Washington Capitals sign Australian Nathan Walker

Photo: capsinpictures.com
Photo: capsinpictures.com

Even if he doesn’t leave a legacy on the ice, Nathan Walker will go down in the hockey history books.

The Washington Capitals have signed Walker to a three year entry level contract making him the first Australian to play in the big leagues.

It’s been a long time coming for Walker who was originally born in Wales, UK but made Australia his home at an early age. The 20 year old Aussie has worked through the hockey system the hard way. Coming from a country in the southern hemisphere and one that is not particularly a hockey hotbed, it’s safe to say he was far from the radar of many scouts.

Hockey always has an eye for talent though. In 2007 Walker made the jump from youth hockey in Australia to suiting up for the U18 HC Vitkovice in the Czech Republic. Between them and the U20 team, Walker made a name for himself as a fast and stick skilled winger. At 17, he played in the Spengler Cup.

The benefit of being a hockey player from Australia is using the North American off-season to continue playing top level hockey in your home country. The Australian Ice Hockey League takes place during Australia’s winter which is Canada and the United States’ summer. Walker got to hone his craft all year round. Scouts finally took notice.

The Youngstown Phantoms of the United States Hockey League took a liking to this young lad and offered a chance. One that proved to be successful as Walker was almost a point a game player. Good thing too as the brass from the Washington Capitals took a liking and kept their eye on him. Signed to a developmental deal and invited to development camp, the Capitals sent the young 19 year old down to Hershey. The Bears were having a pretty good season on their own when Walker suited up for 43 games.

CapitalsDevelepmentCampDay4-8-of-46Impressing the folks with the Caps proved necessary and Walker did just that. He not only became history as the first Australian to be selected in an NHL Draft (2014, 3rd round, 89th overall), but he is now the first Australian to be signed to an NHL contract.

It doesn’t matter where you come from or where you play the game. If you’re good, you’re good. Someone will catch their eye on you eventually. The hockey world is small and filled with connections upon connections of people who spread the abilities of players through word of mouth. A note to players all over the world: Don’t ever give up hope.

The Washington Capitals open up their 2014/2015 season at home on October 9th when the Montreal Canadiens come to play.

Remember that date. It’ll be the answer to a trivia question some day.

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ORANGE CRUSH: Melbourne Mustangs’ Fraser Carson

Mustangs_IHC_LogoDown in the southern hemisphere, interest in the game of ice hockey is quickly picking up steam. Although it has been played in some aspects for almost a hundred years, it’s now starting to gain popularity not only across the country but making a small dent on the world stage. While the highest level of skill is played in the Australian Ice Hockey League, they are still in the midst of being considered a semi professional league. More attention, fans and consistent revenue year after year will help turn the tide to becoming a professional league where players can earn their keep. Does not paying their players stop them from acquiring top talent? Not in the slightest.

As the players in the AIHL don’t get paid, most play for the love of the game. It’s hockey in its purest and what some might say, its best form. No greediness in the way of a skilled game. The league ices its season while the northern hemisphere is sweating away in the summer. The perfect reason for North American and European players to keep their skills in check by signing with a team down under.

However some of the time imports aren’t what fans come out to see. They flock to the arena to see their home grown Australian players. To see their brothers, fathers, co-workers, play and excel at the game they love.

Enter Fraser Carson.L5Cyl2rd

At only 20 years old, Carson has earned his spot as the starting goaltender for the Melbourne Mustangs. After four years of hard work including international experience, the Mustangs brass has finally given the youngster his shot. Some say goaltenders are a bit of a different breed, and some wonder what makes one decide to get in front of 100 mile an hour slap shot. For Carson, it was a no brainer. “I got into hockey when I got my first pair of roller blades at 4 years old. My parents made my sisters and I take part in learn to skate classes,” remembers Carson. “Then came inline hockey practices and I decided hockey was my sport. One day an absent goalie meant that it was my position, and I loved it and never looked back. I then made the transition to ice at 12 years old after the majority of guys were playing both and wanted me to try it.”

