2012 Prospects: Australian establishing himself as legitimate NHL prospect

By Derek O'Brien

When the International Scouting Services released its most recent rankings, some might have noticed a curious name under the list of Czech prospects. At number six is a left winger named Nathan Walker. Even more intriguing is the discovery that this player is not of Canadian or American origin, but in fact Australian.

Actually, Walker was born in Wales, but his family moved down under when he was two years old. One might wonder how a 17-year-old born in Wales and raised in Australia would end up playing hockey in Ostrava, Czech Republic, of all places.

It stands to reason that Walker has a passion for hockey not common among Australian boys. When he was 12 years old, the coach of his youth team was a Czech, who told him that if he was serious about pursuing a career in hockey, he should consider relocating. He did, and Walker has lived in the mining town of 300,000 in the northeastern Czech Republic since 2006 and now speaks Czech fluently.

At age 16, Walker became a regular in the top junior league in the Czech Republic, and he made sports headlines domestically on December 11th, 2010 when he scored six goals in one game.

"It was a game where I just seemed to get a lot of chances to shoot. The funny thing is I could have scored more. I missed a wide-open net."

In April 2011, Walker returned home to play in the IIHF Division II World Championship, which Australia hosted. There, at age 17, he recorded six points in four games with a tournament-best plus-seven rating. He helped lead Australia to the gold medal, meaning that they will play in Division I in 2012, in Krynica-Zdroj, Poland.

"That was a lot of fun going there and playing in front of friends and family. They don’t get to see me play very much anymore," he said about the experience. Looking ahead to the 2012 event, he has a much shorter trip from Ostrava. "They’re in Poland. Not so far away, so pretty convenient for me."

The Junior Extraliga was again where Walker started the 2011-12 season, but early on, he got a phone call that drastically changed his career.

"The coach called me in the morning and told me to come to the game that night."

And so he went and dressed as the team’s 13th forward. He saw limited ice time for two periods, but when his team opened up a big lead, he got more ice time in the third, and assisted on his team’s eighth goal of the game.

Playing that game on October 9th, 2011 not only made Walker the first Australian to play in the Czech Extraliga, but the first to play in any European professional hockey league. And he did it at age 17.

At this point, some people outside the Czech Republic and Australia began to take notice.

"I don’t know if it’s caused a lot of attention or not. I haven’t really noticed, to be honest. I’m just concentrating on playing hockey. There’s a lot to focus on here."

Of course, as anybody in any country who’s made the jump knows, moving from junior to professional hockey is quite an adjustment. What’s the biggest difference?

"Everything, really. The size, the speed. The level of competition. It’s taken some adjusting, but I think it’s gone well so far."

One of the biggest differences is the amount of ice time Walker sees. Where he was a top-liner in junior, he has usually found himself on the fourth line in the Extraliga, which means seeing only a few minutes of ice time most nights.

"That’s not so difficult. I just have to be ready to play my hardest and do my job when I get the chance."

The hard work appears to be paying off, as in the last two games prior to the Christmas break, some injuries on the club resulted in Walker being promoted to Vitkovice’s top line.

In 25 Extraliga games prior to the Christmas break, Walker has four goals and three assists. The only junior-aged players with more are Slavia Prague’s Tomas Hertl with 15 and PSG Zlin’s Petr Holik with 11, both of whom are Alberta-bound for the World Junior Championships.

At 5’9 and 176 lbs, size is Walker’s biggest drawback at the professional level. However, that does not mean that he backs away from physical confrontations, which one would expect from someone nicknamed "Stormy" and would notice when watching him play. Also apparent is his speed. It’s his biggest asset, and it’s served him well so far. How far can it carry him?

He has stated that his dream is to play in the NHL, and the more he progresses, the less far-fetched that dream seems to be. But Walker isn’t getting ahead of himself.

"I know all of that’s going on. I try not to think about too much, though. (Playing in the NHL is) what I’d like to do, eventually. But I really don’t want to think that far ahead. I still want to establish myself in this league first."

It’s interesting that, as a foreigner, Walker is working so hard to establish himself in the Czech Extraliga when so many Czechs his age with the same goals are heading overseas to accomplish the same thing. With his 18th birthday coming up in February, Walker still has two more years of junior eligibility after 2011-12. It would seem a natural that, if he wants to go to the NHL, the place to go would be the Canadian Hockey League. While he has a chance at being taken in the NHL Entry Draft, it seems much more probable that he will be chosen by somebody in the 2012 CHL Import Draft. However, that doesn’t seem to be something that he’s considering at this point.

"I haven’t been contacted from anybody over there, and it’s not something I’m really thinking about. I’m just thinking about this year right now; doing my job on this team in this league."

Still, hardly anybody outside of the Czech Republic and Australia has seen this guy play. That might change in the last week of 2011, when his club, Vitkovice Steel, is to play at the famous Spengler Cup tournament in Davos, Switzerland. It was possible that Walker, who has still not established himself as one of his team’s top forwards, might be replaced by a pick-up, which is permitted in the Spengler Cup. However, on December 23rd he was named to his club’s tournament roster.

Besides his future in professional hockey, another thing people wonder about is his national allegiance. He currently represents Australia internationally, but if he continues playing in the Czech Republic and gets citizenship, it would open the door to the possibility of playing for the Czech Republic down the road.

One thing that can be learned from speaking to Walker for a few minutes, though, is that he doesn’t like to get too far ahead of himself. To begin with, he’s not a Czech citizen yet, so representing them is a moot point.

"(Getting citizenship) is actually something I’m working on now. It would make things easier living and working here. But it’s such an involved process. It’s hard to say how that will work out."

It’s hard to say how Walker’s career will work out, too. But if he continues to progress at the rate he has the past year or so, people might not only talk about "Stormy" as that Australian player, but also as a legitimate NHL prospect.