<
>

Australia's Nathan Walker skated a long road to the NHL

play
Nathan Walker's march to the Stanley Cup (1:53)

Australian Nathan Walker speaks to ESPN about his early years in ice hockey, moving across the globe as a teenager and what it means to be a part of the Stanley Cup-winning Capitals. (1:53)

Nathan Walker has a passport to rival any global jetsetter and despite already boasting the title as Australia first's Stanley Cup champion, he's determined to become a better ice-hockey player and leave a bigger stamp on the NHL.

Walker joined some elite company from the last decade, including Adam Scott and Cadel Evans, in crossing off another of Australia's few remaining sporting firsts: a Stanley Cup triumph. As part of the Washington Capitals' championship squad, Walker watched on rink-side as Alex Ovechkin and the rest of his teammates defeated Las Vegas Golden Knights 4-1 in the best-of-seven series.

The 24-year-old former Sydneysider only featured in one game during the opening round of the NHL Playoffs, yet it was one to remember as he set up a goal and earned emphatic praise from teammate Evgeny Kutznetsov. Expletively-emphatic, actually.

Still, Walker hopes it's only the beginning of a long career in the majors; a mere stepping stone on an epic journey that has spanned 11 years and three different continents.

"I felt like I need to go overseas to elevate my game a little bit and at the age of 13 I decided to move to the Czech Republic," Walker told ESPN of his decision to pack up and leave Sydney in 2007. "It was definitely an eye-opener, a huge culture shock; I didn't know the language, I couldn't order any food anywhere.

"The first year I was with a host family, it was a little difficult. They didn't speak much English, I didn't speak much Czech. So there was a lot of Google translate, a lot of hand/sign language; so it was tough. But after that I was living by myself with a bunch of the other guys in a dorm [of sorts]; we just had fun with it and just rolled."

Life away from friends and family was anything but easy, Walker revealing how he would spend nights on the phone to Australia struggling with homesickness. There were moments when he was ready to book a ticket home.

Still, the isolation allowed Walker the opportunity to immerse himself completely in ice hockey. He was on the ice sometimes twice a day, compared with once a week back in Sydney, improving his skating and all-round skill-set. He eventually wound up playing in Czech Republic's senior competition, the Extraliga, first tweaking the interest of NHL scouts.

Six years after first moving to Europe, it was time for a move to the States.

"It wasn't too bad, I just had to get used to the ice surfaces; just the size of it and the style of play," Walker said of his early time on American ice. "But I felt like I had a North American style of play in Europe anyway which kind of helped me; it wasn't too bad of an adjustment.

"They're a little wider in Europe, the ice surface is a little wider, which makes for more of a skating game, if you will. And then the ice surfaces in North America are a little smaller so it's more of placing the puck in certain spots to try and get it back."

Time in the United States Hockey League, a junior competition, further enhanced Walker's skills before back-to-back NHL Draft setbacks saw him twice come close to realising his childhood dream only to have it ripped away.

"It was frustrating but it definitely motivated me even more to push myself to be better in every aspect of the game," Walker told ESPN of twin Draft denials.

"Whether it was physically, mentally; just to try and give me another chance to get to that level. And I think being passed in those two years definitely helped me in the long run."

Then, at the 2014 NHL Draft, 89 became his new favourite number.

"That was nuts, you never think as a kid growing up from Australia that that's ever really going to happen," Walker said. "To get picked in the third round was incredible."

Over the next three years Walker spent his time between the Hershey Bears - Washington Capitals' affiliate side -- and South Carolina Stingrays where, unfortunately, injury struck.

"I think, mentally, that ACL tear definitely helped me," Walker said of the injury that ended his 2014/15 American League season. "Just going through that and knowing what it takes to get to the next level, I think that definitely helped me out in the long run.

"It [the recovery] was definitely a little nerve-wracking. Until the doctor gave me the all clear: 'the good to go, it's all safe'. I think up until that point I was still little a cautious with everything. But after I heard those words from the doctor it definitely made me feel a lot better."

Having worked his way back from injury, Walker's dream was at last realised when he debuted for the Capitals on the opening night of the 2017/18 NHL season. The night already one to remember, he found the back of the net, too.

"Yeah that was nuts, that was something I was dreaming about since I started playing," Walker told ESPN. "I was really proud of the hockey community here for all the support they gave me; just everything my family went through, my fiancée and everything, it was a really good moment for us."

While the Capitals went on to break their NHL duck and claim the Stanley Cup, Walker's season continued to follow his rollercoaster-like career script. There was time on waivers, which were a frustrating new reality, a short-term move to Edmonton, before he was re-signed by the Capitals in time for the playoffs ride.

"You're definitely frustrated, but at the same time it's just part of the job I guess, it's what comes with it," Walker said of life as an American sporting property. "There's no grudges or hard feelings or anything like that, it's just what happens.

"But it was definitely a good experience to go out to Edmonton and see different players and how they do things and different coaches and how they do things. It was definitely a good experience."

While he was confined to the stands for all but one of the Capitals' playoff games, Walker's desire to push on and earn more minutes hasn't shifted. Walker may own the mantle as Australia's first ever Stanley Cup champion, but he wants to write many more chapters to this already unlikely story.

"It just makes you thirsty for more," he said of the Capitals' triumph. "So I'm hoping to go into camp in good shape, and we'll take it from there. I just need to get the conditioning back to where it needs to be for the start of the year, and get stronger mentally and physically.

"It's going to be hard, I think there's a lot of good young players out there in the organisation that are going to be fighting for one or two spots. So it's going to be a competitive camp."