THINGS must seem strangely normal for Nathan Walker right now.
Playing for the Hershey Bears, chasing his NHL dream, just like he has since he was a boy.
As a 13 year-old Aussie boy, lying in bed in a strange Czech town, he probably dreamt about scoring a goal in the big show.
Maybe Nate imagined a ‘triple deke’ (like Charlie Conway in any of the three awesome Mighty Ducks movies) followed by a backhander top shelf past the goaltender.
He probably never envisaged scoring his first NHL goal off his backside.
But dreams don’t always play out exactly when it comes to real life, but the 24-year-old from Sydney’s west can be content in the knowledge that a goal deflecting off your behind is worth the same as a ‘tweener or a spinna-rama followed by a five-hole wrister.
No, nothing ‘arsey’ about it, but despite that being roughly 82 games ago, the memory is still seared into his brain.
“It was something I’d dreamt about, playing in the NHL, they whole experience was incredible,” Walker told foxsports.com.au.
If you’ve followed Walker at all, you’ve heard that answer a few times.
But the ride afterwards was interesting – he played really well that day against Montreal, and so did the Caps. They absolutely blew the Canadiens away.
Alex Ovechkin scored a hat-trick as they won 6-1.
Next time out for Walker was against Tampa Bay where he didn’t see as much ice time, and frustratingly, Nathan was on the ice when the Lightning scored a late equaliser.
Eventually Tampa won in overtime – now it wasn’t Nathan’s fault they scored, but the line on the ice takes responsibility as a whole, and next game Walker was scratched (dropped).
So became the pattern, in and out.
After scraping together seven appearances Walker had generally been pretty solid, but the Caps were struggling (uncharacteristically so) and decided to make a roster move – they sent him down to Hershey, their minor league affiliate.
Pretty normal stuff, except Walker had to clear waivers – so technically another team could offer him a contract.
And a team did – the Edmonton Oilers – a storied club largely because of the great Wayne Gretzky, who won four cups with the Canadian franchise.
They are more like Carlton these days, constantly rebuilding.
Walker jumped at the chance to sign with the Oilers.
“It was insane,” he said.
“They had a couple of injuries, and needed someone on the penalty kill.
“I was definitely happy (when they offered me a deal), I got a chance to forge new friendships, and I took away a lot from that.
“I know I only played two games, but it was a good opportunity to play some more hockey and I’m grateful for the experience.”
Walker filled a void they needed in special teams and on the fourth line.
Anyone who bought an Oilers Walker jersey would have been disappointed when they placed him on the waivers just 20 days after signing him.
Nearly everyone associated with Nathan was delighted, but not shocked, when the Capitals came back for their little Australian project.
Washington is where Nathan belongs.
“It was great experience, I met some awesome people,” he said.
“I got to have a look at the otherwise of the league, and I got back to where I started in the end.”
Walker stuck around with the Caps over Christmas, due to a league wide roster freeze, but he was always going back to Hershey and hone his game.
“There’s a few things I need to work on to stay in the league.
“That’s why they sent me to Hershey, to work on those things on a consistent basis.”
What are those things?
Walker wants to be a penalty killer – so when your team is in a 4 v 5 situation due to one of your players being sent to the penalty box – he wants to be the man the coach sends on the ice to do the dirty work and stop the other team scoring on the man advantage.
It’s hard yakka, you have to block shots, make tough plays and skate until you’re completely gassed.
“It’s huge in the NHL, it will get you an extra 3-4 minutes of ice time.
“You gotta make hard plays, and make them right.”
Walker describes these skills as what makes NHL players, NHL players.
And that’s what’s required now to stay on the roster consistently.
Funnily enough, there is a glimmer of hope Walker’s commitments for the season aren’t done yet.
The Caps are in the fight of their lives against Columbus to stay afloat in the playoffs, down two games to one, but if injuries hit, Walker might be called upon to pull on the number 79.
Stranger things have happened.
“You always want to get a call up, but you never wish injuries upon anyone,” he said.
“I hope they all stay healthy I hope they have a really long run in the playoffs, but if they need me I’d love to go up there and help out.”
But if no call-up comes, Walker still has something pretty massive to look forward to.
He may not get a Stanley Cup this year, but he’ll still get a ring when he ties the knot with his fiancé Tayla in July in Sydney’s botanical gardens.
Walker is still hopeful some of his teammates will make the trip, once they work out what they’ll be doing in the new season.
And that’s not all Nathan will be doing while he’s down under.
Apart from watching Cronulla at Shark Park, he’s also going to play in the Australian Ice Hockey classic in Sydney (June 30) and Adelaide (July 5).
Walker finished his AHL season with Hershey with 22 points from 40 games. The message from Caps head coach Barry Trotz is simple.
“Keep getting better, keep chasing that dream and get after it.”