By Tom Williams
No one has journeyed farther to play hockey here than the Youngstown Phantoms’ newest addition, forward Nathan Walker.
A native of Cardiff, Wales, who was raised in Sydney, Australia, the 18-year-old Walker has spent the past six years playing hockey for the HC Vitkovice organization in the Czech Republic.
This season, Walker, 18, felt he wasn’t getting enough ice time and decided to explore other options. His agent found him a home in Youngstown.
Three weeks ago, Walker flew to the U.S., practiced once with the Phantoms at the Covelli Centre then immediately boarded the team bus for a road trip to Chicago and Lincoln, Neb.
“I was pretty jet lagged when I first got here,” said Walker of sleeping through the longest bus trip of his life. “I don’t think I did that much bonding on the first trip. They were probably thinking, ‘who is this kid?’ “
The Phantoms obtained Walker hoping to boost their scoring. They’ve won five of the six games he’s played in and he’s scored two goals and six assists.
“He’s also a good skater and has a high compete level,” Phantoms head coach Anthony Noreen said. “He’s a guy who’s been playing with and against men this season and last, and we’re hoping that brings some veteran experience to our locker room.”
Walker was 6 when he began playing hockey in Sydney.
“Rugby and soccer are the biggest two sports,” said Walker of Australia. “We’re trying to make hockey better, but the weather is not helping — it’s always hot there so most people just play rugby and soccer.”
His family decided that if he were to become good enough to play professionally, he’d need to play junior hockey somewhere far from Australia.
Asked how much courage it took at age 12 to move halfway around the world, Walker said. “I wouldn’t say it was intimidating. It was definitely different but it was what I wanted to do.
“Ever since I started playing hockey, I wanted to try and make the NHL.”
In his first seasons, Walker said he felt he was keeping up with the Czech skaters.
“I learned a lot of things those first few years I was there, things I wouldn’t learn playing back at home,” Walker said.
Although he studied the Czech language, but did not become proficient.
“We had [practices] all the time so I didn’t get too many [language] lessons in,” Walker said. “We sort of got on with the guys with a bit of English, a bit of Czech [and] hand language which was good.”
Walker was eligible for last June’s NHL Draft but wasn’t picked. Since he is not eligible for a college scholarship, pro hockey remains his target.
Walker said it wasn’t a hard decision to come to the USHL.
“I felt I wasn’t getting the ice time I needed in Czech so I decided to come here,” Walker said. “We decided this was the best thing for me.”
Walker is living in Poland in the home of Don and Clarann Beck. Defenseman Ryan Lowney is one of his roommates.
“It’s always exciting to get a new guy, you never know what he’s going to be like,” said Lowney of adding a teammate in midseason. “He’s friendly, an awesome guy.”
Last week, Walker represented the Phantoms at the USHL Future Prospects Game in Muskegon, Mich., when Austin Cangelosi became ill and was unable to attend.
Walker said what he likes most about the Mahoning Valley is the support he’s receiving.
“The style they play and just how positive everyone us,” said Walker of what he likes about the Phantoms. “When you get off the ice, everyone is saying ‘good job’ It’s different.”