YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – A late-season injury may have cost Nathan Walker a chance at being selected in June’s NHL draft, but it the door remains wide open for him to become the first Australian to play in the world’s top hockey league. The Youngstown Phantoms forward recently received an invitation to attend the Washington Capitals’ rookie camp with the opportunity to earn an additional invite to the team’s official training camp.
If Walker, 19, impresses at the camp, Washington could offer him a professional contract. Otherwise the 5-foot-10, 180-pound “Stormy” is set to return to Youngstown to play his first full season for the Phantoms and a shot at being selected the 2014 NHL Entry Draft.
“It was a relief. After not getting drafted you kind of put your head down a little, but to hear that you’ve been [invited] it puts you back on track,” Walker said. “It was really good news. I was hoping that something like this would come up.”
It won’t be Walker’s first experience taking the ice at Washington’s Kettler Capitals Iceplex. He took part in Washington’s summer development camp last year before returning to the Czech Republic to open the 2012-13 campaign with his old club H.C. Vitkovice Steel. Walker then made the jump to North America in January and joined the Phantoms, where he made an instant impact scoring a goal on his first USHL shift. He went on to post seven goals, 20 assists and 27 points along with 63 penalty minutes in 29 games for Youngstown.
His season was cut short in a game April 5 against the U.S. National Under-17 Team when, after scoring a pair of goals, he was checked from behind into the boards injuring his neck. Walker missed the remainder of the campaign as well the team’s playoff run – something that ate at him while he watched from the stands as the Phantoms came a game short of advancing to the Clark Cup Finals.
“I wasn’t a little injury where you could just shake it off and keep playing,” he said. “It was something pretty serious so my biggest thought was whether I would play again … but once the doctor said everything’s fine, it was definitely running through my head that I kind of let the guy down a bit by not playing.
“One of the big things I wanted to do was come back to Youngstown and try my best to get to the finals.”
Youngstown head coach Anthony Noreen said Walker had absolutely no reason to feel guilty about how last season played out. The Phantoms went 20-9-0 with the rambunctious winger in the lineup and his influence may have been even greater in the locker room, where his experience playing professionally in the Czech Extraliga set an example for young teammates to conduct themselves.
“Nathan was a huge boost to our lineup and our locker room when we got him,” Noreen said. “We expect him to come back and be a leader for us again and be one of the top scorers in the League.”
For his part, Walker is keeping on track to be all that and more for the Phantoms. He resumed skating in late spring while he was still in Youngstown, and though he admitted some initial nerves about returning to the ice, they didn’t last long.
“Our trainer Jim [Schroeder] said for me to go out for a skate and the next thing you know I’ve got a stick and puck in my hand,” Walker said. “He came out there kind of yelling at me asking what I was doing while I’m bloody ripping clappers everywhere.”
(Ed. Note: For those not versed in hockey lexicon, a “clapper” is a slap shot, and it’s likely one of the reason’s Washington has kept an eye on Walker. He’s got a cannon.)
Walker is currently training daily at home in Sydney, where he has been skating with the Australian men’s National Team and on his own, all on top of working with a personal trainer. He has made full recovery and said he’s feeling “the fittest and strongest [he] ever has.”
He plans on returning to Youngstown in late August to be present for the start of Phantoms training camp before heading to Washington. Although he has been careful to manage his expectations, Walker said the fact that the Capitals organization taken notice of him for second year in a row is a positive takeaway.
“It’s pretty nice. If it was a different team, I guess I’d have to set my roots again,” he said. “But it’s really good that it’s the same team. They must have an interest in me, which is fantastic.”
When he takes the ice at rookie camp, he said he is going to be eager to prove that Washington’s interest is merited.
“I’m going to go there at 1,000 percent. I’m going to be steaming,” Walker said. “My biggest goal in my career is to make the NHL and I’m going to do anything I can to get there.”
Many USHL coaches might have reservations about having a player of Walker’s caliber – he’s sure to be penciled onto the Phantoms’ top line – plucked out of training camp before the start of the season, let alone face the prospect of losing him all together if he excels at Washington’s camp and receives a professional offer. But Noreen, on the contrary, is thrilled for Walker and the opportunity in front of him.
The Phantoms are in the business of developing players for the next level and if the Capitals believe Walker is ready, the third-year head coach said that’s something to be proud of. If not, Noreen said playing a full season in USHL should bode well for both Walker and Youngstown.
“Obviously he didn’t get to play a ton of games in the USHL, but the ones he did there’s no doubt he was one of the top forwards in the League – on our team or any team that we saw,” Noreen said. “We’re hoping that we can provide him the avenue this year to get looked at for the rest of the season and give him the best chance to pursue his dream of playing in the NHL.”
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Headquartered in Chicago the USHL now prepares for its 12th season as the nation’s only Tier I junior hockey league in 2013-14. With 19 NHL Draft picks on team rosters and more than 300 players already committed to NCAA Division I schools this season, the USHL has emerged as the world’s foremost producer of junior hockey talent. For more information, visit us on the web at www.USHL.com. Fans can also watch USHL action all season long, live or on-demand via FASTHockey (ushl.fasthockey.com).
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