Nathan Walker: Getting The Brand Back Together


As the only Australian ever to make the National Hockey League, he’s a pretty big deal in the United States. But as Sandi Logan notes, Nathan Walker’s five-month stint back home in Sydney during the NHL’s winter break has been much quieter, which doesn’t exactly reflect well on local ice hockey officials.

You’d kind of expect Australia’s only true professional ice hockey player – Nathan Walker of the NHL’s St Louis Blues – would be the hottest property on ice Down Under when it comes to developing and promoting a winter sport first played here in Melbourne in 1906.

With the National Hockey League’s first-ever Global Series-Melbourne ready to showcase squads from the Los Angeles Kings and Arizona Coyotes on 23 and 24 September, it would make further sense to have seen the 29-year-old Walker’s image plastered on billboards, posted inside ice rinks and hanging from the rafters of every club in the lead-up to this multi-million dollar extravaganza.

But no, aside from his name appearing in one or two online stories about the first time the ‘show’ has come to Australia, the brand that is Nathan Walker has been missing – in print and in action.

Nicknamed ‘Stormy’ thanks to his on-ice fervour and endless energy, Walker has been all but ignored by the national governing body for the sport – Ice Hockey Australia (IHA) – since he was drafted into the NHL in 2014, when the Washington Capitals took him in the third round. He had been on the Caps’ radar since signing a minor-pro contract with the Hershey Bears the season before, proving his decision – at aged 13 – to leave Sydney and move alone to Czech Republic, had finally paid off.

Though born in Wales, Nathan Walker spent all his childhood and into his teens growing up in Cronulla. In fact, he was part of the Sharks’ rugby league program before inline and ice hockey opened a whole new world of opportunities. (Ed’s note: Jordan Spence, born in Manly, Sydney last year became the first Australian-born player to start an NHL game, although Spence didn’t grow up here, and has never played for Australia).

While Nathan has played for Australia in International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) world championships in the past, his NHL career has put a hold on that given the pro ice hockey season can last all the way through to June – if your team is in the play-offs – and most IIHF championships are staged in February/March/April.

Asked in a recent podcast sponsored by Skaters Network, one of Australia’s largest sports retailers specialising in ice and inline sports, whether there had been any outreach from Ice Hockey Australia, Walker was candid, if not blunt:

“No, there’s been nothing,” he said.  “I wish there was. There’s not been any dialogue… not anything like that. It’s pretty tough (to be treated like that) to be honest.

“It would be nice to have that relationship, to have that communication with them (IHA) but it just hasn’t been there,” he said.

When further pressed on what he envisaged he could contribute to Australian ice hockey, Nathan Walker expanded on his vision for the future.

“I would obviously love to help ice hockey in Australia grow, and the kids and everything,” he said. “I’d love to be a part of growing the game.”

One novel approach to growing ice hockey and adopted in 2023 by Ice Hockey ACT (IHACT) in Canberra under president Adrian Miller, has been to partner with the sport of floorball. It’s a game very similar to ‘ball hockey’ (or ‘street hockey’ as many North Americans know it), but played within a confined floor space, usually indoors and under cover.

“Floorball (or innebandy/salibandy/unihockey) is a fun, safe and fast-paced indoor sport,” according to the sport’s website. “Since the first roots of floorball were established in the United States in the late 1950s, and then re-developed into an ice hockey training game in Sweden in the 1970s, the game has spread to nearly 75 countries worldwide.”

Australia is one of those countries and is sending its national women’s team to the world championships in Singapore in December.

“If we could get more kids playing floorball and street hockey, we’d begin to tackle the issue of the shortage of ice time for all of the ice sports, and provide a gateway into ice hockey which is less expensive, but which equips the participant with many of the hand-eye skills common to both games,” says Miller.

“If you live in a country where there are few ice sports facilities, and where ice time is shared among ice hockey, figure skating, broomball, ice racing, sledge hockey, public skating and curling, there’s not enough time in every 24 hours for all the sports’ participants to properly practise their skills or improve their execution.

“We must be creative off the ice by providing children interested in ice hockey with opportunities to explore the game’s skills with a stick, a ball, a puck, and all the hand-eye coordination they can develop. The type of process is less of a concern than the outcome of what skills the player obtains.

