From the very earliest evolutions of the game of hockey to the Sheffield forge where Lord Stanley's cup was crafted and the Regent Street silversmiths where the British Governor General of Canada Lord Walter Stanley bought the now sacred trophy, the United Kingdom has had a profound and often unrecognized influence on the early eras of the sport, the NHL and the Ontario Hockey Association. Yet despite gold medals at the first European Championships in 1910, Hitlers winter Olympics in Garmisch in 1936 and subsequent back to back world championship silvers in 1937 and '38, the impact of British players in the worlds greatest league, or the game in general, has been minimal.
Last season saw the 44th British born player appear in the NHL's 90th year when Kings goaltending prospect Daniel Taylor suited up for he final period in a 7-2 loss to the Dallas Stars. Overlapping the eighteen year career of Belfast boy Owen Nolan, Taylor became the first player of English origin to skate in the NHL since prolific overtime specialist Steve Thomas hung up his skates in 2004, the same year the last English born goalie Byron Dafoe called time on his indifferent twelve year NHL stay.
Originating from the Devonshire port city of Plymouth, Taylor is the latest in a long line of players looked upon by British NHL fans with great fondness. As with every other "British" NHLer the reality is that Daniel Taylor is a product of British migration to the cleaner,safer and healthier climbs of the Great White North as opposed to a product of our own hockey programs. Despite this the following of such anomalies, particularly in the drip feed wake of the 1931 Statute of Westminster that stemmed the comparative regularity of British born players between the 19th century to the early 60's, are a staple of any Anglo hockey nut who dreams of a real life born and bred British player taking to NHL ice accent and all.
Of course said hockey nuts are acutely aware that the dream could have become reality in the late 80's. Selected somewhat dubiously 252nd and last overall in 1986 Scotsman Tony Hand was an outsider selection of the mid dynasty Edmonton Oilers becoming the first ever player selected from a British club, the Murrayfield Racers. Having made his senior debut at the tender age of 14 between homework and a part time job at the Murrayfield ice rink, Hand was a raw natural talent. Tallying 20 goals and 22 assists in his 22 game sophomore year in the mens team, by the age of 17 Hand's totals were 52 goals and 43 assists in just 30 games. While the standard of the British Hockey League was comparatively low, Hand's numbers eclipsed those of his much older piers and the next two seasons saw the youngster score 151 goals and 177 assists in just 68 games. Adding a further 79 goals and 85 assists whilst exploding for 35 goals and 36 assists in 15 cup and playoff games in the 1985-'86 season, Hand was invited to join the Calgary Flames training camp. However when the call came that he had been taken in the NHL draft, the Scotsman found himself on the way to Alberta's more prestigious franchise.
Taking just one stick with him to the two week training camp amongst some of the legends of the NHL like Gretzky, Messier and Kurri, Hand survived the complete fortnight without being cut and with enforcer Marty McSorley's stick having had his own broken on the first day. Impressing coach Glen Sather, Hand was offered a contract to play junior hockey for a year but suffering from homesickness the Brit made just three appearances for the Victoria Cougars of the WHL scoring an impressive eight points.
Honoring his promise to Sather, Hand returned a year later suiting up for the Oilers in a training camp game against Team Canada and assisted on a goal by Kevin Lowe. Impressing once more, Sather tabled an offer for Hand to play in the Oilers farm side in Nova Scotia with the Hall of Fame coach indicating that he expected the Scot to progress. However tired by the rigors of training and the media spotlight, Hand turned down the contract offer aware that he would earn more playing professionally in Britain and returned permenantely to the UK.
Hand who went on to have a glittering career both domestically and internationally later spoke of his regret at not renegotiating the Edmonton contract offer while Glen Sather lamented in the Foreword to Tony Hands autobiography "Scotch on Ice"
"At the training camp I could see that he had a great ability to read the ice and he was the smartest player there other than Wayne Gretzky. he skated well: his intelligence on the ice stood out. he was a real prospect"
Most who saw Hand play in North America feel that he would have progressed to the NHL if not in Edmonton then a less storied franchise where he could have been a top six offenseman. Instead early financial fears saw him put up spectacular numbers in low paying British leagues effectively wasting his talent and robbing Britain of its greatest chance of a true NHL presence.
Since Hand's draft in 1986 a peculiar following of noted British juniors and prospects has emerged as eager British hockey fans collate data on the next player to follow in the storied Scots footsteps. Aided in recent years by the proliferation of the Internet a permanent thread has opened up on the Hockey Futures boards for UK prospects heading into each and every draft. Despite feverish listings of youngsters appearing in the Team GB under 18's international teams and others playing in North American only one other player has been drafted as a British national in the 22 years since Tony Hand.
Taken by the Philadelphia Flyers 195th overall in the 2000 entry draft as an 20 year old, right winger Colin Shields never quite captured the imagination in the same way Hand did having left the UK prior to his selection. Subsequently Shields assencion to NHL draftee came playing in North America with the Cleveland Junior Barons out in the scouting backwaters of the tier II junior A North American Hockey League. Having scored 76 goals and 79 assists for 155 points in two years and 110 games as a Baron, Shields decided to take the NCAA route following his draft, attending the University of Maine. Playing out three years in Hockey East alongside future NHLers Niko Dimitrakos, Dustin Penner and Jim Howard, Shields was consistently amongst the teams leading scorers topping the list in his senior year in 2003-'04 with 44 points in 44 games. Physically small and wiry at 5'11” and 176 pounds, Shields found himself trying to make big in the ECHL as opposed to the AHL. Toiling for an NHL contract at three separate East Coast franchises in one season an unsettled Shields scored just 35 points in his stays in San Diego, Atlantic City and Greenville.
