AUSTRALIAN sporting history will be made on Sunday morning (AEDT) when Nathan Walker becomes the nation’s first NHL player.
The 23-year-old was left out of the Washington Capitals’ season-opening win over the Ottawa Senators on Friday. However the team announced he had been selected to make his debut against the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday night (Sunday 10am AEDT).
Walker joins an illustrious list of Australian sporting pioneers in the US including Luc Longley (NBA), Joe Quinn (MLB) and Colin Ridgway (NFL) — the first Australians to play in each of the major American leagues.
It’s the culmination of a long and arduous journey for Walker, who grew up in Sydney and played professionally in the Czech Republic before moving to the US to chase his dream four years ago.
Walker had already made history by being named on the Capitals’ opening roster for 2017/18, securing selection after several impressive campaigns for their American Hockley League (AHL) feeder team, the Hershey Bears.
Walker, born in Wales, grew up in Sydney after he and his family emigrated from the United Kingdom when he was two. After his brother Ryan was exposed to the sport, it became clear Nathan had pro potential and he moved to the Czech Republic at age 13 to play minor and then junior hockey.
“It definitely made me a little bit more independent earlier on,” Walker said.
“I think it just made me mature quicker.” On the ice,
Walker said practising twice a day with HC Vitkovice’s under-18 and under-20 teams helped his game mature.
“It’s definitely a big jump,” Walker said. “You’ve got a lot more time to work on your skills while you’re younger.”
Walker has played just seven games in the Australian Ice Hockey League. Internationally, he had six points in four games as Australia won the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championship Division II in 2011 and then two assists the next year in the IIHF World Championship Division I.
Walker said he hasn’t thought much about being the first Australian to play in the NHL.
“At the end of the day, I’m just another guy on the team, another guy in the league, another guy playing the sport we all love,” Walker said.
Walker is no stranger to NHL history. After playing for the United States Hockey League’s Youngstown Phantoms and American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears, Walker became the first Australian selected in the NHL draft when the Capitals took him in the third round in 2014.
Washington general manager Brian MacLellan has noticed significant strides in Walker’s game since then.
“He’s developed into a good penalty killer,” MacLellan said.
“We’ve always liked his speed and his compete level, those were the two things that we really liked about him. He just continues to become a better player — better positionally, he reads the game better, more intelligent on his reads – instead of being a pure energy player.”
Ben Simmons Philadelphia 76ers, trade news, practice, Travis Kelce slams Simmons, NHL, NFL, Philadelphia Eagles,
The Ben Simmons saga has become so bad that other sports are getting dragged into the fray. Now the Australian has received a brutal reality check from one of Philadelphia’s most beloved NFL stars on earning the respect of Philly fans.
Jason Kelce played a key role as the 2017 Eagles won that season’s Super Bowl – their first ever – then dressed up as a ‘Mummer’ (a participant of a unique Philadelphia parade) and gave an inspired speech during their trophy parade.
Now he’s taken aim at Simmons, explaining the fans who are notoriously tough on their own players are simply asking for accountability and hard work.
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“You write your own narrative,” Kelce said, per NBC Sports Philly. “What’s going on, I don’t want to crush any other players, but what’s going on with the 76ers, Ben Simmons, stuff like that. All that is because of a lack of accountability, a lack of owning up to mistakes and a lack of correcting things.
“If all that got corrected, you fix the free throws, if you’re getting better as a player, none of this is happening. Everybody can b***h and complain about how tough this city is to play in. Just play better, man. This city will love you.”
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He added: “This city really appreciates accountability, appreciates people being very honest, real, emotionally invested, caring.
“There’s a lot of people who say it’s a hard place to play. I think it’s pretty f***ing easy, to be honest with you. You just go out there, play hard. Want to be loved in this city as a baseball player? Run to first base. They’re going to f***ing loving you. I mean, that’s what it comes down to. If you go up and make a bunch of excuses, if you come up here and try to lie to them and act like they don’t know what they’re talking about — which, sometimes they don’t — when you act that way or when you aren’t accountable if you’re making mistakes, or when you’re not getting better or anything like that, they’re going to crush you.
