Back home, locals celebrated his journey with comparisons to point guard Dante Exum, recently drafted in the NBA lottery, and the general air of awe, even though Walker said the morning newspaper following his third-round selection by the Capitals featured three rugby players on the front page.
“I don’t think I made a page,” Walker said.
Inside his house, around 1:30 a.m. on a late-June Sunday, Walker and his family were watching the NHL draft on a live stream. Rounds 2-7 were unfolding across the world in Philadelphia, where thanks to the time difference it was actually Saturday afternoon. Walker barely slept the night before and adrenaline was keeping him up once again.
Officials in Hershey, where Walker spent last season with Washington’s AHL affiliate, believed the forward would be selected no earlier than the fourth round. Then the Capitals traded up. A contract snag had forced Walker into an AHL deal, despite appearing at training camp and in preseason games. They didn’t want their man to get away.
“He might have [been available later], but once again you take a chance he’s not going to be there,” assistant general manager Ross Mahoney said then. “We’d rather do what we have to do in order to move up and make sure we get the player we want rather than sit back and hope that player’s still there.”
From there, Walker said, “the roof on the house pretty much blew off.” His agent called to congratulate him. His mother and father, who supported Walker when he left home at age 13 to pursue a hockey career in Europe, began crying. It was a mostly symbolic moment –- after all, how many prospects log ice time during NHL preseason games before getting drafted? –- but entirely meaningful given Walker’s path and its rarity.
He discovered hockey by watching “The Mighty Ducks” around age 4, then quit other sports to focus on the ice. But finding regular ice time proved difficult and expensive in Australia, even though Walker played for three teams in three different age groups. He had wanted to move even earlier, maybe around age 10, but his parents wanted him around a little longer.
When the time finally came, Walker, then barely a teenager, flew to the Czech Republic to begin a new life, the life he wanted. His mother came and stayed for two weeks to ease the transition. Then she boarded a train and said goodbye. Walker returned to his host family, none of whom spoke any English, and he spoke no Czech. Local television shows sounded like gibberish. He got homesick. How could he not? But whenever he called home, his parents told him to stay.
“If I came home,” he said, “it’d just be something I’d regret.”
Last week, still harboring no regrets, Walker boarded a 14-hour flight to San Francisco, missed his connection, then finally landed in Washington for several days of individual workouts before camp began. His presence with Hershey last season (43 games, 11 points, 40 penalty minutes) has given him a leg up, a measure of experience uncommon among the vast pool of undrafted free agents and rising stars.
“He’s obviously ahead of some of the other players we drafted today because he has been playing with men,” Mahoney said. “We’ve had him at our camps, we’ve had him play rookie games and exhibition games, which he played very well in all of those. His development for us is obviously sped up because of his ability to play with him.”
Here at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, surrounded by prospects hailing from Canada, Germany, Switzerland and Sweden, Walker offers an unfamiliar profile in hockey circles. He dons GoPro cameras and conducts television interviews. He refers to his mother as “mum.” He speaks passable Czech, helpful with communicating with fellow draft picks Jakub Vrana and Vitek Vanecek, both natives of the country. And though it hasn’t happened yet, Walker knows soon he will become the object of curiosity, novel again in the United States.
“First time I went to the U.S. they asked me if I had a pet kangaroo,” Walker said. “I say, ‘Yeah, everyone has a pet kangaroo in Australia.’ There’s nothing to do but embrace it.”