The “Scottish Gretzky”: How Tony Hand kept hockey in the minds of the UK

3797 Tony CVRI’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.

TonyHandThe 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.

(Photo: Manchester Evening News)
(Photo: Manchester Evening News)

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.

Revisiting the age old topic: development of hockey in the UK

index2THE BRITISH ARE COMING, THE BRITISH ARE COMING!

…..or not. The powers that be of the Elite Ice Hockey League came out of a meeting that will input some rule changes starting in the upcoming season. In a nut shell, here they are:

“As from the upcoming season (2014-15), the number of non British-trained players will rise from 11 to 12, but the amount of work-permit players will remain at 11.

The number of non British-trained players will rise to 13 in season 2015-16 and 14 in season 2016-17, with the amount of work-permit players again remaining at 11.

Elite League chairman, Tony Smith, said: “The league agreed that there is a shortage of top-level British players, which keeps the Elite League from being outstanding across the 10 teams.With the demand of the indigenous British player higher than ever in all leagues, and with the potential for EU/dual-national players to develop into national-team players, it was felt this gradual increase would be beneficial to all.”

Oh boy.

There’s two sides to every story and every decision. Let’s try and decipher the other side of the coin before I go into what we already know.

Hockey when you strip off everything until its very first layer is a business. First and foremost above anything else it’s a business. Hockey turned professional back in the early 1900s in order to capitalize revenue on a growing spectator sport and to attempt to control the act of paying star players under the table. Two leagues, the Federal Amateur Hockey League and the Canadian Amateur Hockey League amalgamated in 1905 for this very reason. It was the very beginnings of the National Hockey League that we all know and love today. What does this have to do with the EIHL you ask?

(Photo: Scott Wiggins. www.scottwiggins.co.uk)
(Photo: Scott Wiggins. http://www.scottwiggins.co.uk)

Simple. Imported players are more talented than your British ones, it’s no secret. Talent on the ice means people in the seats; people in the seats means money in the pockets. Before you jump on the greedy owners campaign (which you’re right for the most part), more money allows the EIHL to continue on as a league. The EIHL is not near anywhere stable enough to get by on British talent alone no matter how many players you ice. This rule change gives the league a bit of a safety net for the next couple years in order for you to enjoy the game and the league. Continue reading “Revisiting the age old topic: development of hockey in the UK”

One on One with Olympic official Joy Tottman

(Photo: icehockey.co.uk)
(Photo: icehockey.co.uk)

Joy Tottman is a well-known name among British hockey circles. She’s been apart of Ice Hockey UK as well as the IIHF for over 15 years. What’s even better is she is a strong woman at the top of her game. The past Olympics in Sochi, Russia was her third consecutive time officiating the Winter Games and she held the honour of being selected to run the ice for the women’s gold medal game between Canada and the United States. I caught up with her to shed a little insight into what makes a strong woman referee and to give women here in Canada a chance at stepping into another part of the best sport on Earth.

March Hockey: How did you get involved in hockey? What made you head into the disciplinary part of the game?

Joy Tottman: I first started refereeing at the age of 12.  I had wanted to learn how to skate and my dad had taken me to our local rink and given me the choice of playing hockey or figure skating and I chose hockey.  I was playing under 10s and when we had games no officials were turning up.  My dad was one of the only parents who could skate and so he took the referee course so that we could play our games.  He would then have to stay on to referee the games after my game and so he got me to take the course too so I could stay on with him.  I started to enjoy the refereeing and made the switch to just refereeing at a really young age.  I guess it was a way for me to be involved in the game without the physical element of playing in a boy’s team.

MH: This past Olympics was your third. How do you prepare mentally and physically for an event of that size?

 

( Photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images)
( Photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images)

JT: The physical preparation was a huge part of going to the Sochi Olympics.  There was a pre-Olympic selection camp in August 2013 where we were tested on and off the ice.  I had a trainer for off-ice who I saw 3 times a week and then did my own programme on the other days.  Because I have a day job this meant training at 6am each morning.  The mental preparation for me was all about getting game experience throughout the season and of course over the years.  Making sure that I focused on each game and learned from the situations within it.  It was about putting myself mentally in a place where I knew I was prepared and had done everything possible to be in the best shape and best frame of mind for the games. Continue reading “One on One with Olympic official Joy Tottman”

The development of hockey in the United Kingdom

4STZVlCj.jpg smallA topic that has been hotly debated over the past couple weeks is the development of hockey in the United Kingdom. With former Coventry Blaze head honcho Paul Thompson relaying in an interview that the EIHL should just “drop the damn import limit”, there’s no wonder as to why the United Kingdom has struggled in the talent pool. I think Thompson has realized that his son will have nowhere to play real competitive hockey in the UK once he gets around draft age.  Of course the sport of hockey is dealing with a set of countries that has its rooted firmly planted in the soccer pitch and cricket fields. The daunting task ahead is how to get the word out to everyone that hockey is an inferior sport. Here’s a brilliant look at Paul Wheeler’s take on the subject which you can read here.