“It’s why Donald Bradman’s practising with a piece of dowel and a golf ball playing the bounce off a water tank refined his hand-eye coordination like no other cricketer in his day… he didn’t need to necessarily be in the nets or on a cricket pitch to achieve this.

“So, in ice hockey, when kids get onto the ice, they can spend quality time focusing on their skating technique primarily, with shooting skills, passing skills and team play developed on top.

Street hockey, ball hockey – call it what you want… it’s all about opening up opportunities for ice hockey in places such as schools, local indoor sports arenas and facilities, school yards, basketball courts where there is either no access or limited opportunity to ice skate.

Inline hockey was a huge boost for ice hockey, and vice versa, in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, but it plays less of a role now with fewer inline arenas and hence, fewer participants,” Miller says.

There are many in Australian ice hockey circles who want to see Nathan Walker’s image, name and his professional sport credentials recognised as an important brand for the Australian ice hockey community. They are astonished how little they see of Walker when he’s back in Australia each off-season – usually throughout the prime Aussie ice hockey season of June, July, and August.

For almost five months he was back this year – his St Louis Blues uncharacteristically ending their season in early April – and the most local ice hockey participants might have seen him was when he dropped the puck at a special ceremony for the Australian Ice Hockey League in Newcastle, along with some Facebook footage of him practising with the Sydney Ice Dogs at the Macquarie ice rink.

They aren’t critical of Walker, who maintains a strict fitness and heath regime 365 days a year, and who is now married with two young children, but of Australian ice hockey’s powers-that-be.

“I cannot understand why there isn’t a two-meter-high banner of Stormy in say, his NHL playing uniform with a simple message such as “Come and play ice hockey with me – Nathan Walker, NHL pro” at every one of the 20 ice rinks in Australia,” said one insider. “It’s a no brainer.

“He’s on a $750,000 annual contract and has earned about $3.5m in his career so far, so he’s someone who deserves not only our respect, but also needs to be properly compensated for the use of his brand,” the insider added.

If IHA wants to be serious about the opportunity here on their doorstep, Nathan Walker – like any athlete looking to monetise their post-professional playing career – would likely jump at an opportunity for him to become the face of the game Down Under.

Of course, Walker would have to make the time to travel to ice rinks around the country, attend practises, meet with players and parents, talk to corporates or bureaucrats, engage with sports execs and politicians – do whatever IHA and the state ice hockey associations think it will take to help grow ice hockey’s grassroots.

But for a fee, of course.

There are more than 6,000 registered ice hockey players in Australia, and there is one genuine NHL player to show for it, whereas Denmark has about 4,000 players with six NHLers; Belarus has 7,000 players and three NHLers; Latvia also has 7,000 players, and five NHLers; and Slovakia with around 11,000 players has 10 NHLers.

For a country such as Australia which has played ice hockey for more than a century; which has 20 ice rinks with at least one in every capital city (except Hobart); which has a national league; which has national teams at U18 (men and women), U/20, senior men’s and senior women’s levels, it is a dereliction of vision if not responsibility that it is not actively using its only legitimate professional player to grow the game.

There was Stephen Bradbury in speed skating who won an Olympic gold medal, and that sport has been able to leverage from that with strong growth throughout its ranks for the last two decades.

The same can be said about curling with the mixed pair of Tahli Gill and Dean Hewitt qualifying Australia for the first time in the Winter Olympics, and then competing in Beijing last year. All of Australia got behind them, and curling has experienced a real surge of interest and growing grassroots participation wherever the sport is offered at Australian ice rinks.

While the estimated 35,000-40,000 fans likely to descend over two days on the converted Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne (which will be turned into an NHL ice rink at a cost of more than $1m for two games) will likely come away highly entertained, the real impact for the sport locally will be how many children pick up an ice hockey stick, plan their next birthday party at an ice rink in their city, or drag their parents along to watch a live ice hockey game.

The proof is at the frozen pond.

Sandi Logan was a journalist from 1974-1984 (Fairfax, Toronto Sun, ABC-TV & Radio); a DFAT diplomat from 1984-2002, serving in Port Moresby, Bonn and Washington DC; a media adviser to federal Liberal and Labor ministers; a communications executive and spokesman for the AFP and the Department of Immigration; and most recently an author of the non-fiction book BETRAYED (Hachette). Originally from Canada, he has also played ice hockey for more than 60 years.