Carson’s play caught the attention of New York State college, SUNY Canton. They offered him to come over and hone his skills in a collegiate setting. Being battered with more pucks then usual along with more ice time helped him carve his style. “I have always loved Carey Price,” says Carson. “I love his style, and try and mimic it a little. I mostly just grab bits and pieces of everyone.”

“Skating most days of the week in Canton in comparison to only two practices a week here in Melbourne makes a big difference.” Unfortunately to Carson, the differences between the game on both continents don’t end there. “The refferees are also a big difference. Consistency is an issue throughout the AIHL, where it was not so much the case in the college system.”

Carson is no stranger to competing on the international stage. With five tournaments under his belt representing the green and gold of Australia, Carson’s accolades will only continue to climb. In 2011, he backstopped Australia to an IIHF Division 3 gold medal. While maintaining a 1.00 GAA and a .971 % save percentage it was a no brainer to award him tournament MVP. “The award was just the cherry on top of a great experience,” says Carson. “The team was a great group of guys and the trip was a lot of fun.”

(Photo: Andrew G Mercieca.)
(Photo: Andrew G Mercieca.)

So being a goaltender with both collegiate AND international experience, where does Carson see his future headed on the ice? “For now my career is here with the Mustangs.” A definite answer from theAussie lad. “Unfortunately with the AIHL only being a semi professional league, we all have to hold everyday jobs as well as playing. It’s a bit of a balancing act, chasing pucks and money all over the world season after season probably wouldn’t make the boss or the boss (girlfriend) very happy at all.”

I’m sure that’s music to Melbourne’s ears. Not only them but the whole of the AIHL including the fans. It’s players like Fraser Carson who genuinely have love for the game that will keep it flourishing, even in the non traditional markets.

Fraser Carson and the Melbourne Mustangs will be in action this Sunday (that’s most likely Saturday for us North American folk) as they host the Sydney Bears. Coinceding with the game, the Mustangs are having a celebration in honour of Canada Day complete with poutine and maple syrup! Should be a great day, puck drop is at 4pm local time.

The heartwarming story of the Canberra Brave

Screen-Shot-2014-03-24-at-6.37.41-pm-640x360For us Canadians, when one thinks of Australia, one doesn’t correlate hockey to the country. In regards to sports, we think of rugby, softball or anything to do with the water. However, hockey has been played in some variation for over a hundred years down in the Southern Hemisphere. In fact, the Goodall Cup, which the teams of the 14 year Australian Ice Hockey League play for, is the third oldest hockey trophy in the world.

The first reported case of ice hockey came in Melbourne as a local team squared off against an American crew fresh off the USS Baltimore. That one game took place in 1906 and sparked a hockey passion with the Aussies.

The story of the Canberra Brave starts with its predecessor, the Canberra Knights. The Knights came to fruition in 1981 by a bunch of former hockey players who had no place to play in the area. They played out of the then New South Wales Superleague, out of Sydney. For 13 years, the Knights struggled but gained more than a handful of hockey experience. One young lad, originally from Canada, had a standout year and managed to be drafted by the Detroit Red Wings. He landed himself the third string goalie spot and hung on to a Stanley Cup victory in 2002.

Canberra_Knights_LogoCanberra continued to grow its ice hockey prowess by playing in the East Coast Super League for five years after the demolition of the NSWSL. When a national league came into light in the year 2000, the Knights, and two others squads made the foundation of the Australian Ice Hockey League that we know today. Continue reading “The heartwarming story of the Canberra Brave”

Melbourne Mustangs gear up for 2014 Season

Mustangs_IHC_LogoThe Melbourne Mustangs have started their late summer training in time to kick off the 2014 winter campaign in April. (It’s still weird that I’m writing winter and April in the same sentence.) In attendance were team star Patrick O’Kane (no joke), Brendan Oakes, Matt Stringer and Micheal James. Coming off a strong 2013 season, the Mustangs are leaving no stone unturned and they feel they will have what it takes come playoff time.

The Mustangs will open up their season on Sunday, April 13. They’ll have their hands full right off the bat as the reigning Goodall Cup champions, the Sydney Ice Dogs come to The Stable. I’m looking to see if O’Kane will be able to capitalize on his 51 points of last season and move up a notch or two on the leader board. This will be the perfect test for O’Kane and the Mustangs to see where some of the off season moves and training is at.

