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History Makers: 11 players who became the first NHLers from their respective countries

Capitals prospect Nathan Walker is looking to become the first Australian to play in the NHL, and he would join several others as the first player to emerge from a non-traditional hockey nation.

With each successive step in his playing career, Nathan Walker has made history. When he made the jump to HC Vitkovice, Walker was the first Australian to ever play professionally in Europe. When he was drafted in the third round, 89th overall, by the Washington Capitals, he became the first Australian taken in the annual selection process. And when he worked his way out of the USHL and into the AHL, he became the first Australian to suit up in the minor league.

And this coming campaign, he’ll have a chance to add another piece of history to his resume if he cracks the Capitals’ lineup. Walker will certainly have an opportunity to do so, too, thanks to Washington’s cap crunch.

If the season were to start today, the Capitals would head into the campaign with little more than $4 million in cap space and a roster that is slightly thinner at almost every position than they were this past season. When it comes to the wing, gone are the likes of Marcus Johansson, Justin Williams and Stanislev Galiev, and that could open up a spot for Walker. He’s definitely going to get a look, too.

Over the past four seasons, Walker has been in and out of the Hershey Bears’ lineup and has proven he can be a contributor at the AHL level. While he’s not winning any scoring titles, the 23-year-old has managed 34 goals and 79 points in 202 games in the AHL, and his past two post-season performances have made it seem all the more likely he can find his way into the big league lineup in the near future. In 2015-16, Walker suited up in 20 playoff games, notching two goals and five points, and he followed that up with a two-goal, six-point performance in 12 playoff outings this past season.

And if — or when — Walker steps foot on NHL ice for his first regular season contest, he’ll forever be etched in the history books as the first Australian player to reach the world’s best league. When that times comes, though, Walker won’t be the only player to make it from a non-traditional hockey nation to the NHL. Here are 11 players who’ve made history as the first player from their nation:

Austria: Reinhard Divis, St. Louis Blues, 2001-02

Thomas Vanek and Michael Grabner are the two greatest NHLers that Austria has ever produced, but it has only been 15 years since the first Austrian took the ice in the NHL. Divis, a goaltender, battled his way through the Austrian League and into the Swedish League before landing a deal with the Blues in 2001-02, but he spent all but one game in the AHL. When he finally did get the call, in April 2002, Divis stepped between the pipes for 25 minutes and stopped all four shots he faced against the Colorado Avalanche. Divis went on to play 28 games in the NHL, all with the Blues, before heading back overseas. He retired following the 2011-12 season.

Denmark: Frans Nielsen, New York Islanders, 2006-07

Defenseman Poul Popiel, who was born in Denmark, debuted for the Boston Bruins in 1965-66, but Popiel was trained in the United States. Nielsen, on the other hand, was born and trained in Denmark en route to his selection, 87th overall, by the Islanders in the 2002 draft. Nielsen is the most successful Danish-born player, too, potting nearly 400 points in 685 games. Denmark isn’t exactly up there with the global hockey superpowers, but the national team has consistently been in the IIHF’s top 15 teams over the past 15 years and the Danes continue to produce some tremendous talents, including Nik Ehlers, Oliver Bjorkstrand and Frederik Andersen.

France: Andre Peloffy, Washington Capitals, 1974-75

Over the past several years, France has sent a handful of players to the NHL, with four active French nationals suiting up in the league this past season: Antoine Roussel, Xavier Ouellet, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Yohann Auvitu. But the path from France to the NHL started with Peloffy all the way back in the mid-1970s. Peloffy starred in the QMJHL leading up to his draft year in 1971 and it took four seasons in the AHL before he finally broke into the NHL. His nine-game stay was all the NHL action he ever saw, and by 1981-82, Peloffy was overseas for good. The last time Peloffy represented France internationally, he captained the club at the 1988 Olympics.

Germany: Ulrich Hiemer, New Jersey Devils, 1984-85

Over the past two decades, 23 players of German descent have suited up in the NHL, but in the early days, one would have been hard-pressed to find a German trained player in the big league. In fact, despite players with German backgrounds such as Walt Tkaczuk and Willie Huber cracking the NHL from the late-1960s to late-1970s, it took until the mid-1980s for the first German NHLer to come along. Hiemer was already a star in the German League at the time, but he came over for three years with the Devils starting in 1984-85. He didn’t fare too poorly, posting 19 goals and 73 points in 143 games, but he jetted back to Germany come 1987-88 and played in his home country until retiring in 1996.

