Nathan Walker is the first Cardiff-born player to play NHL ice hockey – and the first Welshman to compete at the top level in 45 years.
The 23-year-old scored on his NHL debut, in a 6-1 win against Montreal Canadiens and his achievement has been hailed throughout Australia, where he grew up, and North America.
“It was incredible to get on the ice with those guys and get the NHL game in,” he said. “It was really special.”
Walker was born in Cardiff to rugby-loving Wayne and Ceri and has an older brother, Ryan. The family moved to Cronulla, Australia when Nathan was two-years-old and he later played rugby league for the local Sharks junior team.
Ryan played hockey, representing Australia at under-18 level, and Nathan says: “My brother Ryan was playing, and, as the younger brother, I just wanted to copy what he was doing.
“Next thing you know, I was hooked. Those Mighty Ducks movies, which came out when I was really young, had a big part to play in it as well.
“I saw a Ducks film when it first came out and just remember really wanting to play ice hockey.”
Nathan has had a burning desire to play NHL hockey since those early days playing in Australia and he is at the start of his career, but he has revealed there is one club he would love to play for.
“I’d really like to play for the Cardiff Devils someday,” he says.”That’s where I think I’d like to end up. I’m from Wales and I’m from Cardiff – it seems right that that’s where I’d end up. Wales is a great country to call home.
“I think my brother probably remembers a bit more about Cardiff than I do. But we have visited our cousins every there.”
He becomes only the fourth ever Welshman in the NHL after Cy Thomas from Dowlais, Jack Evans from Garnant and Barry-born Wilf Cude.
Walker’s dad, Wayne, said of ice hockey: “When I first watched it, I liked that it was so quick. And it’s rough. I liked playing rough sport.”
At 13-years-old, he told mum Ceri: “I want to go overseas. I want to be training and playing every day of the week. I want to make the NHL. Just get me over there.”
“And we did,” said Ceri.
First it was to Ostrava, a steel and coal city in the Czech Republic, where he moved to improve his game by playing junior level ice hockey for Vitkovice Steel.
Ceri recalled: “At 13, we left him there, with a family that didn’t speak any English. He learned to speak Czech quickly. And Slovakian plus a bit of Russian, too. He kept saying: ‘Mum, this is my dream. This is all I’ve ever wanted to do’.”
Nathan recalls: “I didn’t speak Czech. The coach didn’t speak English. We couldn’t communicate.”
He worked hard and over the next few years became a top-rated Czech player in European competition and then moved to North America, playing for American League Hershey Bears and Carolina Stingrays.
Last season, with the Bears, he played 43 games, scored 11 points and had 40 penalty minutes.
Now Nathan’s an NHLer and fellow Caps players call him ‘G’day Nate’.
His parents were in Washington DC for his NHL debut and mum Ceri admitted she had tears in her eyes when he son skated onto the ice, saying: “It was a dream come true just sitting in the stands.
“I still get emotional now over it, seeing him skate out onto the ice, the announcer saying, ‘It’s Nathan Walker, the first Australian to play in the NHL’.
The Welsh NHL hall of fame:
Cy Thomas (August 5, 1926 to January 2, 2009) was a professional ice hockey player from Dowlais, Wales. He played 14 NHL games for Toronto Maple Leafs and Chicago Black Hawks.
Wilf Cude (July 4, 1906 to May 5, 1968). Goaltender from Barry, South Wales. Played 10 seasons (1930-1941) in goal for Philadelphia Quakers, Boston Bruins, Chicago Black Hawks, Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens.
In those years ice hockey goalies did not wear face masks.
Cude’s family relocated from Wales to Winnipeg, Manitoba in search of employment and he started playing ice hockey there.
Jack Evans (April 21, 1928 to November 10, 1996). Born Garnant, Wales. Defenceman. Played for New York Rangers and Chicago Black Hawks between 1946 and 1972.
HIs family emigrated to Drumheller, Alberta in his youth. Only spoke Welsh when he arrived in Canada and when he learned English spoke with an elongated drawl that earned him the nickname ‘Tex’.
Started playing ice hockey at the age of 14 and quickly became a leading junior league D-man. He was a member of Chicago’s 1961 Stanley Cup winning team and played in the 1962 NHL AllStar game in Toronto.
Nathan Walker (born February 7, 1994). Aged 23. Cardiff-born forward who has played for Australian club Sydney Ice Dogs and HC Vitkovice in the Czech Republic plus North American teams Youngstown Phantoms, Hershey Bears and South Carolina Stingrays before Washington Capitals.