Pat O'Kane. Photo: onyamagazine.com
Pat O’Kane. Photo: onyamagazine.com

To be the best, you got to beat the best.

The Sydney Ice Dogs however will be starting their training tomorrow with team tryouts starting in early March. Sharpshoote Anthony Wilson, who was apart of the Ice Dogs foundation into the AIHL has decided to retire and not return for the 2014 campaign. An integral part of the Ice Dogs line up, he hangs up his skates with two Goodall Cups under his belt and a 14 year career spanning the Ice Dogs, and with Team Australia internationally.

The Australian Ice Hockey League is an exciting brand of hockey that most don’t know or here about. I will be doing updates on the league throughout the season. So after the Stanley Cup is raised, head down under to get your hockey fix.

One on One with Perth Thunder’s Fred Coutts

(Photo: Paul Kelly. Shutterspeed Designs.)
(Photo: Paul Kelly. Shutterspeed Designs.)

Fred Coutts is a Canadian born Aussie who’s currently playing over in the Australian Ice Hockey League with the Perth Thunder. He played some of his junior career with the Edmonton Mustangs of the CJHL. As a fellow Canadian, I was intrigued to ask him about his hockey adventures and how the Perth Thunder is thundering on with the loss of Mike Forney.

March Hockey: You played some Junior over in Canada, how does that compare to playing in a professional league such as the AIHL?

Fred Coutts: This winter I was lucky enough to play some Jr B hockey in Edmonton before returning to Australia to play for the Thunder. Playing junior was an awesome experience, and a real eye-opener to the speed and physicality of the North American game. The AIHL is a much different style of hockey; less crash-and-bang and more emphasis on skating with the puck. One of the coolest things about playing in the AIHL is the chance to compete with/against professional import players from leagues like the SPHL, ECHL, and even the AHL. Overall the two experience differ, but are both very enjoyable.

MH:  How has Perth adapted to the loss of Mike Forney?

Mike Forney. Perth Thunder. (Photo: perththunder.com.au)
Mike Forney. Perth Thunder. (Photo: perththunder.com.au)

FC:  It was tough for the first few games, and as a team we’ve had to lift offensively since his departure. But we’ve got great depth in our lineup, and the boys have stepped up to the task of filling that void. Michael Forney was a class-act on the ice and beyond, and will be dearly missed.

MH: How is the support for hockey in Australia? Are the fans just as passionate?

(Photo: Paul Kelly. Shutterspeed Designs.)
(Photo: Paul Kelly. Shutterspeed Designs.)

FC: We are blessed with fantastic, loyal fans in Perth, who have stuck by the team through the hard times and the good. In the country’s east, teams such as the Melbourne Ice and Canberra Knights sell out their arenas every weekend. The support for hockey grows stronger with each season, both locally and nationally.

MH: Where would you like to see your hockey career take you?

FC: Once my junior eligibility has expired, I’m hoping to play Senior AA in Canada. After that, my greatest dream would be to play in the Federal Hockey League (FHL). I definitely want to keep playing competitive hockey for as long as I possibly can.

MH: Growing up, player wise, who was your biggest influence on your style of play?

FC: I used to love watching Hal Gill play for the Leafs, and I’ve always tried to imitate his stick-checking, shot-blocking, body positioning, and strong work on the PK. Now if only I had his size…

MH: If you could play against any player, past or present, who would it be and why??

FC: Crosby for sure. Just to witness his mix of strength, speed and finesse. I think it would be very humbling.

If there are any other AIHL, NZIHL or other hockey players from around the world who would like to take part in a Q&A with March Hockey, get in contact with me! Send me a message or tweet at @MarchHockey or on facebook, http://www.facebook.com/marchhockey! I want to hear from you!