Japan: Yutaka Fukufuji, Los Angeles Kings, 2006-07

Back before the days of Jonathan Quick, the goaltending situation in Los Angeles was rocky, to say the least, and that created a revolving door between the Kings’ pipes. Eventually, though, that opened up the opportunity for Fukufuji, who had spent the past three seasons in the AHL and ECHL, to see NHL action for the first time. The results weren’t there, though. Fukufuji was blown away in his four games, posting a 4.37 goals-against average and .837 save percentage. Now at the tail end of his career, Fukufuji, 34, is suiting up in the Asia League for the Nikko Icebucks.

Latvia: Helmuts Balderis, Minnesota North Stars, 1989-90

Balderis was born in Latvia and the first player from the country to make his way to the NHL, but his story is interesting for a couple of other reasons. Following the 1984-85 season, Balderis retired from the game and spent four years away from professional play before being drafted in the 12th round of the 1989 draft. Balderis was 36 at the time, making him the oldest player ever drafted, and when he cracked the North Stars’ lineup, he became the oldest player to ever score his first NHL goal, doing so as a 37-year-old. Balderis went on to coach the Latvian national team twice and was the GM of the squad at the 1999-2000 World Championship.

Norway: Bjørne Skaare, Detroit Red Wings, 1978-79

Over the past 20 years, Norway has produced seven NHL-calibre talents, starting with Espen Knutsen in 1997-98 and continuing on today with Mats Zuccarello and Andreas Martinsen. But the first Norwegian player found his way to the NHL in 1978, when Skaare got into a single game with the Detroit Red Wings. Skaare’s single game came in November 1978 against the Colorado Rockies, but that would be it for his time in the big league. By 1979-80, he was back in Norway, and barring an 11-game stint with the CHL’s Tulsa Oilers, Norway was where Skaare spent the remainder of his career until his death in June 1989.

Poland: Mariusz Czerkawski, Boston Bruins, 1993-94

Back in 1931, Joe Jerwa was the first player with a Polish background to earn a spot in the NHL, but the first player born and trained in Poland to make an impact on the league was Czerkawski. And for a few years, right in the thick of the dead puck era, Czerkawski was a legitimate all-star calibre talent. After bouncing from the Bruins to the Oilers and then to the Islanders, things started to click for Czerkawski in 1999-2000. He had his breakout year, scoring 35 goals and 70 points, and notched another 52 goals and 113 points over his next 164 games. Post-lockout, though, Czerkawski started to slow and he retired in 2008-09 following three years overseas.

Lithuania: Dainius Zubrus, Philadelphia Flyers, 1996-97

Zubrus wasn’t just the first Lithuanian player to suit up in the NHL, he’s the only Lithuanian player to skate in the league. He made a mark, too. Zubrus skated in 1,293 games, scored 223 goals and 591 points and remained a useful NHLer up until the 2015-16 campaign. Zubrus does have a Russian background, but he only represented the country once internationally before moving over to the Lithuanian club in 2004-05, later captaining the team at the Division 1B World Championship in 2013-14.

Slovenia: Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings, 2006-07

Another first and only, Kopitar is inarguably the greatest player Slovenia has ever produced, and he’s a near lock to have his number retired by the national team when his career is over. Kopitar, who debuted in the NHL in 2006-07 with a 20-goal, 61-point season, has been a part of the Slovenian national team as they rose from obscurity to an Olympic berth in 2014. He has also represented the country at four World Championships and is the all-time leading scorer.

Switzerland: Pauli Jaks, Los Angeles Kings, 1994-95

The Swiss national team may be one of the more underrated squads on the international stage. While not held in the same regard as some of the other European hockey powers, Switzerland is seventh in the 2017 IIHF men’s ranking, only slightly behind the Czech Republic and United States. And when it comes to producing NHL talent, Switzerland had 13 players in the league this past season. But it all started back in 1994-95 with Jaks. He had just come over to the now-defunct IHL one season earlier, but was brought up to Los Angeles from the Phoenix Roadrunners and found himself thrust between the pipes. Jaks managed to stop 23 of the 25 shots that came his way, but he’d never again get the chance at the NHL level. He was back in Switzerland the following season and, aside from a brief stint in Russia, remained in the Swiss League until his retirement in 2006.

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