Hockey Down Under: The Nathan Walker Effect

Posted October 22, 2018

Welcome to Australia, where there is more hockey than you think, and passionate NHL fans arise at all hours of the morning to watch their favourite teams battle it out. When people think of Australia, the last thing they think of is ice sports. Usually, they think of long hot summers, kangaroos and endless deserts. However, the growth of ice hockey in Australia is something which is truly remarkable, and this hockey fan is writing to you from the most isolated city in the world.

Located on the west coast of Australia, Perth is a city which is known for its relaxed lifestyle, picturesque weather and has been compared on occasion to the way of life in Vancouver and the weather patterns of California. The city itself is known for its friendly locals and beautiful coastline.

I moved to Perth from Sydney in 1997 and have called Western Australia home ever since. In WA, the sporting landscape revolves around Cricket and Australian Rules Football, with the Swan River dividing the passionate fan bases of the West Coast Eagles and Fremantle Dockers of the Australian Football League (AFL). I, like most Sandgropers (the nickname given to West Aussies) love my footy and have some great friendly banter with the family come footy season!

In 1992, I like most 90’s kids got hooked on the fast paced thrills of Ice Hockey by watching the Mighty Ducks. Things like the Flying V, Bash Brothers and Quack Attack soon became familiar phrases. Living in a regional town didn’t give me the opportunity to actually try the sport, but in 2012 I decided to give it a go. It turned out to be a decision that I wouldn’t regret as hockey has now become a big part of my life.

In the industrial area of Malaga in Perth’s Northern Suburbs, lies Perth Ice Arena, the home to the Western Australian representatives in the Australian Ice Hockey League, the Perth Thunder. The league itself began in 2000 with three teams from Adelaide, Sydney and Canberra. It has now expanded to include eight teams including two from Melbourne, a second Sydney team, the introduction of Newcastle, the re-branding of Adelaide and Canberra and the establishment of Perth. However, the Goodall Cup’s (which is awarded to the annual champion team) history goes back much further to 1911, when it was awarded for the first time to New South Wales in an interstate tournament against Victoria. The original cup resides in the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto and it is listed as the fifth oldest cup in Ice Hockey history.

In 2012, a storm was brewing with the entry of the Perth Thunder into the league. Since their inception, the boys from the west have made the AIHL finals five times, have produced several Australian representatives and will be looking to go one better in 2019 with another tilt at the Goodall Cup. Personally, I worked with the Thunder organisation for several years, working with the AIHL as part of the Thunder media team. The tight-knit nature of the hockey community in Perth is second to none with all of the Thunder team being well acquainted with their fans, coaches, support team and more! 2018 is also a landmark year for Perth hockey with the Perth Inferno joining the Australian Women’s Ice Hockey League as an expansion team for the 2018/19 season. They will line up against teams from Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane in the national league which had its inaugural season in 2005. The Inferno and Thunder provide the faces of hockey in Perth and players also participate in the Perth Summer League, a casual hockey league here in Perth which sees them scattered across different teams comprising of all levels of players from Midgets to Bantams and Seniors. I have played in this league and other leagues across Perth for six years now and absolutely love any chance I get to hit the ice!

For the past six years, Australia has played host to exhibition teams from USA and Canada in the International Ice Hockey Classic which has seen a spike in Ice Hockey popularity in Australia and WA. In 2014, 12,000 spectators descended upon Perth Arena for the exhibition and it was amazing to see fans of all ages donning team jerseys from all areas of the world. Some were sporting NHL and some supporting minor leagues such as ECHL and AHL. Others pulled on USA or Canada colours, some represented their home town in Thunder jerseys or other teams from the AIHL and there were even international jerseys from places such as Finland, Czech Republic and more. What was amazing was the sheer number of Ice Hockey enthusiasts that came out of our ‘small town city’.

So yes, there is love for hockey in Australia however the game down under was put on the map in 2014 with what was seemingly an everyday event in the National Hockey League but a huge sporting moment in Australia. Nathan Walker, a powerful young forward from Sydney was selected as 89th overall in the third round of the NHL draft and sent to the Washington Capitals. Australian sporting followers labelled it the final frontier with Australian players already making waves in the MLB, NBA and NFL. Walker became the first Australian in the NHL. After several opportunities, injury blows and then several fantastic years with Washington’s AHL affiliate the Hershey Bears, it was with great anticipation that Walker debuted for the Capitals in October 2017.

So just what has the exposure of Nathan Walker and the Washington Capitals done for the state of hockey in Australia? Several members of popular Facebook group ‘Australian NHL Fans’ were asked about their viewpoint of where hockey lies in the sporting landscape in Australia, the impact of the ‘Walker effect’ and those Caps fans from Down Under give their take on what makes them ‘Rock The Red’.

For Beth Walker of Melbourne, Victoria, her support of the Capitals came as a result of Walker’s drafting. “I was without and NHL team until Nathan was drafted by the Capitals” she said. Reflecting on what his journey has done for grass roots hockey in Australia, “I think it now seems much more achievable to play professionally, or even reach NHL standards” she said. “However there is still not sufficient programs locally to enable this without spending time abroad” she continued.

Capitals fan from New South Wales (east coast of Australia) Jeff Spires is grateful for what Walker has done for Hockey in Australia and is a proud Capitals fan. “The first NHL game I ever saw was a Capitals win at home against the rival Penguins” he recalls. “The reason I’m a fan of the Caps is because of their fans, those guys are great” he continued. “I was given a game puck from the night by a fan just because I was an Aussie, the city turned red after the win, the fans were the best thing I’d ever seen” he concluded.

Melbourne based hockey fan Stuart Walker said that although he is not a Capitals fan himself, Nathan Walker’s introduction to the NHL has seen a few more news stories and knowledge about hockey in Australia. “It is still very much a fringe sport in Australia” he said. “However there are a core group of people around the country who keep the sport progressing” he continued.

For many non-Capitals fans in Australia, the team has earned respect from their drought breaking Stanley Cup win and franchise faces such as captain Alexander Ovechkin are a big part of that. ‘Australian NHL Fans’ and ‘Ice Hockey Australia’ page admin Jason Sangwin admits that, although a Maple Leaf fan, the Capitals’ post Stanley Cup win celebrations were a standout and commented that Ovechkin’s impact has done a lot for the team.

I mentioned in my first piece for Capitals Outsider that hockey is becoming a global game and this is no more evident than on the Capitals roster, boasting players from nine countries. I feel that that is another important aspect which makes the Capitals so fascinating and loved in Australia. They are the team representing the nation’s capital with an Australian on their roster, one of the most respected captains in the NHL and a Stanley Cup to their name…what’s not to love?

I am proud to be a member of the Ice Hockey community here in Australia and love everything about the game. Whether it’s playing, supporting, reporting or cheering on my boys in Washing from the other side of the world, one thing is for sure. There is no better game on earth!!