With 5:59 left in the second period, Australian winger Nathan Walker claimed his first goal with the St. Louis Blues during Saturday night’s tilt against the visiting Pittsburgh Penguins.
Volleying a bouncing pass out of mid-air from Jaden Schwartz, the newly promoted forward blasted a slapshot past goalie Matt Murray to give the Note a 2-1 lead.
This tally made history, with Walker being the first Australian to ever score for the franchise. Then again, he has a history of making history.
Long and Winding Road to the NHL
How exactly did Walker end up on the Blues’ top line, notching his second NHL goal? His path to hockey’s premier league takes many unexpected turns, starting with the fact that he was born in Cardiff, Wales. Not exactly the hotbed of hockey talent.
At the age of two, his father uprooted the Walker clan and transplanted them in sunny Sydney, Australia. Known for its hard-hitting rugby, time-honored cricket, and endless surfing, there are only 22 ice rinks sprinkled across the continent down under. That did not stop the young Walker from falling in love with the game:
It all started when my brother started playing. We slowly learned the hockey, and from there we went to Toronto for a tournament, went to the Hockey Hall of Fame and bought all the hockey DVDs. I think it just kick-started from back in the day when “The Mighty Ducks” was up and running.
Having worn out home-made goals of PVC pipes and growing frustrated by limited ice time, Walker’s outsized ambition lead him to do what can only be described as a “hockey walkabout.” He moved to the Czech Republic at the young age of 13 to play junior hockey against players his age and skill level.
From 2007-10, Walker laced up for HC Vitkovice U18, racking up 57 points in 62 games for the under-18 squad. Stints with the under-20 team allowed him to test his skill against older players, all while flashing his trademark speed. He proudly wore the green and gold sweater of his home nation, competing in the 2012 World Championship Division Group B in Krynica, Poland. Although the Mighty Roos failed to win a game in the tournament, he bagged two goals and turned his attention to playing in the United States.
Phantoms, Bears, and Caps Oh My
The Youngstown Phantoms were Walker’s first taste of North American hockey and there was no jet lag in his game. Tallying 27 points in 20 games, he was quickly making a name for himself. However, due to the byzantine draft rules, he would have had to wait until the 2014 Draft to sign an NHL contract. Instead, the Aussie winger opted to play in the American Hockey League for the Washington Capitals affiliate, the Hershey Bears, signing in Sep. 2013.
That decision started a series of historic “firsts” for Sydney’s favorite son. Walker was the first Australian to play and score in the AHL. Following a solid season with the Bears, the Capitals drafted him in the third round of the 2014 NHL draft, 89th pick overall. Another first.
After being picked up by the Edmonton Oilers on waivers and then reacquired by the Capitals just 18 days later, Walker became the first Australian to play in the Stanley Cup playoffs, in which he recorded an assist. (from ‘Capitals re-claim Aussie forward Nathan Walker off waivers,’ Washington Post, 12/20/2017)
And then the biggest first of them all came on June 7, 2018, as he joined his teammates in hoisting the Stanley Cup. This was a first for Australia and the first for the Washington organization, too. Though he did not get his name engraved on the sacred trophy, he did get a shout-out from then-Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnball.
Equally as rewarding were the complimentary words from Capitals then-head coach Barry Trotz. “He’s got a really unique skillset,” Trotz said of Walker. “He’s explosive, he’s quick, he gets on people, he causes havoc. It’s not nice to play against. A lot of those Australian qualities that you endear with those south of the equator, he has that mentality and mindset. He’s going to make you pay, he’s going to play hard against you and he’s going to have an effect on the ice.“
From One Champ to Another
Called up for just three games in the 2018-19 campaign, Walker decided it was time to part ways with the Capitals after six years. On July 1, he signed a two-year, two-way contract with the defending Stanley Cup champion Blues.
So, how could a 25-year-old left winger with only 12 NHL games get a shot with defending Stanley Cup champs? By putting up impossible-to-ignore numbers for the Blues’ AHL affiliate, the San Antonio Rampage. At the time of his call up, Walker led the Rampage with 12 goals and 22 points.
Yet, even with all the injuries to the Blues offense, there was some concern that Walker might get passed over due to his size. Listed at 5-foot-8, 186 pounds with speed to burn, he reminds many fans of the recently-traded Robby Fabbri, who couldn’t crack the lineup this season.
During his post-game interview on NHL.com following the Blues 5-2 win over the Penguins on Nov. 30, here’s what Craig Berube had to say about Walker:
This guy’s had a good year so far. He had a real good training camp. You know, (Walker) was really close to making the team. Probably maybe even did make the team. But we have the same team back from last year and there wasn’t room right away, so he went down to the American League and is leading their team in scoring, and maybe the league, I think, in scoring, so he’s played really well.
from ‘Blues win third straight, beat Penguins 5-2,’ St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 11/30/2019
Subbing for the injured Oskar Sundqvist, Walker made a pest of himself against the Dallas Stars and appeared to have scored his first NHL goal in two years, stuffing the puck home past netminder Ben Bishop. Unfortunately, that goal was waved off due to offsides.
Walker wouldn’t have to wait too much longer to bask in the red glow of the goal lamp. The next night, he found himself skating with top-liners Brayden Schenn and Jaden Schwartz during the second period. Playing on his off-wing, he sent a knuckle-puck bouncing over Murray’s pads, rippling the twine. Berube explained the line mash-up: “Schenn and Schwartz needed a guy to get in there a bit with more energy and bang around a little bit and create some loose pucks.”
With Sammy Blais and Vladimir Tarasenko out for the foreseeable future, the Aussie forward has the opportunity to change the course of his career. From his first three games with the Blues, it appears the man from down under wants to stay up for good.
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