He's an international sports star used to playing in front of crowds of tens of thousands.

He's taken some brutal hits, travelled the world, and is instantly recognisable to fans. Best of all, perhaps, is the fact he was born in Cardiff.

But having abandoned rugby at an early age you won't find him in Wayne Pivac's Six Nations squad – in fact here in the land of his birth it's quite likely you won't have even heard of him.

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It's fair to say, though, that the Wales-born star currently tearing up the US National Ice Hockey League is an incredible story of dreams come true.

Nathan Walker is a big name in the US but even bigger in Australia where he is one of the prominent faces in the national team.

He's Australian through and through he says in his long drawl from a childhood Down Under with his early months in Wales not even a distant memory.

"I'm definitely happy with the way my life has turned out," he said from his home in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Nathan couldn't really get any further away from the city he was born in – his parents Ceri and Wayne moved him and his brother, Ryan, out to Sydney when he had barely turned two.

"They started a new life," said Nathan, adding that they were simply struck by what Australia had to offer after enjoying a holiday there.

In fact he's been on a journey ever since he left Wales – both in terms of where he calls home but also in his sporting career.

Nathan holds up three pucks signifying his hat-trick against the Detroit Red Wings in December last year
Nathan holds up three pucks signifying his hat-trick against the Detroit Red Wings in December last year

It's not been an easy road to success. From being inspired to take up ice hockey after watching The Mighty Ducks film, to moving to the Czech Republic as a green 13-year-old, to breaking his neck nothing has fazed Nathan as he pursued his dream to play at the highest level in the world.

Back here in Wales ice hockey isn't given much airtime – it's a sport seen as enigmatic and inaccessible, hard to play and difficult to understand. But it's a different matter over the pond where Nathan is currently playing for the Springfield Thunderbirds in the American Hockey League (AHL) while under contract to the St Louis Blues.

Over there it's a spectacle and Nathan regularly turns out in front of 20,000 fans. It's fast, furious, and theatrical – players travel as fast as cars on steel blades half a millimetre thick. When they collide the deep thud reverberates around the rink and when they fight – which isn't unusual – everyone offers shouts of encouragement to their respective sides, wrapped up in the carnival-like atmosphere.

Nathan loves it – even if the physical sport has taken its toll on his body.

"I’ve fractured the C7 vertebrae in my neck, torn my ACL, broken bones, and needed 40-odd stitches in my face," he explained. "Once I was hit so hard in the leg that part of my femur splintered off and I had to get the bone shaved down." Despite the setbacks he never once doubted he could come back and become the first Australian to make it to the NHL.

That dream came true in 2014 when he made the NHL as Washington Capitals’ third-round pick. He spent the next few years playing for the Capitals’ minor-league Hershey Bears team as the youngest player and finally, in 2017, Nathan played his very first NHL game.

In 2019 he joined the St Louis Blues. and currently he's playing for the Springfield Thunderbirds. Based on his Instagram posts his life couldn't be any more dreamy.

Nathan's Welsh father got him into rugby league when he was little and signed him up as a junior in Cronulla. He played a bit of everything – from second row to centre.

But rugby wasn't the only thing he enjoyed. He fell in love with hockey partly after watching The Mighty Ducks and partly because he wanted to keep up with Ryan. "As the little brother I just wanted to beat him at whatever he did so one day I put on his skates and gave it a go," Nathan said. "I fell in love with it the moment I stepped on the ice." Rugby fell by the wayside.

Growing up in Sydney ice rinks were distinctly lacking so the two boys resorted to roller blades and nets in the downstairs garage which led to many broken windows. Even though Nathan started playing for a junior team in nearby Blacktown it wasn't enough. He wanted more – he wanted to play in the NHL.

His Slovakian coach at the time, Ivan Manco, didn’t have many contacts in the US but he was able to set up some try-outs with clubs in the Czech Republic. Nathan sat down with his family and they agreed he should give it a go. The next thing the 13-year-old Nathan knew he was offered a place on Vítkovice Steel’s under-18 team and was moving to Europe.

It was a "crazy time", he admitted – he didn't know the language, the people, or the culture.

“As a 13-year-old the culture shock was huge," said Nathan, who went from sunny Australia to a cold and grey Czech Republic.

"There were so many times I wanted to throw in the towel. I remember calling my family some nights and being so homesick. They’d comfort me and tell me to wait and see how I felt the next morning. I always felt better the next day."

The move made him the player he is today. Nathan continued: "I realised that if I gave up on my dreams I’d definitely regret it. I think living in the Czech Republic made me stronger mentally.

"Most players stay in their home country to play. I was on a bit of a journey in that sense."

Nathan in 2014 with his sights set on the NHL
Nathan in 2014 with his sights set on the NHL

As he reached 18 Nathan knew he'd taken things as far as he could in the Czech Republic. The whole reason he moved overseas was to get drafted and play in the NHL and he never lost sight of that goal. It was time for him to try and make it in the States.

He was back home in Australia when the Washington Capitals phoned. "It was 3am when I got the call," he said. It had been years in the making and it "felt amazing." He was the first Aussie drafted in the NHL which took a while to sink in.

"At the end of the day I just think of myself as a guy that loves playing hockey," he said. "When I was younger I didn't think about the money side – I just wanted to play as much as I could," he said.

"I enjoy sport so much it makes waking up easier every day. I wouldn't want to change it for the world." It's easy to see why – the 28-year-old has a wife and daughter and the family split their time between the US and Australia. Nathan and wife Tayla are expecting their second child in May this year.

Nathan with wife Tayla and their daughter Winta

When he does get home to Australia and walks into a hockey rink he gets a popular reception. "Everyone knows who I am," Nathan said. He likes to think of himself as a friendly guy who's open to chatter.

He first played for the Australian men's senior team at the 2011 IIHF World Championships held in Melbourne. Australia won the tournament and Nathan was recognised by the tournament coaches as the best player on the Australian team. That tournament was one of his career highlights, he said.

So too was his first game in the NHL. "That game was a big moment," he said. "Lifting the Stanley Cup was huge too."

He wants to continue playing until he can't play any more, he said. That means working hard to keep his body in the best shape he can and staying fit and healthy. It's pretty taxing on the body, he admitted. There are some weeks where he will play four games but even when he's exhausted the humour in the locker room keeps him and his teammates buoyed.

"I try to keep it all light-hearted and fun," he said. "The mental side comes into it when you're tired. But it's all part of the battle and the journey."

Nathan is a lot shorter than the average player, who come in at around six foot. He plays a certain style to use his height to his advantage, he said, adding he likes being "a little pest out there".

"You have some nights where you seem to be getting hit left, right, and centre. But we’ve got great medical staff, physios, and trainers – they make sure you’re ready to go the next night."

Regardless of any success he has on the ice Nathan just loves playing the game: "That’s what keeps me going," he said.

"It’s such a unique sport. You’re playing on thin ice with thin metal blades underneath your feet. The danger of it excites me."

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