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Walker Set to Make NHL History in D.C.

Nathan Walker realizes a dream nearly two decades in the making when he becomes the first Australian to play in the NHL on Saturday vs. Montreal.

by Mike Vogel @VogsCaps / Monumental Sports Network

Nathan Walker's story begins with a couple of Hollywood movies, and he may well eventually end up as the subject of a Hollywood film as well. Seeing hockey films such as "Mystery, Alaska" and "The Mighty Ducks" as a youngster helped to spark his interest in the game, and on Saturday night in Washington he will make NHL history when be becomes the first Australian-national to suit up for an NHL game. 

"It all started when my brother started playing," explains Walker. "We slowly learned the hockey, and from there we went to Toronto for a tournament, went to the Hockey Hall of Fame and bought all the hockey DVDs. I think it just kick-started from back in the day when "The Mighty Ducks" was up and running." 

Born in Cardiff, Wales, Walker's family moved to Australia when he was a toddler. The aforementioned films and older brother Ryan's participation in the sport combined to capture his attention at a young age, and he hasn't looked back since. 

"I think it's just how unique the sport is, or how unique it was back home," Walker says, in tracing his love for the game. "No one really played it, and no one really knew a whole lot about it. I just wanted to go out there and try it out, and see where it took me.
Video: Nathan Walker | October 7
"After school, I'd be getting my in-line skates on, and I'd be shooting pucks in the garage. I'd be making hockey nets out of PVC pipe, but they didn't last too 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 continued to dominate while playing against much older competition, Walker soon developed the dream and the goal of one day playing in the NHL. But he also had the wherewithal and keen sense to realize he would need to play against better competition in order to hone his own game and make his dream a reality. 

That led to the unorthodox decision to move away from home at the age of 13. Far away from home, in fact. Walker moved to the Czech Republic so he could play junior hockey against players whose skills and ability more closely matched his own. Living on his own in a foreign land where he didn't initially speak the language was daunting, but nothing was going to deter Walker. 

"I don't regret one thing about going over there," he says now. "It was definitely better for myself to leave home at an early age and go over there and try to pursue my dream of playing in the NHL.

"It's been a grind. The journey has been really long, and I wouldn't trade anything in the world for this moment right now." 

As a 17-year-old in 2011-12, Walker skated for Vitkovice HC in the Czech League. Among his teammates that season was 36-year-old former NHL defenseman Marek Malik. Walker more than held his own playing against men twice his age, posting four goals and nine points in 34 games. 

He was passed over in the 2012 NHL Draft, but by then the Capitals' amateur scouting staff was aware of him, enough so to issue an invitation to the team's summer camp that July. Passed over again in the 2013 draft, Walker again came to summer camp that July, and this time he impressed enough to earn a tryout invitation to the Caps' September training camp ahead of the 2013-14 season.

Walker took another big step on Sept. 14, 2013, when he donned the Caps' sweater for the first time in an NHL preseason game. Skating in the Kraft Hockeyville game against Winnipeg up in Belleville, Ont., Walker picked up the primary assist on a Jack Hillen goal. A hip flexor injury to Brooks Laich on the first day of camp opened up a spot for Walker in the lineup that day, and he took full advantage of the sudden opportunity. 

That Saturday afternoon in Belleville, Walker was one of five Caps who were skating in their very first NHL preseason game. Tonight, he'll become the fifth of them to play in the NHL. The others were: Connor Carrick, Nate Schmidt, Chandler Stephenson and Tom Wilson. 
Video: Congrats, Nathan!
"It was good," he said after that game more than four years ago, a 4-3 shootout win over the Jets. "To be honest with you, it was one of the most fun games of hockey I've played in a real long time. The tempo was high. You make a little bad play, and no one really gets angry with you; they just tell you what you should have done which is what I think you need when you're trying to develop as a hockey player. Instead of them just yelling at you, they're telling you what you need to do and putting you in the right spot." 

Three nights later, Walker was in the lineup for another preseason game, this one in Baltimore against the Boston Bruins. Once again, the man known as "Stormy" was noticeable, and once again he drew the primary assist on Washington's first goal of the night. In the second period, Walker used his speed to draw a penalty shot.

Walker stuck with Washington until late in camp, then he signed an AHL deal to play with Hershey. As a 19-year-old, playing time was somewhat sporadic. In 43 games with the Bears, Walker netted five goals and totaled 11 points in 2013-14. 

