The train pulled away from the platform in Ostrava and Ceri Walker sobbed. She cried as it sped through the Czech Republic on the way to Vienna. She cried on an endless flight home to Australia.
Walker’s 13-year-old son, Nathan, was left behind. He would spend more than five years in that country, interrupted only by visits home in the summer. There he celebrated birthdays. He caught chicken pox. He made friends for life.
It was all in pursuit of a hockey career. In his native Australia, that dream was folly. The rinks were too few and the ice time limited. Walker had to leave the country. He pleaded with his parents, Ceri and Wayne, to let him go. They couldn’t anticipate what sacrifices that would mean.
“I kept saying ‘What am I doing? What am I doing?’” Ceri Walker said. “Looking back, I don’t think we knew what a big task it was and how much Nathan would be giving up. And how much we gave up, too.”
Following brother’s example
On June 28, the Capitals chose Walker, now 20, with the 89th selection in the NHL draft. He is not an elite prospect, small by NHL standards at 5-foot-9 and 192 pounds. But the forward is a swift skater, strong on the puck with good skill and has been playing against grown men for years.
He has a legitimate opportunity to become the first Australian to play in the NHL. And it was only possible because he took a chance.
“At first it was, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’” Walker said. “I didn’t have any family. I don’t speak the language. I don’t know anyone. But at the end of the day, it was what I really wanted to do.”
Walker became the first Australian drafted by an NHL team. The odds against that when he first took to the ice at age 6 were astronomical. His older brother Ryan was exposed to the sport when the family still lived in Cardiff, Wales. They emigrated from the United Kingdom when Ryan was 7 and Nathan was 2.
Ryan Walker took up hockey in Australia and later played it during a study abroad year in Faribault, Minnesota, during high school. Like any younger brother, Nathan wanted to tag along in everything. That was fine. But, despite a six-year age gap with Ryan and his friends, there was no quarter given. The younger brother would have to keep up. He always did.
Nathan was a natural on the ice. He played for the Blacktown Flyers, a club in a suburb of Sydney. But rink space was so limited that kids skated crosswise so two teams could use the same sheet. Games at all levels in Australia were played in 15-minute periods, not 20. Developing the skills needed to advance was a hopeless case even after Walker began playing for three different age groups. It wasn’t enough.
“I’ve got to get out of here,” Walker told his mother.
‘Nothing beautiful in there’
But he needed help. Ivan Manco, a family friend and Walker’s coach at the state level in Australia, had contacts in his native Slovakia and the Czech Republic. He arranged tryouts with clubs in those countries in October of 2007.
The plan was to get a proper evaluation of Walker’s talent and send him over the following season in 2008. But his speed immediately impressed the coaches at HK Vitkovice Steel, a club based in Ostrava, the third-largest city in the Czech Republic.
Ceri Walker remembers the Vitkovice coach, who spoke only Czech, doffing his hat to her at the end of a week of workouts, a sign that her son had passed. Nathan was accepted immediately into the club’s youth program. The plan had moved up a year. There was nothing for Ceri to do but return home — without her son.
Manco and Branislav Kromka, another Slovak and Walker’s first coach in Australia, found a billet family for him to live with. But he didn’t speak Czech and they didn’t speak English. So, they taught each other. That was part of the deal. It also meant lots of sign language and pantomime those first few months and long nights ignoring Czech television he couldn’t understand anyway.
Manco and Kromka, who had moved back home to Ostrava from Australia and worked in a hospital there, served as a critical support system for Walker. He went on ski trips with Manco’s family. Kromka treated him like a younger brother and was there to handle any crises. There were a few.
“Imagine — you are a 13-year-old kid speaking just English. And not even English, but Australian English,” Manco said. “Send him away to a completely different culture. His whole family was in Sydney, where there are beaches and ocean, to a city like Cleveland. Industrial. Really nothing beautiful in there. And he stayed six years.”
There were tearful calls home where Walker admitted his homesickness. His parents would ask him to wait 24 hours and if he still wanted to leave the next day they’d book the flight. Walker always felt better on the next call. That’s how the family got through the first three years.
“People would say to me ‘How can you do that?’” Ceri Walker said. “And I would say ‘How can I not?’”
‘A kid obsessed with the game’
As if making up for lost time, Walker pushed himself hard on ice. He practiced three times a day with the Vitkovice midget, bantam and junior teams and then took shots on the goalies afterward. The Vitkovice coaches had to tell Walker to back off or risk burnout.
But the extra work clicked. He started on Vitkovice’s under-16 team and moved up quickly. By age 15 he was playing for their under-20 junior team and scored six goals in one game. At age 17 he made his first appearance for the senior team in the Czech Extraliga, the highest level of hockey in that country and one of the five or six best leagues in the world.
The improvement on the ice was obvious and Walker was finally comfortable in his surroundings. He’d picked up the language. Ryan Walker made his first trip to Ostrava in 2011 and remembers wearing his Australia hockey jersey and screaming with joy as his brother, the only player on the ice so young that he was still required to wear a full cage helmet, scored a power-play goal.
“Just a kid obsessed with the game,” Ryan said. “To him it seemed there weren’t any real problems. ‘I get to go overseas and play hockey every day? This is awesome.’ There was no ‘Oh, I’m away from my family, I don’t know the language. I wonder what all my other friends are doing?’ He was all smiles. By then we had nothing to worry about.”
Dream finally realized
Walker still entered this year’s draft with trepidation. He’d been ranked the No. 21 skater in Europe by the NHL’s independent Central Scouting Bureau before the 2012 draft and didn’t get selected at all, a huge letdown.
Thinking his visibility would improve, he finally made the jump to junior hockey in North America. Walker signed with Youngstown in the United States Hockey League in January of 2013. But it didn’t help. He was passed over yet again after breaking a bone in his neck near the end of that season on a hit from behind.
NHL rules prevented Walker from signing anywhere as a free agent until he had gone through the draft process one more time. He’d already played two summers in Washington at its annual week-long prospect development camp. The Caps were familiar with him. And so Walker signed with AHL Hersey, their top minor league affiliate, appearing in 43 games last season.
At their home in suburban Sydney last month, the Walkers were watching a live stream of the draft broadcast on a computer when Walker’s phone buzzed with a text message. That’s how he learned that the Caps, thousands of miles away in Philadelphia, were about to select him.
He read the message and there was silence for a few beats and then bedlam. After a few bouts of celebrating, everyone turned toward the screen and saw Nathan’s name flash across. Then they fell to pieces again. Ceri cried once more, the tears joyous this time — for something gained, not for something left behind. Her sons fell into hysterics laughing at her.
It was a long way from the train station in Ostrava.
“All the sacrifice, the pain, the tears throughout the years — people don’t see that,” Ceri Walker said. “I haven’t seen Nathan on his birthday since he was 13. I can’t remember the last time I had him home for Christmas. I just felt — and I did say it out loud — that it was all so worth it.”