Ten years ago, an Australian youth hockey team traveled to the Czech Republic to play a series of games. One of the Aussies was the best player on the ice -- for any team. The 13-year-old buzzed around the rink, a swift skater with a keen hockey sense who delivered hits far bigger than his scrawny frame.
"Who is that guy?" one of the Czech coaches asked the Australian coach. "What's his story?"
That guy is Nathan Walker, the Australian coach explained, and he's probably the best youth hockey player in our country. Both coaches knew that if Walker stayed in Australia, his development might be stunted by his surroundings. Australia is a country of 24 million people, but has fewer than 5,000 registered ice hockey players -- and just 20 ice rinks. Walker was lucky to get ice time twice a week; his Czech counterparts practiced twice a day.
"I would love to have him on my team," the Czech coach remarked. It was a throwaway line, but suddenly, both coaches were scrambling to make it a reality. Walker called his mom, Ceri Walker, back in Australia and begged her to let him stay. Ceri was, naturally, hesitant. She didn't know the coaches. Her son didn't know their language. He pleaded anyway. It was the only way he would realize his dream of playing at the highest level.
Walker didn't return to Australia with his team, and joined HC Vitkovice Steel. His mom flew to the Czech Republic and stayed with him for the first two weeks "to suss it out," Walker explained, but after that, he was on his own, living with a billet family. Five years later, he moved to the U.S. for a stint with the USHL, then logged 202 games in the AHL.
Last Saturday night, Walker made history, becoming the first Australian national to play in the NHL. The 5-foot-9, 186-pound left winger played on the fourth line for the Washington Capitals, logging 11:23 of ice time, including penalty-kill and power-play minutes. He also scored the final goal in the Capitals' 6-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens, as teammate Devante Smith-Pelly's second-period shot ricocheted off Walker's left leg and into the net with 1:55 left in the second period.
"I don't want to be known just as being the Aussie," the now-23-year-old Walker told ESPN.com during training camp. "But I do realize that it is a big deal for Australian hockey. For the hockey community back home, they'll certainly be quite proud. It's not a big community, but it's a proud one."
On Saturday, Ceri -- who made the trip along with Nathan's father, Wayne, Nathan's fiancee, Tayla Billinghurst, and Nathan's brother Ryan -- waved an Australian flag in the stands, and dozens of fans carried signs reading, "G'Day, Nate!" Countrymen Andrew Bogut (Los Angeles Lakers), Jason Day (PGA), Matthew Dellavedova (Milwaukee Bucks) and Adam Scott (PGA) recorded video messages for Walker to watch before the game. "Another proud moment in Australian sport," Scott said. "You're doing us proud, mate. Thank you."
Walker certainly took the path less traveled Down Under.
"In Australia, guys back home get a rugby ball or a soccer ball and play with that outside instead of forking up $2,000 for hockey gear and ice time," he said. "When it's a nice hot day, parents don't want to be sitting in an ice rink. The Aussie culture is a little different. We like to go out and get tan and sit on the beach."
Walker was born in Cardiff, Wales, but moved to Sydney when he was 2 years old. Ryan played hockey -- and, like any little brother, Walker said, "I wanted to be better than him."
Another source of inspiration: The Mighty Ducks movie franchise, which made the sport infinitely cooler -- even to young Australians -- in the late 1990s. Walker first put on skates at age 6. "When you hear Walks' story," said Garrett Mitchell, one of his teammates on the AHL's Hershey Bears. "It's almost more unbelievable than a movie."
Walker's move to the Czech Republic ultimately paid off, but his initial culture shock was severe. His billet family spoke no English. He used Google translator, and developed hand signals, yet still they couldn't seem to figure out how to communicate, even something as simple as, "What time is dinner?"
Some of Walker's teammates were learning English in school, but were far from fluent. The head coach, "an old-school guy," Walker explained, didn't speak a word of English. "One time he came up to me and spoke to me in Czech," Walker said. "I just nodded like, 'OK yeah, I'll have a think about what you just said.' Except that I had no idea what he had just said."
Walker attended an international school the first two years, but once hockey intensified, his studies took a back seat. He would wake up at 5 a.m. to get to the rink by 6, and after the first practice, go to the local restaurant for lunch. "I would hang out at the restaurant for hours, because I had nowhere to go," Walker said. "That's where I spent my time."
After afternoon practice, he would return home -- hopefully in time for whatever time dinner was -- and repeat. Walker played his last two years with HC Vitkovice in the top Czech professional league.
The 2012 and 2013 NHL drafts came and went, and Walker was not selected in either. He had moved to Ohio in 2013 to play for the Youngstown Phantoms of the USHL. The Capitals had their eye on Walker, and even invited him to their development camp for two consecutive years. Later that year, he signed a one-year AHL deal to play with Hershey and stay in North America. Troy Mann was hired as Hershey's coach during Walker's second season with the team.
"I had heard his backstory, and didn't know what to expect," Mann said. "But he was a kid with a lot of energy, and a great work ethic. I'd be very surprised if he wasn't popular among the veteran players in Washington."
Last year, the Capitals played the Canadiens in a preseason game. Veteran Canadiens agitator Andrew Shaw hit prospect Connor Hobbs from behind, sending Hobbs flailing into the boards face-first. Shaw was tagged with a major penalty for boarding and a game misconduct -- and, ultimately, a meeting with the department of player safety. But not before Walker skated up to Shaw, who had several inches and pounds on him, and threw down the gloves. "We were all like, 'Walks, really? Andrew Shaw?'" Mitchell, the Hershey Bears teammate said. "But that's him. He's fearless."
Mann said Walker was set to get called up to the NHL last season around the All-Star break, but Walker broke his hand while blocking a shot against Springfield. "With their salary-cap situation this year, and the way the game is trending, in terms of speed, I was confident he would get a chance this year," Mann said.
His AHL teams experienced culture shock of their when it came to playing with Walker. Mitchell still gets a kick out of how Walker pronounces Adidas ("Ah-dee-dahs") and Nike (one syllable). "Sometimes he'll say something and you'll just be like, 'Walks, I have no idea what you're saying,'" Mitchell said. "And he'll say something like, 'Yeah, that goal was rubbish!'"
Thanks to Walker's influence, his teammates have tried the Australian delicacy of Vegemite -- fermented yeast spread on toast -- but nobody has gone as far as stocking their apartment with a jar.
As Walker took his next step in his hockey, he reflected on how far he'd come -- across three continents and four leagues -- to get here.
"The family I lived with, they took in a stranger in from a different country, no questions asked, and I thank them every day for what they did for me," he said. "And then my teammates, who have all been so supportive. At the end of the day, there's another X amount of hockey players in the world, and I consider myself one of them."