It has been 10 years, but Ceri Walker had tears in her eyes as she described the moment she left her 13-year-old son in a foreign country, unsure of what the future held for him. With ice time and opportunities limited in his home of Australia, a 10-year-old Nathan Walker nagged his parents to allow him to pursue his professional hockey dream in Europe. Ceri finally relented three years later, helping Nathan move to the Czech Republic.
She stayed for a few weeks to ease the transition, but then the time came for her to return to Australia and for Nathan to begin the new life he was so sure would work out.
“I left him there, said goodbye, which was the hardest thing I’ve done in my life,” Ceri said. “I still remember his little face on the train station as I pulled out on the train. . . . And what can I say, the rest was history.”
History will indeed be made Saturday night, when Nathan makes his debut for the Washington Capitals, becoming the first Australian to play in the NHL. It will be Sunday morning in Australia, and Ceri said some restaurants there will be hosting watch parties for the game. The Australian ambassador to the United States, aptly named Joe Hockey, will be at Capital One Arena for the occasion.
Now the 23-year-old, whose path to the NHL has wound through Sydney to the Czech Republic and then to North America, is hopeful that his leap of faith 10 years ago will inspire other young Australians to chase their ice hockey dreams.
“It’s been a grind,” Walker said. “The journey’s been really long. I wouldn’t have traded anything in the world to be in this moment right now.”
Between his older brother playing hockey and “The Mighty Ducks” coming out when Walker was four, he made the unconventional choice to drop rugby and commit to time on the ice. The nearest rink was more than an hour away, so Walker could only skate there one day a week.
“After school, I’d be getting my inline skates on and shooting pucks in the garage,” Walker said. “I’d be making hockey nets out of PVC pipes — that didn’t last long. I think I was just so in love with the game that every time I came home from school, I’d be shooting some pucks or doing something hockey related.”
As he got older and was clearly more gifted than the other kids in Australia, Walker begged his parents to trust him that he had to go elsewhere if he was ever going to become a professional hockey player. They didn’t know anyone else who’d taken this route, but with how Walker never wanted to get off the ice, they couldn’t dismiss his passion. When he got to the Czech Republic, he didn’t know the language, the culture or anything about how to live on his own.
“This very old-school coach with his cap on every day said to Nathan with his stick, basically, ‘You skate from there to there,’ ” Ceri said. “There was no language spoken. It was all sign language to Nathan. And the kid just absolutely skated his heart out there. He was so determined that that’s where he wanted to be at 13.”
Walker’s next step came in 2013, when as a 19-year-old, he came to North America to play for the Youngstown Phantoms in the United States Hockey League. Walker then started playing for the Hershey Bears and appeared in preseason games with the Capitals before he was even drafted by Washington in 2014. He has always been a strong skater, but he continued to patiently develop his skills in the American Hockey League over the next three seasons. His feisty style of play impressed the Capitals, and had it not been for a hand injury last season, Walker would’ve been recalled to the big club at the end of January.
But with his family and friends in Washington after a 21-hour flight, Walker finally will get the NHL debut he always dreamed of Saturday night.
“He’s got to be a strong person,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “You think about his story, untraditional, but he sought out a passion that he had. And he traveled the world to go after it. I think he’s pretty strong. I think he knows it’s a pretty big deal in terms of what he’s doing in terms of a country not known for producing NHL players. So the first true to maybe blaze a trail in a game that grows around the world. Nothing better than a great spokesman. I can tell you this about Nathan Walker: He’s pretty genuine. He’s a very hard worker. He’s been chasing passion very, very hard. It’s not surprising he’s playing his first NHL game.”
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