COLLEGE PARK, Maryland — When the head coach of the United States Hockey League’s Youngstown Phantoms picked up the team’s newest player — Nathan Walker, a little-known Australian who had been playing in the Czech Republic — at the airport in 2013, Walker had been on a nearly 24-hour-trip from Prague to Warsaw to New York City to Cleveland.
Boarding the team bus for an 8-hour ride from Cleveland to a game that night in Chicago, the coach, Anthony Noreen, assured Walker he wasn’t expected to play because of jet lag.
“He pretty much looked at me and said, ‘Coach, I came here to play hockey,’” said Noreen, who provided details of Walker’s trip in an interview. “Like, ‘I’m ready, you don’t ever have to worry about me being ready no matter the situation.’”
That night, Noreen penciled Walker into the lineup for his first USHL game against the Chicago Steel. And on his very shift, Walker scored, splitting two Steel players at the blue line before blowing past another defender on his way to the goal.
“I just think from the second he got there he had a mission,” Noreen said. “His mission was to play in the NHL and he just wasn’t going to be denied.”
Four years later, after logging thousands of miles in the American Hockey League and coming back from two season-ending injuries, the 23-year-old forward is on the verge of making the Washington Capitals’ opening-night roster.
“I’m going to give everything I can to make the team,” Walker said at the team’s media day earlier this month. “If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, I’ll just keep working until eventually, hopefully it [does].”
Passed over completely in the 2012 and 2013 drafts, the five-foot-nine Walker was selected by Washington with the 89th pick in his final draft-eligible year. Walker has showcased his speed and penalty-killing ability during the preseason, emerging as a compelling candidate to make the team. Should he, Walker would become the first ever Australian to play in the NHL.
Walker was born in Cardiff, Great Britain, but raised in Australia after his family relocated when he was two-years-old. After seeing the Mighty Ducks movies and watching his older brother play ice hockey, Walker took up the sport. As a teenager, he convinced his parents to let him move overseas in order to play more often and against tougher competition.
He spent parts of six seasons playing in the Czech Republic before joining Youngstown for the second half of their season.
“When you find out his story, that he moved away from home into a foreign country where he didn’t speak the language at the age of 15 and he was living on his own to play hockey and chase his dream, obviously he’s going to be a little bit more mature than your average 18-year-old, 19-year-old,” Noreen said.
Walker played 29 games with the Phantoms, scoring 27 points before a broken bone in his neck ended his season. Walker acclimated to the Youngstown locker room so quickly that his teammates unanimously voted him team captain for the following year.
“Anytime it’s a guy like that, no matter where you’re from and what the cultural difference is, I think when you play that hard and you work that hard, guys seem to look up to you and guys tend to want to bring you into the group pretty quickly,” Noreen said. “He was part of the group almost instantly.”
After attending Capitals development camp and training camp on a tryout basis, Walker ultimately never returned to Youngstown, accepting a contract with Washington’s AHL affiliate in Hershey for the 2013-2014 season. He scored 11 points in 43 games with the Bears, prompting the Capitals to trade back into the third round of the 2014 draft to pick him.
Excluding an injury-shortened season in 2015, in which he tore his ACL, Walker’s numbers have steadily climbed, culminating with a career-best 17 goals and 24 assists in 2016. Walker was being considered for his first NHL call-up last January during the NHL All-Star break, according to Capitals head coach Barry Trotz, until he broke his hand blocking a shot.
Walker, who is listed at 186 pounds, is undersized compared to the NHL average, but employs a high-energy and physical style of play. The Australian scored the lone goal in the Capitals’ first preseason game against New Jersey Sept. 18.
“He just continues to become a better player,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said at the team’s media day earlier this month. “Better positionally, reads the game better, more intelligent on his reads, instead of being a pure energy player.”
For the first time in two years, the Capitals have spots available in their lineup entering training camp after six players left the team during the offseason. Walker is competing for one of the two expected openings on the fourth line alongside center Jay Beagle. The Capitals trimmed down their roster to 30 players Tuesday, with Walker still in Washington.
“Sometimes you’re just around guys when you coach long enough and play long enough, you’re just around certain guys where you just know that they’re going to find a way somehow to make it,” Noreen said. “And there was no doubt that after spending a couple days around him and especially the rest of that season, that he was going to be one of those guys that would find a way to make it.”