Paul Thompson has coached a lot of hockey in Great Britain, and few moments in his career have elicited the kind of emotion he felt upon learning that one of his players, Liam Kirk, was drafted by the Coyotes in the seventh round of last week’s NHL draft.
Thompson, the head coach of the Sheffield Steelers in the Elite Ice Hockey League in the United Kingdom, has been grooming the British-born Kirk since he was 15 years old.
When he found out that Kirk had become the first English-born and exclusively English-trained player to ever be selected in the draft, Thompson let out a “shriek” while attending an awards ceremony at his son’s hockey academy on Saturday.
“A good friend of mine is on the management team of an NHL club and he’s texting me, ‘Nothing, Kirky hasn’t been drafted. Nothing, nothing, nothing,’” Thompson said. “And then he texts me saying, ‘Arizona picked him!’ and I gave out a little shriek and probably embarrassed my son and everybody else in the room.
“I’m a British coach, which is a rarity in my own country. So to have a young English kid do something like that, the whole country went up for him.”
Kirk, 18, was born in Maltby, England, which is about a 25-minute drive from Sheffield, and has spent parts of the past two seasons playing for Thompson’s Steelers at the highest level of professional hockey in the United Kingdom.
But Kirk, who tried his hand at traditional British sports such as soccer and cricket when he was younger, was actually familiar with the Steelers long before that.
As a child, Kirk attended a Sheffield game with his older brother, Jonathan, and some friends and developed an instant love for it. His brother also played hockey and Kirk decided to follow suit.
“I just wanted to be like him when I was younger,” said Kirk, who is in Arizona this week for the Coyotes’ annual prospect development camp at Gila River Arena. “I began playing hockey at the Sheffield junior academy and just went from there.”
Thompson said the club scouted Kirk out of the academy and, after having him in for a few practices, signed him to an “apprentice contract” as a 15-year-old, which essentially meant Kirk had to find a way to balance his hockey life with his school life.
During the 2016-17 campaign, Kirk practiced with the Steelers every day and worked with the club’s strength coach to help with his conditioning. Kirk, who started the season as a 16-year-old, wound up being loaned to the lower-level Sheffield Steeldogs to help develop his game.
With the Steeldogs, Kirk tallied 45 points (20 goals, 25 assists) in 38 games and eventually made his debut with the Steelers later that year. Although he didn’t register a point in 19 games, Thompson and his staff “saw his game and everything growing in front of us.”
Kirk returned this past season and played a full 52 games with the Steelers, at times against players more than twice his age, and recorded 16 points (nine goals, seven assists) – the third-highest point total in league history by a teenager. Kirk was the youngest player in the league this season, Thompson said.
“We brought him in and gave him a fourth-line spot,” said Thompson, who is the winningest coach in EIHL history. “He’s not a fourth-line player but we put him there to learn the game away from the puck. He played a fourth-line role and didn’t get a lot of power-play time.
“His stats were pretty exceptional, to be honest with you, considering the ice time and the lack of top-six minutes.”
Thompson said that, despite Kirk’s age and situation with school, the Steelers never excused him from an on-ice session or practice. Returning from road games, there were times when the team wouldn’t reach Sheffield until 6 a.m., and Kirk would still find his way to school by 9.
When Kirk was drafted 189th overall last Saturday, the hockey world – and especially the strong faction in the U.K. – exploded in praise for Kirk's historic selection. But now, the real work is about the start.
“I admire everything he did,” Thompson said of Kirk, a 6-foot-1-inch, 162-pound center. “He never faltered on his schooling and he never faltered on what he gave me. We believe he’s a great, young talent, and we hope and pray that he fulfills his dreams.”
The road to those dreams will likely start in Peterborough, Ontario, after Kirk was selected eighth overall by the Peterborough Petes in Thursday’s Canadian Hockey League (CHL) import draft.
As a seventh-round pick, Kirk's path to the NHL will be anything but easy. But the Coyotes feel the CHL is a good place for him to learn the North American game, which means Kirk is likely to play in juniors next season.
Kirk said his plan is to go home to Sheffield and train before flying back over the Atlantic and reporting to Peterborough for next season, racking up some more frequent-flyer miles.
“I should get a card,” Kirk said. “I’ll be first class before I know it.”
When he arrives, Kirk will find an interesting connection to his home country in new Petes head coach Rob Wilson, who was hired in March. Wilson spent seven years coaching in the EIHL and served as Thompson’s assistant for five years on the British National Team.
Wilson also played professionally in England and served as captain of the Steelers from 1996-2000.
In England, Kirk posted ridiculous numbers when playing against opponents his age. In 2015-16, while playing in the England Under-18 League, Kirk totaled 98 points (60 goals, 38 assists) in just 17 games. That breaks down to an average of 5.8 points and 2.2 goals per game.
The Coyotes already have one player who has experienced the challenges of transitioning from U.K. hockey to the North American game. According to winger Brendan Perlini, who was born in Guildford, England, before moving to Canada as a 12-year-old, Kirk will have to adjust to a smaller ice surface as much as he will a new way of life.
“It’s a little faster, a little more physical,” Perlini said of how the CHL compares with British hockey. “Of course, all that kind of stuff really doesn’t matter if you love the game a lot. You kind of get used to it, regardless.
“If you love hockey, you’re going to find a way to get better and try to improve.”
Perlini, whose older brother, Brett, played against Kirk and for Sheffield’s rival team in Nottingham last season, crossed paths with Kirk while he was on his way out of the gym Tuesday at Gila River Arena.
“He’s a really nice guy,” Kirk said of Perlini. “It felt like a pretty natural conversation. There wasn’t any awkward silences or anything like that. He welcomed me to Arizona and told me a bit of what it’s like out here.”
Perlini said he was thrilled to see Britain getting more “recognition” from a hockey standpoint – a sentiment echoed by Thompson, who said Sheffield posts an average attendance of 7,000 people and draws as high as 9,500 against Nottingham.
“It’s a soccer market here and it’s not seen any other way,” Thompson said of Sheffield, which is just more than an hour outside of Manchester. “No one thinks the U.K. has a hockey market, but hockey has always been here and it’s way better than it’s perceived. … Believe me, there is a hockey market here.”
Not too long after unintentionally interrupting his son’s awards ceremony on Saturday, Thompson got a call from the newly drafted Kirk on his way home. The coach told Kirk that he has “his foot on the first rung of the ladder.”
And at the end of the phone call, Thompson wanted to leave his player with one more assignment.
“Make sure you keep climbing, kid.”Origin of Story