Nathan Walker on a rush vs New ZealandAustralian Nathan “Stormy” Walker has become the first ever Australian to be drafted in the National Hockey League (NHL), the world’s premier ice hockey league, played in the USA and Canada.

The Welsh-born Sydney-raised terrier was amazing Australia’s youth ice hockey leagues when he followed his brother into ice hockey in Sydney. It was his terrier-like pursuit of the puck that won him the nickname of Stormy in New South Wales’ Peewee and Bantam leagues, while he himself was still Atoms age group. As a Peewee, Walker was one of the best players in the Midget (Under 19) age division.

Walker was selected in only the third round of the draft by the Washington Capitals, the team who has so far shown the most interest in the Aussie. The Capitals initially sent him to USHL team the Youngstown Phantoms, and then placed them in their American Hockey League (AHL) team the Hershey Bears after being very impressed by the then 19 year old at last year’s pre-season camp.

Walker remained on the roster until late into the pre-season while most other players had returned to their farm teams, after he impressed coach and NHL legend Adam Oates.

Walker was unable to be included in the Capitals squad following the pre-season camp last September, so they did the next best thing – they sent him to the Bears.

The “Caps” sent Nathan Walker to the AHL Hershey Bears. In his first season in Hershey, Walker collected 5 goals and 6 assists in 43 games.

Nathan Walker at the 2011 IIHF Div II World Championships

Nathan Walker at the 2011 IIHF Div II World Championships

This may not sound terribly impressive, but this is a 19 year old playing amongst men in the most fiercely competitive league full of current NHL players down on their luck and future NHL stars fighting for a place.

As a rookie in the AHL Walker would get few opportunities to score points, but would need to make an impression on any opportunities that would come his way, while fulfilling a role that may well not be focused on goal scoring.

The Capitals were worried enough that another team may snatch him away that they traded two 4th-round picks for a 3rd round pick. Walker was the 89th player selected from thousands across ice hockey focussed countries and leagues.

Walker himself has passed on his thanks via social media this morning with a typically humble statement.

Nathan Walker“A massive thank you for all of the encouragement in being drafted. It really meant a lot to me knowing there was so much support.”

Mother Ceri Walker shared in the jubilation, sharing images captured from the family TV with the following celebration of a proud mum.

“I have pinched myself so many times, I’m bruised.”

The news has been largely unrecognised by those unfamiliar with ice hockey in Australia, and in contrast met with jubilation by those tens of thousands of fans and players who have been following Walker’s progress over the past few years.

The true level of importance of this selection is probably somewhere in the middle of these two expectations.

An NHL draft is not an NHL contract. The vast majority of drafted players never play an NHL game, and many play just a handful.

Nathan Walker isn’t any draftee, however. Walker has played a season in the Czech elite men’s league, one of the best in the world. Walker has made an impression in the AHL, the feeder league for the best league in the world without question, the NHL.

And Walker won’t be a fresh-faced 18 year old when season 2014-2014 starts, he’ll be a 20 year old with much more experience in the game and the system than the kids straight from the high school systems of North America and Europe.

An Australian-born ice hockey player in the “NHL” has already happened in a way. Tommy Dunderdale was born in Victoria and played in the early Pacific Coast Hockey Association when the West Coast would play the National Hockey Assocation in the East coast for the Stanley Cup.

Dunderdale is in the NHL hall of fame.

But while Dunderdale was born in Australia and Walker wasn’t, the game a century ago was very different to now and the situation is very different.

Walker identifies as Australian and Welsh through his parent’s heritage, but speaks, thinks and proudly presents himself as an Aussie in a league draft that selects just over 200 boys from hundreds of leagues around the world.

Dunderdale was also born to British parents but moved to Ottawa as a child and could have claimed no influence on his development from his time as a child in Australia, leaving in 1904, two years before the first ice rink opened in Adelaide, SA.

The wait across Australia is now on. The final big hurdle for Nathan Walker is to play an NHL game and win himself an NHL contract.

No matter the time of day (NHL games are held from mid-morning to late-afternoon Australian time), there will be thousands of dedicated Australian ice hockey fans watching the moment when their own local hero takes the ice on the world’s biggest stage.

Links and more information:

* Fairfax Digital article by Will Brodie
* Tommy Dunderdale (Wikipedia)
* Background information & draft perspectives from the Washington Post