NATHAN WALKER ONE ON ONE WITH...

THE FIRST AUS­TRALIAN TO BE DRAFTED INTO ICE HOCKEY’S NHL TALKS ABOUT HIS ODD, ICY PATH TO THE BIG LEAGUES, AND HOW HE’S READY TO PLAY FOR A STAN­LEY CUP, FA­CIAL HAIR-WISE.

Inside Sport - - ONE ON ONE WITH... - – Jeff Cen­ten­era

Watch­ing The Mighty Ducks and then my older brother start­ing to play, that’s what kicked it off.

How did a Syd­ney boy find his way to the cusp of the Na­tional Hockey League?

It all started when I was younger. My older brother played, and be­ing the younger brother, you just want to fol­low what he’s do­ing. I slowly started pro­gress­ing through the ranks here in Aus­tralia, and fig­ured one day I’d rather see what I can do against kids over­seas my age and be on the ice ev­ery day.

Is it true that things like The Mighty Ducks movies helped get you into the sport?

For sure. Be­tween watch­ing The Mighty Ducks and then my older brother start­ing to play, that’s what kicked it off, and I fell in love with the game. Watched the movie, and I stepped on the ice for the first time.

You had to make some out-of-left-field ca­reer choices. What went into the de­ci­sion to go to the Czech Repub­lic?

It was def­i­nitely hard. It was a huge cul­ture shock to go from sunny Aus­tralia to, well, I don’t want to say it, but grey and mis­er­able Czech. But it was a good spot. I think I made the right de­ci­sion going there. I couldn’t re­ally en­hance my game any­more over here; I was on the ice only once a week and I felt I wasn’t get­ting enough out of it. The place did won­ders for me, and if I didn’t go there, I wouldn’t be where I am to­day. The ju­nior leagues over there are re­ally good.

You speak Czech and some Slo­vakian as well, I un­der­stand. Did you pick it up quickly, or was it some hockey Czech that you learned?

I picked it up from TV with sub­ti­tles, or just in the locker room just hear­ing the lan­guage the whole day. I couldn’t speak English to any­one, so it was pretty much I had to learn Czech, or be by my­self all the time. But it wasn’t that hard, and the guys were re­ally for­giv­ing with the way I would talk. It prob­a­bly took me a good two sea­sons un­til I could speak the lan­guage.

Could’ve been worse – you could’ve ended up in Fin­land and had to learn that ...

Oh, yeah. I’d rather be some­where else than try to learn that ...

You play for a noted mi­nor league club, the Her­shey Bears, in a town made fa­mous by choco­late. What is life like in the mi­nors?

Her­shey is a great lit­tle town. They’re very hockey-ori­ented; the fans are loyal. There’s not overly too much to do, which is kind of nice; it makes you sit back and re­lax. They’ve got the choco­late fac­tory there near the rink, and it’s never too bad to take a sniff of the choco­late fac­tory.

We’ve got a great bus, a big tour bus kind of thing. One sec­tion of seats is like busi­ness class, so the ride is re­ally comfy. We only re­ally fly to places we can’t drive to – like when we played in St John in New­found­land.

Wash­ing­ton Cap­i­tals’ coach Barry Trotz said it was only a mat­ter of time be­fore you cracked the NHL. How do you as­sess your chances?

You al­ways want to leave a good im­pres­sion at train­ing camp. We all know it’s al­ways going to be an in­ter­nal com­pe­ti­tion. I’m looking for­ward to the chal­lenge, and hope­fully I’ll get a shot to stay up there.

Have you had an Alexan­der Ovechkin en­counter? He seems like a re­ally in­trigu­ing fig­ure, a big per­son­al­ity with a big game.

He’s a good dude. He al­ways helps the young guys with what­ever they need. For sure, you’re not wrong when you say he plays a big game.

What’s the sense among the play­ers that the NHL won’t be in­volved with the Win­ter Olympics next year?

I think the Olympics is the only time that you can get the best-on-best hockey play­ers in the world. I en­joy watch­ing the Olympics, and I’m sure there were some guys who re­ally wanted to play. It’s dis­ap­point­ing for the play­ers who wanted to do that, but it is what it is. And it’s going to be dif­fi­cult to change that.

One hockey rit­ual I love: play­off beards ... Can you grow a good one?

On a scale of one to ten, I’d rate my­self a five­and-a-half, or six. I wouldn’t be to­ward the griz­zly stage, but I’d be enough up there for peo­ple to know I’ve been play­ing play­offs.

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