the first Australian drafted by an NHL team gets a chance to play in the big league. Nathan Walker was selected 89th overall by the Washington Capitals in the 2014 draft and Friday signed a three-year entry-level contract.
“He’s probably still a couple of years away, but he’s on the right track,” said Capitals director, amateur scouting Ross Mahoney. “He’s one determined guy, I’ll tell you that. He’s had an incredible journey so far.”
Walker, 20, was born in Cardiff, Wales, and was two when his family moved to Sydney, Australia. Though hockey is a bottom rung sport in Australia, Walker became fascinated with the game at the age of six watching Hollywood movies Mystery, Alaska and The Mighty Ducks.
As he became a natural playing against older competition, he and his parents realized if he really wanted to pursue the sport, he’d have to take his game elsewhere. In 14 games in an under-14 league, Walker averaged more than seven points per game. His coach at the time had Slovakian connections and was able to get Walker a tryout with the Vitkovice program in the Czech Republic. So off he went to a different hemisphere age 13.
Central Scouting had him rated for the 2012 draft, but he wasn’t claimed. Mahoney found out about him through Capitals’ European scout Vojtech Kucera. The first time Mahoney saw him play, Walker was playing for the touring Australian national team in a game against Vitkovice, his current team. The Capitals invited Walker to their development camp that summer.
“He showed good hockey sense and competitiveness, but we knew he needed improvements in his speed and conditioning,” Mahoney said.
Undrafted, Walker moved to North America to play in the United States League with the Youngstown Phantoms in 2012-13, and he averaged almost a point per game. Then this past season, Walker played for the Hershey Bears, Washington’s farm team in the AHL.
“We had a very veteran team in Hershey, so Nathan was mostly on the fourth line, but he was also training and learning with professionals,” Mahoney said. The 5-foot-10, 185-pound Walker had just five goals and 11 points in 43 games as a 19-year-old, but showed plenty of promise.
The Capitals wanted to make a play for Walker at the 2014 draft, but the 13th and 39th picks were too early. Thinking Walker would be gone by the end of the third round, Washington packaged the 104th and 118th picks in the fourth round to the New York Rangers for the 89th pick and drafted Walker.
“He was ecstatic when I called him after the draft,” Mahoney said. “He’s such a good person, he’s been working for this for so long. The emotion was pouring out of him.”
Will Brodie of the Sydney Morning Herald writes the lack of hockey facilities in Australia has held the game back for generations. But the opening of the Melbourne Icehouse in 2010 has improved the level of play at the national league level. Televised games are attracting fans and sponsors and now this recent achievement by Walker to get drafted by an NHL team will create a following of its own.
Walker, who is now fluent in Slovak, Czech and knows some Russian, will be back in Hershey for the next couple of years waiting for his next break and a call-up to the big league.
He’ll be the guy with the Australian accent.
Said Mahoney: “I still haven’t gotten used to hearing a hockey player say to me, “Hey, mate, how are ya.”
Brian Costello is The Hockey News’s senior editor and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Brian Costello on Twitter at @BCostelloTHN