The UK Hockey scene has almost unanimously celebrated success and congratulated individuals over the last few weeks, and quite rightly so.
Just a year after Great Britain earned promotion from Division 1B of the IIHF World Championships and moved up to Division 1A, even the biggest optimist couldn’t have predicted what happened next.
Great Britain defied the odds (and made me look silly after I created a magazine and dedicated two pages to why they’d struggle in Division 1A of the IIHF World Championships) by getting promotion to the top division just a year after promotion from Division 1B.
A few weeks later, Ben O’Connor makes history in a way that made Sheffield Steelers so happy and so sad at the same time (so the second bit made the rest of the league happy) by becoming the first ever Brit in the KHL when joins up with Barys Astana next year.
And lastly, a teammate of O’Connor is making history of his own as Liam Kirk could be the first British born and trained player ever to make the NHL, which will all start on June 22nd-23rd when the NHL Draft gets started where he’s expected to be picked anywhere after the fifth round.
These are all massive achievements obviously, and congratulations to Team GB, Ben O’Connor and Liam Kirk.
But what this all represents is a lot bigger than just one team and two players doing amazing things.
This represents an opportunity.
When I was junior player in the Cardiff Devils youth system (I wasn’t great by any stretch of the imagination) my coach at the time was Jeff Burgoyne who was then playing for the Devils.
He was the reason I played defense in the first place (that didn’t last too long into my beer league career later in life). For me when I was playing juniors the only aim I had was to make it to the Elite League and be the next Jeff Burgoyne.
It turns out that I neither had the hockey skill or the looks to emulate him in any way at all, probably for the best Jeff.
It never once crossed my mind that there was a future for a British player outside of the UK, in fact I actually didn’t even think there was a future in the pro game for me outside of Cardiff (or as I would soon find out, there wasn’t even a future more in the pro game INSIDE of Cardiff, hence why I write about it instead).
But I’d like to think that if I was a junior player today, that aim is so much higher. You’re looking at Great Britain and thinking one day if you can make it to the national team, you can play against the powerhouses of international hockey, you could play the young stars right now like McDavid, Matthews and the rest.
Then not only do you think you could play against them internationally, Liam Kirk and Ben O’Connor shows you could play against them week in week out, or even with them.
O’Connor going to the KHL is such a huge deal, there’s a fantastic British player who’s made it. The KHL is one of the top leagues on the planet, that is huge. And yeah maybe kids in the UK don’t grow up wanting to go play in Russia, but for a Brit to be able to go to one of the greatest leagues around, that is massive.
Then Kirk just being invited to the NHL Combine is massive as well, and if he gets drafted you tell me juniors around the country aren’t battling to be the next one.
We don’t just want one drafted player, we want it consistently.
Liam Kirk, Ben O’Connor and Team GB show that the wheels are in motion.
The Elite League is far from perfect, but Kirk has got the EIHL media coverage across the pond for a good reason. We’re not being featured on Yahoo because of an embarrassing DoPS decision, or a player starting on a fan. We’re being shown across the pond for developing an NHL prospect from an non-traditional hockey market. Let’s work to get rid of that “non-traditional” tag.
We’re in the news because our national team did the impossible, Ben O’Connor did the improbable, and Liam Kirk is about to do the incredible.
I know it’s a lot easier said than done to get juniors on board and ensure that juniors are managed properly (and not managed because you want your kid to have the ice time) and I’m not going to say what needs to be done in the junior systems so we get a Liam Kirk or two each year, but something has to be instilled into juniors to show them that the EIHL is no longer the ceiling.