For the majority of its 102-year history, the only English imports that have found any staying power in the NHL have been Lord Stanley of Preston and his coveted Cup.
But a 19-year-old from the Yorkshire town of Maltby is looking to change all that.
In 2018, Liam Kirk became the first English-born and trained player to be drafted into the NHL when the Arizona Coyotes called his name with the 189th pick. Now in his second season with the OHL’s Peterborough Petes, the left winger is starting to thrive, tied for second in team scoring with 36 points in 29 games before Friday night’s match against the Oshawa Generals.
Being a trailblazer comes with a special brand of pressure, though, not just for the success of his own career, but for the benefit of British hockey as a whole. While it’s something he tries not to focus on too heavily, he can’t escape the reality of the situation, nor does he want to.
“The big thing for me was that for younger kids, they can look at that and see that there is an opportunity there, and if they put in the work they can do it,” Kirk said of his breakthrough.
“It’s not about how far I go, it’s just that I’ve shown them that you can get your foot in the door, and then it’s all down to you and your own hard work.”
Kirk has more than a foot in the door. While some of his teammates in Peterborough, such as Toronto Maple Leafs draft pick Nick Robertson, are currently fighting for spots on world junior teams, Kirk turned down the British junior team, which is in the fourth tier of under-20 competition, to focus on the Petes.
But then Kirk received a very unique taste of international competition – for an OHL player anyway – when he suited up for the British senior team last spring for its first appearance at the top table of the world championship in 25 years. Although he was held without a point in six games against the likes of Canada and Finland, he helped Britain avoid relegation in its final game with a dramatic come-from-behind overtime victory against France.
The more traditional hockey powers certainly took notice of the new kids on the block, even if it wasn’t all for the usual reasons.
“I remember a few times we did one of our old routines,” Kirk said. “We call it ‘Bombs Away’ and we all stand in a circle and chuck a puck in the air and whoever gets hit, gets hit.
“But I think when Team Canada were looking at our first practice and [saw us] doing that, it was very shocking. We were just trying to keep it light-hearted and have fun.”
The opportunity to return to the world championships will be there again next spring. However, Kirk is actually hoping a long playoff run with the Petes will prevent him from going. With the team atop the OHL standing, that seems a distinct possibility, although he will have to get back in the lineup first – he’s sat out the past few games with a broken knuckle.
The teenager feels a successful OHL postseason will help him secure his ultimate goal: an entry-level deal with the Coyotes and a roster spot with their AHL affiliate in Tucson, Ariz.
The feedback he’s been getting from the Coyotes is to play to an identity, which, in his case, means playing better without the puck and imposing himself more physically. Mark Bell, the former Chicago Blackhawks forward who is now Arizona’s director of player development, talks to Kirk on a weekly basis, breaking down his shifts and games. He says that Kirk has taken on a lot of direction in a short time and has applied it.
But then, he has no other choice.
“That’s a credit to him,” Bell said. “I push him on those things and for him to even have a chance he has to play that way.”
Bell adds, though, that he wasn’t directly involved in the drafting of the Englishman, and says the Coyotes evaluated his abilities in the same way they would for any other prospect, and that his nationality had no bearing on his selection.
“Liam has a certain skill set and that’s why we drafted him,” he said. “He can skate, he can shoot, he can pass, he can make plays and he’s slowly developing the North American brand of hockey.”
Back in Peterborough, it’s his hockey skills as much as his accent that makes him stand out. But then, he’s not the only English voice inside the Petes’ storied locker room, where the likes of Bob Gainey, Steve Yzerman and Eric Staal have all laced up skates at one point or another.
Fellow Englishman Patrick O’Connor is a new addition to Rob Wilson’s coaching staff this season – the two were teammates on the Sheffield Steelers in the British league during the 1990s. The native of Durham provides an eye-in-the-sky perspective for home games, giving coaches feedback from a box on the south end of the Peterborough Memorial Centre, where, coincidentally, a large portrait of the Queen also hangs.
O’Connor was on vacation last year to visit Wilson around the same time that Kirk went through a 13-game pointless streak that began just four games into his North American career. Although he told Kirk he had too much talent not to snap out of it eventually, it’s the other areas of his game that are impressing O’Connor now, the parts of his game that will ultimately determine his NHL future.
“What will be will be, he’s got the right eyes watching him, he’s putting up points,” O’Connor said. “If you look at his game now defensively, his work off the puck is far superior to what it’s ever been and that’s the biggest difference.”
Listed at just 166 pounds, the six-foot Kirk is working to get stronger and O’Connor says he can see the improvement, particularly in his willingness to engage with larger, heavier defencemen. And playing against stronger, older players is nothing out of the ordinary for Kirk, who played two years professionally with the Steelers before getting drafted.
Seeing Kirk on the ice on a daily basis now, O’Connor believes that he has a “legitimate chance” to make it. In doing so, he might just put hockey on the map in England, or at least have it close the popularity gap slightly on the world’s game.
“If you look at soccer, or football, throughout the years, you had your David Beckham for many years and then maybe your Wayne Rooney and your Michael Owens, who on a world stage elevated the platform of the English game,” O’Connor said.
“So for Liam to be doing this out here right now, he’s in the best junior league in the world … and he’s more than holding his own.”
If he can make it all the way to the NHL, he will have gone one better than the only other two British-born and trained players to be drafted. Tony Hand and Colin Shields, both Scots, were drafted by the Edmonton Oilers and Philadelphia Flyers, respectively.
Hand, the last player picked in the 1986 draft, attended the Oilers’ training camp that fall, where former head coach Glen Sather recalled he was “the smartest player there other than Wayne Gretzky.” Still, at just age 19, he was farmed out to the Victoria Cougars of the WHL, but after scoring eight points in three games he decided to return home.
Shields was drafted in the sixth round in 2000 and played three seasons at the University of Maine. He bounced around three teams in the ECHL in 2004-05, before returning home to play in the British league.
Although he admits it was a tough transition from college to pro, he says now that the NHL lockout that coincided with the start of his pro career didn’t help.
“It really was a tough year to try and crack an AHL lineup with the NHL being off, and I got to a bit of a bad start with my East Coast hockey career,” Shields said.
Shields just retired from the Belfast Giants this summer after a long career in Britain’s Elite Ice Hockey League, and finished off his career playing on a line with Kirk at the world championships. Although he’s now an onlooker and not a competitor, he wishes nothing but the best for his former teammate.
“Liam’s the third one coming through, hopefully third time lucky,” Shields said. “Hopefully he’ll learn not from [Tony’s and my] mistakes, but the path we sort of went down.”
Shields says he doesn’t know of any other promising young players coming through in the British game, where the lack of ice time, arenas and funding hurts the chances of someone getting drafted.
But Kirk is hell bent on taking the opportunity that’s he’s worked so hard to earn. And while being a seventh-round pick generally means the odds are stacked against a player, he doesn’t see it that way.
“There’s been so many first-round players who have never made it, and there’s been so many seventh-round players who have turned out to be NHL all-stars and household names,” he said, such as former Detroit Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg, drafted 210th over all.
“So for me, it’s a process and it’s going to be a journey, and one that I have to enjoy and put in the work to eventually achieve that end goal.”