Phantoms’ Walker going where no Aussie’s gone before

Normally associated with kangaroos, Crocodile Dundee, rugby and cricket, Australia is one of the last places from which one would expect a hockey player to come.

The Youngstown Phantoms’ Nathan Walker is shattering that perception everyday.

Since joining the Phantoms in early January, the Welsh-born Aussie has been a major force for Youngstown as it turned around its early-season misfortunes and qualified for the United States Hockey League’s playoffs. In 29 games, Walker has amassed 27 points on seven goals and 20 assists.

With his first shift for the Phantoms in their 3-2 win over the Chicago Steel, he made his mark in America. The Sydney, Australia, native slammed Steel forward Danny Fetzer into the boards, causing a turnover, and Walker finished on the other end with a backhanded goal.

“We saw right away in his first shift in Chicago,” said Sam Anas, his linemate and the team’s leading scorer. “We took the puck wide and scored a goal. After that, we knew exactly what we were going to get from him then.

“He’s been one of the turning points this season. He’s been a big acquisition, and he’s a great player.”

Walker’s move to Youngstown started more than five years ago in the Land Down Under.

The then 13-year-old left-winger, who got into the sport watching his older play for a high school in Minnesota when he was younger, dominated the Australian leagues, playing alongside 20 year olds. As a kid with aspirations of playing as a professional, he had to make a move.

“Practicing in Australia, there’s only an hour per week to get on the ice,” Walker said. “I was really getting into the sport, so I decided I wanted to try and get somewhere with this – make a profession out of it. I realized that I had to get out of Australia to do that.”

Walker made that move in 2007, joining HC Vitkovice in the city of Ostrava, Czech Republic. He worked his way up through the clubs’ youth teams, eventually making the senior team. He became the first Australian to play in a European professional hockey on Oct. 9, 2011.

The Aussie played well enough over the next half-season to become a genuine National Hockey League prospect for the 2012 NHL Draft on April 9, 2012. Despite being the second-highest ranked prospect from the Czech Extraliga and the No. 25-ranked European prospect, Walker didn’t become the first Australian to hear his name called in the draft.

With that in mind and struggling to get playing time under a new coach at Vitkovice, Walker was ready to make another move – this time to the U.S. His agent had a connection with Youngstown, and he secured the move midseason.

“I felt like I wasn’t getting the ice time I need to become a better player,” Walker said. “There’s a lot more exposure here to NHL scouts. The move to come over here was just the fact that I wasn’t getting the ice time I really wanted to be getting back in Europe.”

Based on his play so far, he’s definitely making some noise. Walker has recorded the fifth-most assists on the team and has as many points as another linemate, Cam Brown, having played 15 less games. Brown was also a midseason acquisition.

For his teammates, if anybody’s going to be the ambassador for an entire country in the sport, they’re glad that Walker is that for Australia.

“Not just because of his play, but how he handles himself,” Anas said. “Off the ice, he’s a respectful kid, and he’s very well-spoken. If he’s going to be the guy to represent a whole country, it’s good that he does it the right way.”

Walker’s dreams of playing in the NHL someday are alive and still kicking. His contract with the Phantoms runs through the end of the season, so he said he’s hoping that he can make enough of an impression on NHL scouts in six months to have a team draft him into the NHL.

He’s not trying to put all his eggs into this one basket, though, saying that if it doesn’t work this year, he will keep on searching for ways to pursue his dream.

“That’d be huge, but if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen,” Walker said. “It’s not going to be the end of the world. I’m still going to keep playing, I’m still going to keep trying to make it.”