“Everybody’s going to get crushed at some point. Everybody’s going to go through a downturn or struggle, right? At all times this city is going to keep you accountable to be doing your job and performing. But if you stick to it, if you fight through it and you get better and everything like that, they’ll respect the hell out of you.
“Even if you’re struggling and you’re fighting and really trying, they’re still going to respect you. That’s what I think most guys miss.”
A former New England Patriots assistant coach also slammed Simmons. Michael Lombardi, who also worked as an executive with four other NFL franchises, tweeted: “Ben Simmons is embarrassing himself now —not even his ardent defenders can support his behaviour. Believe what you see.”
It’s not just NFL where Simmons’ situation is making a mark. In the NHL, “F**k you Simmons” chants rang out during the Philadelphia Flyers’ 6-3 win over the Boston Bruins on Wednesday night (local).
TNT’s broadcasters at Wells Fargo Center even took digs at Simmons being booted from practice during the game.
As Flyers fans left the game, more “f**k Ben Simmons” chants were yelled.
But the biggest impact is still being felt by Simmons’ Sixers.
Despite Simmons missing the season opener, Philadelphia smashed New Orleans 117-97. But that didn’t stop the Pelicans fans from delighting in the Australian’s absence.
The crowd at Smoothie King centre repeatedly chanted “Where’s Ben Simmons?” during the game. And whenever a 76ers player took a free throw, those chants became louder – a reference to Simmons’ woeful 34.2 per cent shooting from the charity stripe in the 2021 playoffs.
On one occasion, Sixers star Joel Embiid was on the receiving end of sarcastic chants by fans declaring: “We want Simmons.”
What made ‘The Great One’ great? Wayne Gretzky arrives in Sydney for USA v Canada Ice Hockey Classic, NHL
WAYNE Gretzky was never the biggest, strongest or fastest guy on the ice. A lanky figure with a gentle smile, he didn’t look much like his NHL counterparts. But somehow Gretzky ascended to become a legend of the sport. So what is it that helped make ‘The Great One’ great?
In a career spanning twenty years Gretzky stacked 61 official NHL records, (60 of which he still holds), including the most goals (1,016) and most assists (2,223). He’s won the Stanley Cup four times with the Edmonton Oilers and won the Hart Trophy, the league MVP award, on a record nine occasions.
When it comes to ice hockey, there’s Wayne Gretzky — light years — and then everyone else.
The word ‘legacy’ is sometimes overused when reflecting upon the achievements of our sporting heroes, but few compare to the legacy left by Gretzky.
Looking back, it’s not his records or accolades he’s most proud of though. It’s the effort he put in.
“People ask me all the time, if someone said ‘How would you like to be remembered?’ I always say the same thing: I played a lot of bad games but I know in my heart that I played hard every single game,” Gretzky told Fox Sports Australia.
“People came up to me and they said ‘You worked hard out there,’ and to me, that’s the biggest compliment I can get.”
Canada’s favourite son had many great mentors throughout his playing career, like his father Walter, and ‘Mr Hockey’ Gordie Howe — who tragically passed away just this month.
However Gretzky credits his grandparents for instilling in him the grit and determination that would make him a legend.
“I probably got that from my grandparents,” Gretzky said.
“My grandfather [Tony] was from Belarus, part of the Soviet Union at the time. In 1920 he came over with my grandmother [Mary] who was from Warsaw, and they both went to North America.
“They both worked through to their early 80s. They had a farm, and they did all their own farming, so I think the work ethic that I had as a player was inherited from my grandparents.”
That farm is where a young Gretzky would watch ice hockey on TV with his family. It’s also where he first pulled on the skates and picked up his stick.
Greatness would soon follow as he rocketed through the junior ranks and made his professional debut at the age of 17 in the WHA (now defunct), before joining the Oilers in the NHL the very next year and creating NHL history playing for Edmonton, the Los Angeles Kings, St Louis Blues and New York Rangers.
Even after his playing days, he continues to be an ambassador for the sport, currently visiting Australia for the USA vs Canada Ice Hockey Classic that bears his name.
“Hockey has been so good to me in my life and everything I have is because of hockey, so I think that we can help promote the game and get everyone to see how great of a sport it really is,” Gretzky said.
