Sport

Nathan Walker on being the first Australian drafted by an NHL team. By Donna Walker-Mitchell.
Credit: GRAIG ABEL / GETTY IMAGES

Nathan Walker, 22, ice hockey player

From as young as I can remember I was always doing some type of sport. I played rugby, cricket, softball, baseball, pretty much everything. My brother [Ryan] was into a lot of sports, too, and my dad played rugby. My mum also played a few sports, so I think it was just a way of life. It runs in the family. I loved sport – that and the fact it got me out of class quite a bit.

I used to watch my older brother play ice hockey and, I think, being younger, I just wanted to copy what he was doing. But once I started playing I just fell in love with the sport and it wasn’t too long before I thought I wanted to make a career out of it.

I remember one day very vividly at practice. Mum and Dad were saying, “Come on, let’s go, we’ve got to go home”, but I didn’t want to go. I just wanted to stay on the ice and I remember they were shutting off all the lights and the people who were working there wanted to leave. As soon as I got in the car I said to my parents, “That’s it. I want to be on the ice more. I want to be playing a lot more.” I knew I had to go overseas if that was going to happen.

I was 13 when I moved to the Czech Republic. I had to move overseas if I wanted to develop my skills further. My mum went for the first week-and-a-half for tryouts and then she came home and I was with a billet family. I stayed there for five-and-a-half, six years. Being overseas taught me to be very independent.

My parents were always incredibly supportive and I’m very thankful for that. In anything my brother or I wanted to do, they were always encouraging us to go for it. It definitely helps when you know you have that support system back home. They didn’t really coach me a whole lot, which was nice. They just let me play. If I had a bad game, they would sometimes ask me what happened, but other than that, they just wanted to see me having fun and doing something other than sitting at home and playing video games.

To be the first Australian selected in the NHL draft is pretty big, but at the same time there are a lot of other hockey players in this world so I just kind of look at it that I’m just another player who is playing the game they love. I try not to think too much about being the only Australian and all of that.

To be successful in sport you have to know not everything is going to be sunshine and rainbows, which I think from the outside looking in, a lot of people see it as. There are a lot of things that go on in the background which test your mental toughness. Being away for countless Christmases and birthdays definitely doesn’t help, but when you’re doing what you love and what you’ve always wanted to do, you have to focus on that and stick it out.

You have to put the work in. My speed on the ice helps me for sure, but I’m the sort of person who believes that even if you’re having a bad game, if you’re still working hard then good things will happen for you. I go to the rink and I work at it every day.

I miss home a lot. I miss the feeling of hot sand in between my toes and the great waves crashing at the beach [Walker grew up in a southern Sydney suburb]. When I think of Australia, that’s the first thing, obviously apart from my family and friends, that comes to mind.

In sport, sometimes you get injured. That’s just a fact. When I tore my ACL last year my focus was about getting back to the game as soon as possible. As soon as I had my surgery, I had sheer determination to get back to being a hundred per cent as fast as possible. You can’t think negatively. You have to be positive and know that eventually everything will work itself out.

Follow your dreams. It sounds like a cliché, but at the end of the day, if it’s what you want to do, nobody should be there to stop you. Moving away from home is not easy on you, your brothers and sisters and your parents, but if you’re living the life you want then there are sacrifices that have to be made, unfortunately. My old man likes to joke he’s happy I’m not there, but I think they miss me.

I don’t have any regrets. None at all. The best thing I did was knowing what I wanted to do at such a young age.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 10, 2016 as "The icebreaker: Nathan Walker, 22, ice hockey player". Subscribe here.

Donna Walker-Mitchell
is an Australian journalist based in Los Angeles.