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.
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.