Returning to the UK to play for the Belfast Giants in 2005-'06 alongside diminutive former NHLer Theoren Fleury, Shields scored 14 goals and 27 assists in just 27 games on the way to an Elite League title.
Confidence renewed, Shields made his last stab to break North America once more returning to the ECHL in 2006-'07 first with the Fresno Falcons then the Kelly Cup winning Idaho Steelheads but despite an upturn in his offensive totals with 43 points in 57 games, injury put paid to his chances of playing on the championship team and his 7 year tenure in North America came to an end when he returned to the British Elite League last year.
Taking in what may now be standard practice for any young talented Brit, Shields was by no means a pioneer by playing out his junior career in North America. A year before Shields defected to US soil in search of NHL glory legendary Team GB net minder Stevie Lyle found himself in the OHL on a Peter DeBoer coached Plymouth Whalers team. With a three year professional career already under his belt, Lyle came to the OHL as something of an promising oddity. Having made his British Hockey League debut at an unprecedented 15 years of age, Lyle had just helped the Cardiff Devils to the Superleague title in 1997 with a 91.2% save percentage securing the vast majority of starts. Still just 17, Lyle was seen as a potential draftee by some commentators and the Whalers were interested to see how good the British national was.
Playing under Robert Esche, homesickness quickly became a factor for the Cardiff boy who had always played for his hometown team. Battling on but struggling to adjust, Lyle slipped to third in the Whalers depth charts and made just 6 appearances securing a single win, three losses and a tie whilst being slotted for a 4.16 GAA and 87.2% save percentage. With the season done Lyle was on the first flight back to Cardiff only to leave British shores less than a decade later to play in Italy and France.
With players such as Joe Watkins(ECHL), Brett Perlini (NOJHL) Tom Duggan(Shattucks St.Mary's) and Ben O'Connor(OHL) all blazing trails in North America as promising youngsters or juniors respectively there is always a palpable sense of disappointment when a draft year passes without so much as the whisper of a British prospect, even more so as it becomes clear that the path directly from British hockey to NHL draft looks less and less feasible as players take the Thomas Vanek route. This can be in part blamed on the comical disorganization and separatism that seems to have taken hold on the British game in the last fifteen years and the constant flow of throwaway North Americans and obscure eastern Europeans that clog up roster spaces in the British Elite League with a quota on imports that does little to advance the national game. Marry that with a play style akin to North American hockey thirty years ago only slower and fan interest which dwindles each and every year and its clear that it would take astronomical numbers such as Tony Hand's to bring NHL scouts clamoring to the claustrophobic rinks of Britain, a feat that looks as likely as a player putting up Gretzky like figures in the modern NHL.
With stay at home defenceman Stephen Lee rated as our biggest prospect for the 2009 NHL entry draft despite missing out when ranked in the 2007 CHL imports draft, chances our that UK fans will be left cherishing the faux British players who have skated in the NHL for at least one more season.
Nevertheless of the 44 players to grace the big league under the moniker of British born, there have been several who left their mark on the game. From the early era; vicious Hall of Famer Joe Hall was born in Staffordshire and secured two PIM titles in the NHL's first two seasons after an aggressive career prior to the leagues formation. His sudden passing in 1919 due to pneumonia as a result of the Flu epidemic that had brought the NHL to it's knees secured his gritty play in league history. Equally tragic was the story of the other British born Hall of Famer, the “Wee Scot” Charlie Gardiner who took the abysmal sophomore Chicago Blackhawks all the way to the Stanley Cup in 1933-'34 on the back of three First All Star selections and two Vezina trophies before his death months after the Blackhawks first cup triumph due to a brain hemorrhage. Gardiner was amongst the greatest goaltenders of his era.
Aside from those who have achieved hockey's highest accolade, others whose unlikely careers began in Britain included a slew of workhorse players in the 20's and 30's such as Gord Pettinger, Red Beattie, Alex Smith, Tom Anderson, Dunc Munro and Welsh born net minder Wilf Cude. The 40's and 50's saw another strong showing with the likes of depth centerman Adam Brown, journeyman Jim Conacher, Calder cup winning Jim McFadden and conservative defenceman Jack Evans who would go on to coach the Hartford Whalers between 1983-'87.
Since expansion the frequency of the British born player slowed but there remains a noted alumni. Birmingham born Ken Hodge snr. the unpopular grinder turned scorer posted two 105 point seasons in 1970-'71 and in 1973-'74 when he also scored 50 goals, both times he was named to the NHL's first all star team while adding two Stanley Cups too his name in 1970 and 1972.
Penguins power play specialist Peter Lee who played six seasons in Pittsburgh between '77-'83 was born in Ellesmere while imposing Scottish born defenceman Steve Smith was a mainstay of NHL bluelines for three decades and over 800 games between 1984-2001 and thus followed the aforementioned Steve Thomas, Owen Nolan and Byron Dafoe.
As it stands the future looks bleak for a British born and trained player making it to the NHL but thats not to say its impossible. While Yutaka Fukufuji’s career was short in both length and highlights, who would have believed that a Japanese born and trained player would reach the NHL from a team ranked just 7 places higher than Team GB? With Slovenian hockey making leaps and bounds in recent years and the emergence of Anze Kopitar, albeit primarily schooled in Sweden, there is presidence for change in the international game and the perception of NHL scouts. As for now we always have Owen Nolan.