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From NRL to the NHL: Sydney's Nathan Walker hoping to make history

When Nathan Walker spoke to ESPN, the man who is determined to become the first Australian to play in the NHL had just returned from the dentist after an injury playing for the Hershey Bears in the second-tier American Hockey League.

Not that he was complaining - injuries happen frequently in the rough-and-tumble world of ice hockey, especially for someone as combative as Walker.

The 22-year-old grew up in Sydney and considered pursuing an NRL career, before doggedly plotting a course to play in one of the world's toughest professional leagues.

"I think so, yes [the physicality of ice hockey suits me] ... I like to play a rough game," Walker told ESPN.

"I played rugby league back home - it was fun, but I had to make the choice between hockey and rugby when I was pretty young. I was in the development program with the Cronulla Sharks ... I'm not sure where that path would've taken me, but I definitely don't regret choosing hockey."

Many Australians have broken into the NBA, NFL and MLB, and the NHL remains the final frontier in terms of American sporting competitions. Walker has already broken new ground, becoming the first Aussie drafted to an NHL team -- he was snapped up by the Washington Capitals in 2014, at pick No. 89 -- since when he has played for their feeder team, the Hershey Bears, in the AHL, one rung below the NHL.

The aggressive forward acknowledges he is a trailblazer of sorts, but realises he's just one of countless hopefuls trying to eke out a chance at the top level.

"It's definitely a little different when you see the Australian flag on the roster, but at the end of the day I'm just another player trying to make it in the big leagues and doing everything I can to get there," he says.

"It'd be amazing [to reach the NHL]. I'd feel like ... not to say this in a cocky way, but I'd almost put Australia on the hockey map. I'm just another player in a sport where thousands of others in the world are playing, but it would be nice to put Australia on the hockey map."

Born in Wales, Walker migrated to Australia with his family when he was two years old. He fell in love with ice hockey after watching Disney's The Mighty Ducks, and he was immediately hooked as soon as he took to the ice.

As a youngster in Australia, Walker dominated every junior league he played in -- prompting a courageous decision to move to the Czech Republic when he was just 13 to further his career.

"It was definitely a culture shock, but I was there to play hockey," he says. "It was very different over there. I was on the ice twice a day, every day of the week, but back home you're on the ice once [a week] and you're not going to get better by skating for an hour a week."

In the Czech Republic, Walker lived with a billet family, attended an international school and had to quickly learn the language, which he speaks fluently now.

"I guess I can maybe show it can be done.

"Leaving home at a young age, there will be people who support you, Ice Hockey Australia will support you, the whole hockey community will support you. It can be done," he says of his gutsy move to the other side of the world.

After six years in the Czech Republic, Walker decided it was time to test himself in the U.S. He signed with the Youngstown Phantoms of the United States Hockey League, determined to one day reach the NHL.

"I decided with my agent that it was time to move over to North America and round out my game with the North American style of hockey -- smaller rink, more physicality," he told ESPN. "Plus, to make the NHL, it's a lot easier to be noticed playing in North America."

He did get noticed - eventually.

The Capitals invited Walker to two pre-season training camps, but he was overlooked for consecutive NHL drafts. Finally, at the third attempt, the Caps took the chance on Walker, offering him a three-year contract.

Disaster struck last season, when a devastating knee injury wiped out nearly all of his 2014-15 campaign. But he's returned in scintillating fashion this season, catching the eye of Capitals staff.

Washington coach Barry Trotz said he was impressed with what he saw from the Sydney product at a Hershey game recently.

"Some young guys that are developing - you also see that up front. You've got younger guys like Nathan Walker. I felt [Walker] was very effective all night," Trotz told Bears blog chocolatehockey.com after a game in February.

And after playing a starring role in Hershey's surge to the Calder Cup playoffs, Walker hopes a strong post-season will have him primed to secure a spot on the Capitals roster.

"I was hoping I'd have a season like this. I just wanted to make sure I came back and played hard in the way I can, healing up the knee, but I haven't had any problems with it this year and touch wood it'll be good for years to come.

"In September, there's another training camp and I'll try to make the NHL team. If not, I'll head to Hershey again.

"It would be an amazing experience to join the Capitals."