Liam Kirk jokes that field hockey is likely more popular than ice hockey in his home country, but that isn’t stopping him from attempting to become the first English-born and trained player to make it to the NHL.
Born and raised in the UK, Kirk first became attracted to the game after his parents took him, and older brother Jonathan, to see the hometown Sheffield Steelers of the Elite Ice Hockey League. Now he’s on a high: Great Britain won the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A to reach promotion to the top level for the first time since 1994 and Kirk could be drafted by an NHL team soon.
“My older brother started playing so I just kind of copied him,” said Kirk who first stepped on the ice as a three-year-old.
In a country dominated by everything from football to rugby and even cricket, ice hockey is an afterthought in England, and as a result, Kirk was limited to just one ice session a week while playing minor hockey growing up.
Kirk’s father, who played cricket at a semi-pro level, encouraged his sons to play cricket and Kirk even dabbled in football while in school, but hockey was always his true passion.
Three years ago, in an attempt bridge the gap between the EIHL club and the feeder leagues, Sheffield Steelers coach, and general manager, Paul Thompson began bringing in kids on an apprenticeship contract in order to develop players for the top club.
“The junior program up here is one of the better ones in the country, so I wanted to kind of bring kids in at 16 and have them practise,” said Thompson. “If they’re good enough obviously, and have them signed to sort of an apprenticeship contract.
“I knew about (Kirk) three years ago, and I invited him three years ago to come down and practise, look at the locker room and try sell the club a little bit to him and talk to him about the plan that we had and then signed him that summer after.”
Kirk spent much of the 2016/17 season on loan with the Sheffield Steeldogs of the English Premier Ice Hockey League scoring 20 goals and 45 points in 38 games.
“It was a good experience obviously,” said Kirk. “At that time I was 16. Training with men every day was kind of tough, but it only helped me in the long run training every day, trying to improve my battle level and my speed, doing everything a bit quicker so it was good in that sense.”
Kirk owes a lot of his development success to strength and conditioning guru Danny Mawer. Now a part of the staff in Sheffield, Mawer began working with Kirk when he was just 12 years old.
“When I was younger, (it was) more just trying to get the movements right so that when I got to the age of 16 I could start doing heavy lifting, getting stronger and putting on more weight,” said Kirk.
“He’s been a big factor in all of this.”
Mawer, 27, played through the junior ranks in England before turning to the development side of the game, and admittedly saw unique talent in Kirk at a young age.
“It’s difficult to say when they’re a young kid, but obviously I could see Liam was something special,” said Mawer. “I’ve worked with him year round. I’ve not rushed anything. At this stage now, his body is responding really well to training and he’s at an age where he’s starting to grow into his body.”
After appearing in 19 EIHL games with the Sheffield Steelers last season, Kirk was a regular on the Steelers roster this season scoring nine goals and 16 points in 52 games – the most points by an under-18 player in league history, and he also played in the IIHF Continental Cup with the Steelers.
The six-foot-one, 156-pound forward plays both the left wing and centre positions and is regarded as more of a playmaker than a goal scorer. He spent much of this season on third and fourth line roles with the Steelers.
Thompson, who worked with Nikolaj Ehlers while coaching in Denmark with the Aalborg Pirates, sees similarities in the two forwards.
“He’s not a physical, power forward guy,” said Thompson. “He plays the game a little like a Nik Ehlers, but I don’t want to compare (them), I don’t want to put extra pressure on him. There’s bits of both of their games that reminded me of each other. He won’t be intimidated, put it that way.”
Internationally, Kirk represented Great Britain on three separate occasions this season.
In December, he led Great Britain to a bronze medal at the U20 World Championship Division II Group A scoring seven goals and seven assists in five games while being named the tournament’s best forward.
It was after his return from the under-20 tournament that Thompson really saw Kirk’s game turn a corner.
“He has great speed, good skills and fantastic work ethic,” said Thompson.
“From Christmas onward, he had to learn the pro game and to play away from the puck and what that takes defensively. Then to understand the grind, the amount of games and the travel. Come Christmas time he absolutely blossomed, his progression was quite magnificent to be honest with you - as good as I’ve ever seen.”
Then at the U18 World Championship Division II Group A tournament in Estonia, Kirk scored four goals and three assists in five games as Great Britain earned promotion to the Division I Group B tournament in 2019.
Kirk capped off his international schedule helping Great Britain’s national team earn a promotion to the top division at the World Championship Division I Group A in Budapest, Hungary – the country’s biggest success in over two decades.