One on One with Adelaide Adrenaline’s Charlie Huber

(Photo: adelaideadrenaline.com.au)
(Photo: adelaideadrenaline.com.au)

Charlie Huber is a New Zealander who has recently made the jump from the NZIHL to the Australian Ice Hockey League. After growing up in West Germany, Huber found a home in New Zealand and suited up for the Botany Swarm, winning 4 championships and presiding as alternate captain. He has played numerous IIHF tournaments as a member of the New Zealand Ice Blacks who won silver in 2011.

March Hockey: You played several years with the Botany Swarm of the NZIHL, what was it like to make the jump to the AIHL with the Adelaide Adrenaline?

Charlie Huber: Changing from the NZIHL to AIHL was a step up. As seen by the Trans- Tasman (March’s note: an inter-league tournament) results last year, there is still a difference between the leagues. Also I find the AIHL is able to attract better import players because of better financial backing. This resulting in a faster pace game. But things can change as we know, the Adrenaline team however helped me to adjust quickly. They’re a good bunch.

MH: What was it like representing New Zealand at the World Championships and coming back with a medal?

CH: I was and am very proud every time I put on the NZ jersey. It’s an awesome country and when I think about all the history, people, nature and culture I get to represent, it certainly doesn’t require much further motivation to go into a game. Bringing a medal back, I think, we deserved as all the boys, management and the coaching staff put in the effort for it. Of course it was fantastic to get the recognition for all the effort we put in during the off- season.

(Photo: adelaideadrenaline.com.au)
(Photo: adelaideadrenaline.com.au)

MH: Growing up, what player influenced you the most?

CH: I think growing up I had a few influential players. There were at the beginning a few players from my local senior team at EC Pfaffenhofen. One example would be Roman Mucha, who was an incredible forward with an impressive skill set. Another person that really comes to mind is Bob Sullivan. He was on the ice a few times with my junior teams and displayed amazing skills. Of course being a former NHL player helped my admiration for him.

MH: If you could play with any player, past or present, who would it be and why?

CH: I would really like to play again with my junior team from EHC Klostersee. That group of players was great to be around. All mates from early age and fantastic understanding of other players on the ice. It was all about passing and everyone playing the same system and of course it was nice to have so much success.

MH: Where would you like to see your hockey career go from here?

CH: I had some trouble with injuries this year. So I would like to build up more consistency and get back 100% fit again. Also I hope I can stay away from big injuries in the future. Next year I am hoping to be able to represent NZ in Spain and hopefully we’ll be able to get away with a gold this time!

Australian Nathan Walker invited to Washington Capitals Rookie Camp

In a historic moment for international hockey, Australian player Nathan Walker has been invited to the Washington Capitals rookie camp and could become the first Australian to play in the National Hockey League.

(Photo credit: USHL.com)
(Photo credit: USHL.com)

Walker is already over in North America suiting up for the Youngstown Phantoms of the USHL. He began his career in Australia at the age of 6 and was dominating the compeition. As a result, he was scouted by a coach from Slovakia and was invited to play for HC Vítkovice of the Czech Extraliga. During the offseason, he returned home and kept his form up by playing for the Sydney Ice Dogs of the Australian Ice Hockey League .

The majority of his career has been spent in the Czech Reupublic. However, at the age of 19, he has already participated in the Spengler Cup, won gold with Team Australia in 2011 at the IIHF World Championships (Division II) and played in the 2013 USHL/NHL Top Prospects game. If only the Canadian Hockey League could get his hands on him, he’d have all of North America covered!

For a second straight year, Walker was passed upon by all 30 NHL teams in the entry draft. They are definitely missing out on a top quality offensive forward. At 19 years old and a solid 5’10 frame, Walker is yet to fill himself out. He would be a welcome addition on any team, regardless of league stature. In his 29 games with Youngstown earlier this year, he notched an impressive 27 points. If it wasn’t for injuries, he was well on his way to notching 50. He has the tools to become a point a game player.

(Photo: ushl.com)
(Photo: ushl.com)

The dream is alive. Nathan Walker wants to become the first Australian to play in the National Hockey League. I have no doubt that he will.

Melbourne Sees Double As Ice, Mustangs Claim Victory

What a crazy night of action in the Australian Ice Hockey League. The Melbourne Ice and Melbourne Mustangs both came out victorious to keep the standings in a tight race.

