Maltby is a small town in South Yorkshire, just outside Rotherham and about ten miles from Sheffield. Up until now, it’s most famous for British children’s entertainers the Chuckle Brothers, and cricketer Fred Trueman. Soon, however, it could be known as the birthplace of a hockey trailblazer.
Liam Kirk is a 6’2, 187lb forward for the Sheffield Steelers in the UK Elite Ice Hockey League. He scored 9 goals and 7 assists in 52 games last season. These aren’t numbers that would normally make most scouts in the NHL look at him twice on tape, never mind make the trip across the Atlantic to watch a British kid play in a league traditionally considered a backwater of world hockey.
However, Liam Kirk is not like most British kids. He’s been playing in the British men’s league system since the age of 16 when he graduated from the Sheffield juniors to their second-tier team in Britain’s second league He’s been playing incredibly well, scoring 20 goals in his first full men’s league season, making his debut at Britain’s top level and graduating to the pro level full-time this season.
He has also been a key player for his country at the World Championships since the age of 16, also, top-scoring for them at the u18 Worlds at 16, playing u20 Worlds at 17 and this year leading his country to a goal medal in Div 2A. This week he’s made the trip to Div 1A at the Worlds with Team GB, one level below the elite, and there are high hopes in Britain that he’ll be a key contributor in their fight to stay in the division.
It’s not like the talent wasn’t clear very quickly, though – Kirk first came to wider attention when he scored 98 points in his junior u18 league, in 17 games at age 15.
The extent of natural talent Kirk possesses is only magnified when you bear in mind that it developed in a system which, not to put too fine a point on it, is a mess. British junior hockey is coached by unpaid parents and sometimes plays out like it’s organized on the back of a napkin. It’s also a system that often doesn’t necessarily get the best sporting talent, competing against the likes of soccer and rugby. Simply put, if Kirk was developing in most European countries he would be considered a useful draft prospect. For him to have developed in Britain is like a diamond spontaneously growing on a dung heap.
I first saw Kirk play at 15, and his vision, skating and stickhandling led me to comment even then that he was the best stickhandler I’d ever seen in British hockey – at any level, and of any nationality. Even then his talent was fully apparent, and it’s developed well over the past few seasons. But don’t take my word for it – here’s a highlight reel put together by Team GB watchers (Liam Kirk is wearing #14 or #16 in these clips):
These highlights, for context, are from the 2016 and 2017 u18 Worlds and this season in the EIHL. The first two highlights (0:05 on) beautifully showcases what Kirk is all about – the level of confidence he has carrying the puck through the neutral zone and beating opposition defensemen is not one seen that often in British skaters. The goal at 1:02 showcases his equal comfort with shooting both forehand and backhand with equal accuracy for his release, while at 2:10 you get a look at his hard and accurate slapshot. Finally, at 2:31 we see Kirk’s balance as he fights through an attempted check to finish hard and accurately.
But it’s the final part of the video that’ll really interest NHL scouts – this, after all, is Elite League action, where Kirk is facing far more experienced and higher-level opposition. Most of the non-British players in the EIHL are ECHL/AHL-level or from mid-to-high-level European leagues. In a league where traditionally young native players are used as third-line energy players and much of the skill and scoring is left to the imports, Kirk is a genuine British playmaking/goal scoring talent the likes of which the sport over here has rarely seen.
Take note, for example, of the way Kirk (#14 in white) drifts from the boards to find space in front of the net at 3:02, before finishing past Finnish Ligia veteran Miika Wiikman. In perhaps the key moment, watch the last highlight (3:46 on) closely – Kirk is in orange. That’s former Nashville Predator Dan Spang who he cuts inside and holds off one-handed and former Atlanta Thrasher and KHL starter Mike Garnett who he makes look silly with the finish. Most British players simply can’t do what Kirk does, never mind do it age 18.
With him currently ranked at 65th among European skaters by NHL Central Scouting, however, it’s likely that Kirk will be a late-round pick and probably a project for the team that drafts him. His performance at the upcoming World Championships could have a huge impact on this, or even whether he’s drafted at all.
Just by being drafted Kirk will, however, join a pretty select company only two British-born-and-trained players have ever been drafted by NHL teams: Tony Hand 252nd overall in 1986 by Edmonton, and Colin Shields 195th overall by Philadelphia in 2000. Both of whom have become legends in Britain but never played a regular-season NHL game. The only British-born player currently in the NHL is Brendan Parlini, whose father and former NHLer Fred was coaching in UK when he was born.
While he may not have the pedigree of Auston Matthews, in one way Liam Kirk is very similar to Arizona’s (and now Toronto’s) favorite hockey son – being drafted at all will make him one step closer to making history as a trailblazer for Great Britain hockey and their first-ever native-trained NHLer. Kirk can do for an entire country what Matthews has done for Arizona hockey – finally put Great Britain and the young players from it well and truly on the NHL scouting hockey map.
Whether or not he’ll make the NHL is still something to be determined. Impressive as Kirk’s feats have been, they pale against those currently being performed by 16-year-old Alexis Lafreniere in the QMJHL, for example. But Lafreniere and his counterparts come from a nation where hockey rules.
Kirk, like Auston Matthews, is a shining talent from a “non-traditional” hockey area-and while, like his Leafs counterpart he’s not the first-ever NHLer from that area (Philip and Henrik Samuelsson were the first and second AZ-trained NHL players, just as Hand and Shields may precede Kirk) he’s the brightest jewel in a talent mine that has and is producing an increasing number of very talented youngsters despite the perceived limitations. Also, like Matthews, his success could lead to inspiring many more behind him to follow and bring attention, organization and credibility to a neglected part of the hockey world.