Being in Hershey enabled the Caps to keep close tabs on his progress, and Washington packaged a pair of picks to move up and choose Walker in the third round (89th overall) of the 2014 NHL Draft.

"Obviously we've been following Nathan for a few years because he was at our camp and we had identified him earlier as a potential player to be drafted," said Caps assistant general Ross Mahoney, the day Walker was drafted. "We thought we had really good coverage on him.
Video: Nathan Walker Mic'd Up at 2014 #CapsDevCamp Scrimmage
"He's obviously ahead of some of the other players we've drafted today because he has been playing with men. We had him at our rookie camps we had him playing rookie games, we had him playing exhibition games and he played very well in all of those, and then also playing in Hershey. His development for us has been speeded up because of being able to play with men."

A serious knee injury wiped out most of 2014-15 for Walker, limiting him to just 28 games with the Bears. But he approached his rehab with the full fervor and resolve that defines his very being. The result was his best season yet, a 17-goal, 41-point season in 2015-16 that put him firmly on the NHL track. 

If the Caps hadn't had such a strong team and so few injuries these past two seasons, Walker almost certainly would have been in Washington sooner. Several Hershey players have performed well enough to earn an NHL audition over these past two seasons, but the strength and health of the Capitals severely limited those opportunities.

"I wouldn't say it's frustrating, so much," says Walker. "I think it's just the way it is. No one can control how healthy guys are and stuff like that. It's just the way it is. A lot of the younger guys at Hershey have been playing well the last couple of years." 

Walker came into camp this fall with his usual vigor and full-throttle style, and he notched the Caps' first goal of the preseason, a shorthanded strike that came less than five minutes into the first period of a Sept. 18 game in New Jersey. 

Some five years after that first development camp audition, Walker was asked to reflect on how far his game has come over that span.
Video: Nathan Walker's Helmet Cam at 2014 Development Camp
"I think a little bit of everything, to be honest," says Walker. "I think I've matured a lot more as a player and in defining my role and knowing what I've got to bring in order for the team to be successful on that night. I think in every little aspect of the game I've matured a little more." 

Walker impressed throughout camp, and he nailed down one of Washington's 23 roster spots. A healthy scratch on opening night in Ottawa, Walker now gets to make his debut in front of the home folks in Washington, and with millions likely watching back home in Australia, where it will be Sunday morning when he takes to the ice. 

"I think he's had to be a strong person," says Caps coach Barry Trotz of Walker. "You think about his story, it's untraditional, but he sought out a passion that he had, and he traveled the world to go after it. So I think he's pretty strong.

"He knows it's a pretty big deal in terms of what he's doing in a country that's not known for producing NHL players. To be the first to blaze a trail for a game that grows around the world, there's nothing better than a great spokesman. I can tell you this about Nathan Walker - he's pretty genuine, he's a very hard worker and he's been chasing his passion very hard. So it's not surprising that he's going to play his first NHL game." 

Walker will be skating on a line with Jay Beagle and Devante Smith-Pelly tonight. That's somewhat fitting, given that Beagle's path to the NHL was also unorthodox. Beagle wasn't drafted at all, and, like Walker, he parlayed a summer camp invitation into an AHL contract and later, an NHL deal.
Video: A Day at the DMV with Walker and Burakovsky
Does Beagle see any of himself in Walker? 

"Yeah, I do, for sure," says Beagle. "He's a guy who just gets better every year. He is so tenacious. He blocks shots in practice - I mean, you don't see that too often. I remember doing that a lot.

"It's pretty cool to see just how much he wants it and just how much heart he has. I wish the best for him, and I think he deserves to stay here. He has been in the system, he has done everything the right way, he is a good guy, he works really hard and he has a lot of speed. I think he's ready. He is a player, and he's exciting and fun to watch.

"The only thing about him that doesn't remind me of me is that I think he's got more skill than I have. He is pretty crafty with the puck."

Tonight is the night for Walker, a culmination of a dream nearly two decades in the making. Not many who are so young have the drive and the determination to make their dreams and goals a reality, but Walker will never lack for drive or determination. 

"It's special," he agrees. "I've been working so hard towards this, and to finally get the chance to play on the NHL ice with the Washington Capitals is really special. 

"I've never stopped believing in that goal, and it's finally coming today."

And perhaps eventually, coming soon to a theater near you. 

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