(Photo Credit: MJ Wragg Photography.)
(Photo Credit: MJ Wragg Photography.)

The Ice played at home to a crowd of 1100 on Friday in the first of their two game set with the Perth Thunder. 1st period was kept close until Perth opened up the scoring with .26 seconds left to go. It was a lot of the same in the second period but both team’s were becoming antsy as the penalty box started to fill up. Melbourne killed off 4 penalties which allowed Todd Graham to score the equalizer on the powerplay of their own.

By the time the third came around however, all hell broke less. Jason Balcig and Glen Mayer notched two quick goals for the Ice as tensions started to mount. With the score now 3-1 in favour of the Ice, Andrew Erzen headed to the box as he was given 2 minutes and a 10 minute misconduct for a check to the head and Chris Frank followed suit with given a 20 minute misconduct. It seemed that everything was going in Perth’s favour. That wasn’t the case however as Melbourne stormed back with two more goals. The final ended 5-3.

(Sean Jones. Photo credit: MJ Wragg Photography.)
(Sean Jones. Photo credit: MJ Wragg Photography.)

The Mustangs were in a tight game of their own as well and earned a win in the crucial road for 4th place. Andrew Fitzgerald opened up the scoring for Melbourne in the first period and Newcastle equalized it on the powerplay from Jeff Martens. All was quite in the second period except for trips to the box.

The third period was much of the same as both teams battled back and forth evenly. Both goaltenders put on a show to keep the crowd on it’s feet. It looked like we were heading to overtime until Brendan McDowell’s powerplay goal with 29 seconds left sealed the deal for the Mustangs.

In other action Friday night, the Sydney Ice Bears downed the Adelaide Adrenaline 6-4. What a great night of hockey down under.

Perth Thunder’s Stan Scott on the importance of Imports

Perth_Thunder_LogoI came across a very in-depth article on the Australian Ice Hockey League’s Perth Thunder and the fact that they lost their best imported player (and best player in the league by far with 47 points in 16 games played) to a brand new contract with a club in Austria.

The coach of the Perth Thunder specifically pointed out the importance of imported players and how it helps to shape and mold not only the team, but the Australian Ice Hockey League itself.

“Recruiting players like Mike play well for us, but also help us develop the culture we strive for by imparting his influence, knowledge and experience. This, in turn, has and will guide and keep us on the right road to success.” Stan Scott, Perth Thunder head coach.

Mike Forney. Perth Thunder.
Mike Forney. Perth Thunder.

And he’s right. The only way to increase your development as a player, team, or league is to play against or with better players. I’ve been arguing and defending the importance of player imports in the CHL.  The fact that the Canadian Hockey League may indeed ban all imported junior hockey draft picks is detrimental to the league itself. Did I mention that doesn’t include Americans though? How fair is that?

I realize that we are one of the best, if not the best, hockey nation in the world. Do you think we got here on our own? Of course not. It was playing against better players from all over the world. It came from playing the Soviets in ’72 and in numerous World Juniors and Canada Cups. It came from playing with Fins, Swedes, and Russians in the junior leagues through to the National Hockey League in the 90’s.

“Magic” Mike Forney might be gone from down under but his imported significance will live with the Perth Thunder for years to come. Bravo to Stan Scott and the whole Perth Thunder organization.

AIHL Team Profile: Newscastle North Stars

North-Stars-2013-LOGO-white-550wThe Newcastle North Stars were formed in 1981 and joined the AIHL in 2002 as an expansion team. As most expansion teams do, they suffered a hard year with their first in the league.

However the next year proved to be successful as they added Rob Barnes, a former European coach and imported Canadian player Ray Sheffield. With these additions, the North Stars captured their first Goodall Cup.

In total Newcastle are 4 time Goodall Cup champions and 3 time H Newman Reid Champions. They also hold the record for most goals scored in one game with 21. The North Stars have had plenty of overseas talent join their roster over the years including former member of the Wichita Thunder, Brad Wanchulak and former Nepean Raider, Trevor Hawkins.

Newcastle’s next game is July 13th as they take on the Perth Thunder. Puck drop is 5pm local time!