I’ve become somewhat of a huge follower of the sport in the UK and with that being said, I’d like to take a look about a couple of things that I think are worth mentioning to help develop the sport. You can disagree with me and offer constructive criticism as of course, I don’t live anywhere near your beautiful nations of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but I am going to do my best from this side of the pond to help and create awareness.

 
TonyHandRight off the bat, the first thing that comes to mind is ice time. I’ve read through articles and noticed through tweets from some of my UK friends that they spend hours upon hours waiting  to get their skates on the ice. (Especially women but that’s a whole other post). They don’t see it until midnight on some days. If you are wanting to grow your game, that is unacceptable. Solution?

Build more rinks. Continue reading “The development of hockey in the United Kingdom”

Fan Voice with Coast to Coast: The U.K.’s #1 blog for NIHL action

http://michaeljblack.blogspot.co.uk/
http://michaeljblack.blogspot.co.uk/

Michael Black runs Coast to Coast which is an independent blog that is solely dedicated to the United Kingdom’s National Ice Hockey League. The NIHL is seen as a third tier stepping stone to the EPIHL and EIHL. It’s also features stars from years past on the tail end of their careers. Here’s an interesting look at the state of hockey in the NIHL and a look at the Blackburn Hawks.

March Hockey: Where are you located and how did you get into hockey?

Michael Black: I’m based in Blackburn – around 30 miles north of Manchester. I’d always been a fan of the NHL and when Blackburn Arena opened in 1991 I started watching the Hawks. There was a steady stream of quality imports back then – Fred Perlini, Oleg Sinkov, Steve Chartrand to name a few. It was impossible not to get hooked.

MH: What makes you cover a league like the NIHL instead of the pro leagues?

indexMB: I initially started Coast to Coast as a blog covering just the Hawks. Interest in the site from around NIHL quickly grew, so I took the decision to expand the coverage across the whole league. During the season the site also includes content from the Elite League and EPL, but the main focus is NIHL North with some NIHL South too. In just over two years the site has grown from nothing to around 10,000 hits per month. While there were plenty of people covering the bigger leagues, coverage of NIHL wasn’t great. I’d like to think Coast to Coast has gone some way to filling that gap in the market and help increase exposure of the sport at a lower level. Continue reading “Fan Voice with Coast to Coast: The U.K.’s #1 blog for NIHL action”

Q & A With Cardiff Bay Lightning Goaltender Matt Richards

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Matt Richards is a six year veteran with the Cardiff Bay Lightning of the British Hockey Conference; a six team league in the United Kingdom. I was eager for him to give me his take on the state of hockey on his side of the pond.

March Hockey:  How would you consider the style of play different in the UK or Europe in general compared to that of North America?

Matt Richards: “The style of play in the UK is fairly unique in Europe, being similar to that of North America, in terms of physicality and build up play. The other European leagues play a more patient, less physical passing game. I would place the EIHL (Elite Ice Hockey League) average skill level around ECHL standard, perhaps AHL/ECHL in the top teams.”

MH:  As a goaltender, who was your inspiration growing up?? Favourite current goalie??

935478_10151390149850764_2116814298_nMR: Growing up, I loved watching Dominik Hasek, Chris Osgood, Marty Brodeur and Marty Turco. I play a fairly different style to all of them but some of their save choices have leaked into my game. For example, i will freeze the puck with my blocker hand if its that side (Hasek), I’ll stack my pads more than a “normal” goalie would (Hasek, Brodeur) and I love playing the puck (Brodeur, Turco – I use the ‘Turco grip”). My current favourite goalies would be Jimmy Howard, Jonathan Quick and Tuukka Rask. They’re all quite technical in their approach to the game but can pull off the sprawling saves when needed.”

MH: Is there a lot of support for UK hockey? A lot of support for Cardiff?

MR: “Support for UK hockey is growing all the time, however I believe it needs better management from the top in order to be more successful. The governing bodies need to be totally independent from the EIHL teams and do more to promote the sport within the UK. It has the potential to be huge, it’s the perfect sport for the UK considering our changeable weather! Cardiff has always enjoyed a very strong fan base and there are actually so many teams below the top league playing out of our temporary rink right now that ice time is very limited!”

MH: Who’s shot would you be most afraid of saving?

940995_10151374256540764_345260863_nMR: “I really enjoy stopping the hard shots, especially with my glove, but I’d have to say Zdeno Chara. I always get out as far as possible when I see a player winding up for a shot but i’m not sure I’d come out as far for his!!”

MH: And finally, if you could play with anyone, past or present, who would it be and why??

MR: “Well honestly, I’d love to have the chance to play with any of the NHLers; I’ve practiced with the pro guys over here a few times and that’s been great. But if I had to pick, I’d say for a goalie it has to be Brodeur. He’s a legend; his numbers say it all and to still be playing at the level he is today is phenomenal. Non-goalie wise, I’d love to play with Datsyuk.  In my opinion the greatest hands the NHL has ever seen. Penalty shot practice would be interesting!”

Cardiff Bay’s next game is July 13th against the Sheffield Squeelers, who sit above the Lightning in first place. Puck drop is 8:30 pm, UK time!