“Playing at the under-20s we got bronze, which was quite immense, and then to redeem ourselves at the under-18s winning gold - that was kind of an even bigger honour,” said Kirk. “Even just getting told I was going to be on the team for the men’s is kind of huge for me and my career. That was a huge honour. Then obviously to be the underdogs of that tournament, without expecting anything out of it.
“We won one game and then the rest of it kind of just fell in our favour, we just had to keep winning and that was unbelievable. It’s been my favourite moment in ice hockey so far. It’s an unbelievable feeling. I’ll never forget it.”
Kirk says he first started noticing scouts from NHL clubs watching him in October.
Despite already playing professionally, and his international resume, it wasn’t until February that NHL Central Scouting sent one of its European scouts to watch Kirk.
“It’s definitely a unique situation. He’s a unique prospect,” said agent Nic Mayne. “There’s never been a reason to scout in the EIHL. Even this year, it was hard to convince teams to send anyone out from North America, especially, or even one of their European guys from Sweden or whatever to go watch him because you’re going to watch one guy, who is going to maybe be available in the fourth or fifth round, but that’s the whole trip.
“The expense of it, for some teams, as opposed to you go watch a game in Switzerland or Finland, there are 4-5 guys on the radar, it’s a little more worthwhile.”
Central Scouting has Kirk ranked No. 65 in its final ranking of international skaters available for selection in Dallas, 22-23 June.
ISS Hockey ranked Kirk No. 179 its list of the Top 200 players available for this year’s draft.
“He’s looking to make passes, he’s looking to make offensive plays happen,” said ISS Hockey scout Greg Hickman. “I don’t think he’s going to be that guy who goes out and scores a hat trick every game. He’s going to be that guy that contributes offensively in sort of an all-round offensive game.
“There’s questions about his strength. I think I saw his weight earlier in the year and it was pretty low. It was probably lower than I thought it would be. Other than strength, he’s got pretty good size, he’s got good reach, he’s got an OK shot. His skating will improve over time. He’s a pretty good all-round player.”
With the interest from NHL clubs increasing, he met with as many as 12 teams at the recent NHL Scouting Combine. Endorsement deals are also coming in for Kirk. Mayne, who began working with Kirk in September, says both True Hockey and Bauer are in talks with his client about wearing their gear in future.
Regardless of where he’s drafted, his time in Sheffield is over.
In an effort to improve his development further, Kirk is eyeing a move to North America and the Canadian Hockey League for next season via the CHL Import Draft. ISS Hockey ranks the Top-60 skaters for the import selection, which is two rounds, but did not have Kirk on its list.
As Kirk prepares to take his career across the pond, Thompson believes his time playing against men in the EIHL will ease the transition.
“The biggest asset is his speed, he’s quick,” said Thompson. “There won’t be many as quick as him and he can skate with speed, with the puck, which is another plus. He’s been up against ex-American Hockey League and ex-SHL, Liiga defencemen over here, and they were giving him a tough time at times. He’s had to learn to get his battle level up pretty early. He was 16, 17 going into the corners against these guys.
“It’s a little bit different because it’s a little bit more open, but we’re more North American style anyway. He’s a British kid, he won’t get intimidated.”
Canada isn’t the only option for Kirk.
“Depending on where he goes, there might be some options in Finland or Sweden that are competitive, if it’s the right fit in the WHL or OHL, then he’ll definitely be going,” Mayne said. “It’s going to be a combination of things, not just geographically, but it’s about the strength of the league and the division and the travel, is it easy to get to? Is it easy for his family to get to? Is it the right coach, and somebody who is going to push him where he needs to be pushed to bring the best out of him?”
There have been 82 players all-time from the United Kingdom suit up in an NHL game, but there has never been a player born, and trained in the UK make it. Edinburgh native Tony Hand was selected by the Edmonton Oilers in the 12th round of the 1986 draft, but played just three WHL games before returning home.
London’s Liam Stewart, son of rock legend Rod Stewart, spent four years in the WHL with the Spokane Chiefs and had a brief 13 game stint in the ECHL before returning home to the EIHL.
Kirk believes his presence at the combine, and potentially getting drafted, will help show Great Britain is a legitimate hockey country.
“Obviously just being in the National Hockey League is a huge honour for myself whether I’m British, Canadian or Nigerian,” said Kirk. “The fact that I am from a non-traditional hockey country makes it an even bigger honour just to show a lot of kids from any non-traditional hockey country that if you’re committed and believe and you’re determined to do something, then you can do it.”