#89 in the Draft. #1 in Our Hearts.

At 1:30 am (AEST) on Sunday, June 29th a little bit of Australian history was made with Nathan Walker (British born, Australian raised) becoming the very first Australian to be drafted into the NHL. Whilst Walker has been involved with the Capitals organisation, and spent the last season in Hershey after appearing in several pre-season games, his official drafting by the Capitals at #89th overall is a big moment for Australian hockey.

I admit hockey has been far from my mind lately. The last several weeks have been hectic, with finishing my Master’s degree, massive system changes at work and family visits, so whilst I vaugely remembered the draft was on, I had in fact forgotten about the chance of Walker going (atleast on the day!). It was by sheer luck too that I happened to be awake at 1:30 am when this all unfolded. Typically, I’d have been long asleep on a Saturday night, but on this night I found myself out on the town with a motley assortment of hockey players all of whom were equally as ‘stoked’ about the news.

At 1.30 am, we were starting to wind down for the night and suddenly my phone started vibrating rapidly. The first message came in from Jeff Marek, followed quickly by a bunch of others and that’s how we found out the news. There was shouting, hugging, raised glasses and cheers for “Stormy”, a large amount of disbelief and excitement and more bro-hugging than I’ve seen outside an ice-rink in a long time. Many of these players had been teammates of Nathan over the years, were life-long friends who had grown up together on the ice. Everyone was practically giddy, firing off messages, tweets, and in two instances, face-timing the probably overwhelmed Walker to share their congratulations (mostly through the form of loud yelling and cursing). 

Walker’s drafting to the NHL doesn’t mean there is a pipeline of Australian’s to follow. We know, for well, that both his talent and the stubborn determination of those around him to help him succeed, may be a once in a generation occurrence, the outcome of a decade plus of hard work and a small sprinkle of luck.

What it does mean however, is that for the young Australian hockey player, maybe, just maybe, that that dream isn’t as impossible as it seemed last week. Nathan Walker did it and maybe, just maybe, they can too.

At the rink later on Sunday, the giddy mood hadn’t disappeared, many of the players expressing that when they woke up they’d had to pinch themselves to believe that it had in fact happened. ‘Stormy’ had done it. This mood wasn’t restricted to the players though. Fan after fan I spoke to, wanted to talk about how exciting it was, how great it made them feel, how much they were going to support the Capitals now that they had one of ‘us’.

Because that’s how the Australian hockey community thinks. We may support different teams, both at home and far away, wear different colours and cheer for different players but at the end of the day, we’re an incredible close knit bunch, fiercely proud of the foothold we’ve helped this sport carve in the most un-typical of hockey nations.

That’s what this is all about I think, the mentality of Australian Ice Hockey and the ‘us’ component of our fandom as look outwards to the wider hockey world and the NHL.

Being a hockey fan in Australia is for the crazy, and dreaming of the NHL as a hockey player in Australia is, if possible, even crazier. But that’s what Nathan Walker did, and this week, we saw that dream come a step closer to fruition.

Nathan Walker is a Australian hockey player, maybe not by birth but by the origin for where his passion for the game started. He is a hockey player, who whilst having left for the Czech Republic age 13 to follow his passion for the game, learnt so much of the game here in Australia and of that fact we are fiercely, fiercely proud.

Nathan Walker is a hockey player, he is an Australian and he is one of ‘us’.

And for that he’s got a country’s never-ending support and admiration.

So from the Capital’s first Aussie to their next – congratulations, mate.

(Context: I was a Washington Capitals intern for several months in 2009.)