The “Scottish Gretzky”: How Tony Hand kept hockey in the minds of the UK
I’ve always known there was hockey played in the United Kingdom in some aspect. It would just be downright ignorant to dispute that claim. However, at what caliber and level the game was being played at remained a mystery. From here in Canada, we knew players of all levels were recruited to play for teams abroad. When it came to the United Kingdom everyone had their eyes locked on mainland England.
The advent of social media (while some say is a curse), is a wonderful invention. Every little bit of information on any topic one could want is at the tips of your fingers. When I started to dig deeper into the hockey world of the UK, a name was constantly thrown in my direction. Not only from different sites on the internet and historical hockey pieces concerning the sport in the 1980’s, but from many UK hockey fans. That name was Tony Hand.
I chalked Tony Hand up to just be a hockey great from England. I had no idea he was actually a hockey powerhouse from Edinburgh, Scotland. Now that’s no disrespect to Scotland at all. That’s just pure ignorance from yours truly; a young Canadian hockey historian. Hell, I was just being born when Hand was starting his dominance.
All throughout my life I’ve been fascinated by all the different countries and cultures of the world. I even collect flags for fun. So having another nation to add to the ever growing list of hockey lovers to research brought a smile to my face. Either I’m obsessed with the game or I have no life. You be the judge.
But I digress.
A fellow hockey friend by the name of John Oxford reached out to me to say he’d be willing to send over Tony Hand’s biography for me to read. Along with sending Paul Thompson’s “Benched”, I have been enamored with the words and world of UK hockey in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Tony Hand’s book feels like I’m going back in time to my own childhood looking up to the players I idolized at that time in the NHL. It’s a bit of an eerie feeling reading about someone you know absolutely nothing about but can relate instantly to the topic being written.
Within the first 16 pages of Hand’s book I stopped. I stopped and took a moment to reflect at how similar his hockey upbringing and the upbringing of kids in this country are. If he didn’t name drop places and teams, you would swear he was Canadian. From the graciousness of Willie Kerr keeping the rink open after dark to Hand walking miles down the road to just be able to play showed just how in sync and how comparable the game was.
Playing for and having loyalty to his hometown team of Murrayfield reminded me how much the game has changed. Loyalty is no longer a factor concerning the players today. It is all about the coin. Money. The game of hockey in the 1980’s was a fragile and odd kind of sport. Trying to grow itself but yet not wanting to sell themselves out provided a slippery slope for most players as the old guard still had not retired yet.
The Murrayfield Racers also reminded me of my hometown Cornwall Royals. While the Royals were a junior the team, the fans and talk surrounding both cemented them a legendary place in the world of hockey. I knew that there was something special about them that not many on this side of the Earth’s hockey world would ever hear about. As I continued reading it was clear that Hand was, had been, and still is an elite caliber player. Having over 100 point seasons and then over 200 is nothing short of brilliant. Case in point his being drafted to the Edmonton Oilers.
Former NHLer Garry Unger had been a scout for the Oilers in the late 80’s. He was still playing the game though over in Scotland and happened to play against Hand a few times seeing his greatness. A little phone call to Glen Sather made Tony Hand the 252nd pick in the 12th round of the 1986 NHL Entry Draft and gave him a shot at that years training camp. Of course, this was all unbeknownst to Hand as he was all the way in Scotland. Phone tagged was played and he eventually headed over to Alberta.
Icing the training camp alongside the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri and Dave Semenko, Hand was put up against a daunting cast of characters. However, he didn’t let the pressure get to him and had a good camp. Good enough for Sather to offer him a contract that would send him down to the minors while still in the Oilers system. Sather even remarked that Hand had the best eyes on the ice, second to Wayne Gretzky. At the same time a friend also had an offer waiting for him at the Victoria Cougars in the WHL. As the story goes, Hand did not feel comfortable. He was suffering from exhaustion from suiting up for 3 games with the Cougars and along with homesickness he flew back home, denying both contracts.
While some think that Tony Hand blew his and the chance to put UK hockey on the map, I have the upmost respect for his decision. He was young, in a new place, dealing with players who trained much harder than him and everything was just uncomfortable behind his means. Some people just can’t adjust. Also, being in the minors, there was no guaranteed way he’d ever come back and crack Edmonton’s lineup. It was a no brainer decision.
Although when I think about it some more, I firmly believe that his tune might have changed had he been drafted to another NHL team that was not stacked with talent. He would’ve no doubt made the roster right away and would be playing night in and night out. Sadly, that’s just how the cookie crumbles.
As I continued to read, the book got a bit dry in a sense that Hand would massacre the point totals year in and year out. In some ways it doesn’t even seem fair to a player of his caliber but just goes to prove what kind of character he really is. Playing for the sake of the game and his hometown team rather then grab a large contract and take off to Europe.
The story about Glen Anderson made me laugh. Showing up in a limo to play with Cardiff and demanded a wealthy pay cheque. The money I can understand but how demeaning is it to your teammates to flaunt your priviledges around.
When I reached the middle of and late 90’s, you could see how Hand’s hockey mind progressed. Maturing to the business side of things. It’s essential for hockey in the United Kingdom to keep minds and people like Hand around for the progress of the sport. (Yes, that’s including David Simms.) Hand is right on the money when he starts talking about the import limit and how to grow the game domestically. He’s also on the money with teams and their budgets. Of course we can talk about all of this until we’re blue in the face. It will take a big shakeup for something of that magnitude to change.
I hope that I will get the chance to meet Tony Hand one day. It would be weird for me to say that his contribution to the game is monumental. I mean, coming from little old me it would be. I don’t have to tell him that. Without him and a few others, the game might have died and been completely washed out in the U.K – Who knows.
What I do know, is you’re going to be hard pressed to find another player come out of Scotland and compete at his elite level.
Message to all the Scots at this present time: Prove me wrong.
Categories: Elite League