Saturday, October 7, 2017

Full Circle with Nathan Walker

photo by Chris Gordon, from 2012 development camp

On July 14, 2012, I was back in DC (for the first time since moving back to Chicago in November 2011) on a weekend trip and asked the Capitals media relations department if I could have media credentials for development camp. They said yes, and so I returned to the media area of Kettler Capitals Iceplex on that Saturday morning, and after the players left the ice, I asked to interview an intriguing 18-year-old camp invite with a surprising country listed under his hometown: Australia.

Today, that player made history. Twice.

Nathan Walker became the first Australian to ever play in the NHL, and then the first Australian ever to score a goal in the NHL -- in his first game!

I never published an article based on the conversation I had with Nathan Walker that day in 2012. I think I felt kind of bad about it because one of my questions was basically "why didn't you get picked in the draft?" and I was afraid I hurt his feelings. Back story: Nathan Walker was first eligible for the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, even ranked as high as #21 among European skaters before the draft. Yet, he was not selected in that draft. He wasn't selected in the 2013 draft either. The Capitals did later select him in the 3rd round of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, the last draft for which he was eligible.

Walker came as an invited player to the Capitals' 2012 development camp, and caused a bit of a stir with his unusual story. Walker was born in Wales, raised in Australia, and moved to the Czech Republic at the age of 13 (by himself) to embark on his hockey career.

I remember when he walked up to me (since I'd requested to talk to him) that day in July, the first things I noticed were that a) he is surprisingly short (I'm 5'6" and he wasn't much taller) and b) despite his unusual back story, he seemed genuinely surprised that someone requested to speak to him.

When he speaks, his accent is not strictly Australian; there's a bit of Welsh in there. It's definitely not an accent you usually hear on your digital recorder while pucks fire off boards in the background. He got into hockey when he was six years old because his older brother was playing. "I was the little brother, I always wanted to do what he was doing. I guess I just followed in his footsteps," he told me.

I asked him why he opted to go to the Czech Republic to play when he was 13, and he said his coach in Australia told him that "if you want to go anywhere in hockey, you've gotta go now." He left his family in Australia and went to live in Europe, in a country whose language he did not know, without his parents, because his coaches saw that he had potential. It speaks volumes about his drive and his work ethic.

When I asked about what his expectations were coming to development camp, he said, "I want to show them that I really want to play hockey." I asked if he had thought about playing in the Australian league (AIHL), but he said, "I played there a few games, last season, before I got injured straight away. I don't think I want to do any of that."

I suggested, "So you're really wanting to go for a higher level," and he enthusiastically agreed, "Yeah, yeah, yeah."

Today, five years later, he played at the highest level like he always wanted. And he won.

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