“The game fares well in colder climate places. Kids in Canada can skate on lakes and ponds in the winter and it doesn’t cost parents any money. But we’re getting much bigger now with San Jose, LA, Anaheim, more kids are playing, and the first pick in the NHL Draft this week will be from Phoenix, Arizona [Auston Matthews], which nobody ever thought would be possible.
“So it’s growing, it just takes time and hopefully twenty years from now, people over here are going to say ‘Wow, this is a fun sport’.”
Gretzky said getting more kids to watch and play ice hockey is what will help it grow Down Under. He also praised Australia’s first (and only) NHL draftee Nathan Walker for helping that cause.
“I heard he plays hard and he has some great abilities, and had a strong season [with Washington Capitals affiliated AHL team Hershey Bears]. It only helps our sport,” Gretzky said.
Sydney fans will be in for a treat Saturday night when Gretzky takes to the ice in a four-on-four exhibition prior to the main event.
The five-stop Australian tour has already been a hit in Melbourne, Perth, and Adelaide, with Sydney and Brisbane the final games left on the schedule.
Gretzky has also brought along his 25-year-old son Ty, a keen player himself who now works for his dad’s hockey camps and is expected to play in Sydney.
As for what ‘The Great One’ will get up to in his downtime while in town, just don’t expect golf to be on his itinerary, despite his son-in-law Dustin Johnson’s triumph at the US Open last week.
“I don’t get any golf tips,” Gretzky said.
“My golf upside is about as good as his hockey upside… which is not very good.”
Wayne Gretzky will be at the Qudos Bank Arena for the USA vs Canada Ice Hockey Classic.
Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne: Friday 17 June, 2016
Perth Arena, Perth: Saturday 18 June, 2016
Adelaide Entertainment Centre, Adelaide: Friday 24 June, 2016
Qudos Bank Arena, Sydney: Saturday 25 June, 2016
Brisbane Entertainment Centre, Brisbane: Saturday 2 July, 2016
Toronto Maple Leafs select Arizona-born Auston Matthews as no. 1 pick
ON the heels of the NHL expanding into Las Vegas, the Toronto Maple Leafs are pinning their future on Arizona-born centre Auston Matthews.
Amid chants of “Go Leafs, Go!” the 18-year-old from Scottsdale was selected by Toronto with the first pick in the NHL draft Friday night. Though the Maple Leafs had kept their decision under wraps since winning the draft lottery in April, Matthews was the expected choice.
NHL Central Scouting ranked the 6-foot-2, 210-pound playmaker as its top draft-eligible project, and he’s also a natural centre, a top-line position that’s difficult to fill. Matthews already has pro experience after spending last season with Zurich in the Swiss Elite League.
Finnish-born forwards Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi rounded out the three top prospects.
Matthews, who grew up a Coyotes fan, became the seventh American selected at No. 1, and first since the Chicago Blackhawks chose Patrick Kane with the top pick in 2007.
For Toronto, Matthews represents a significant piece in general manager Lou Lamoriello’s extensive rebuilding plans to restore relevance to one of the league’s most high-profile franchises. The Maple Leafs have missed the playoffs in 10 of the past 11 years, and spent last season purging high-priced contracts and veteran talent with a focus on rebuilding through youth.
Matthews arrives at a time when the Maple Leafs usher in the 100th year of professional hockey being played in Canada’s largest city.
Winnipeg was set to select second, followed by the Columbus Blue Jackets, whose general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said he’s considering trading the pick depending upon which two players are taken ahead of him.
Two trades were announced by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman before the second pick.
Montreal traded forward Lars Eller to Washington for the Capitals’ second-round draft picks in 2017 and ‘18.
Also, Chicago traded forward Andrew Shaw to Montreal for the Canadiens’ two second-round picks — No. 39 and 45 — in this year’s draft.
Numerous Maple Leafs fans made the two-hour drive to Buffalo to be on hand for their team selecting first for only the second time in the draft. Toronto selected Wendel Clark first in 1985. Each time Maple Leafs began cheering, their rival Sabres fans began booing.
Before the draft began, Bettman announced that the league’s annual pre-draft rookie combine will return to Buffalo for a third consecutive year.
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