Young Brits Abroad…is this the answer or the problem?

The largely splintered and fractious nature of the junior system’s within British ice hockey has seen the majority of the most talented youngsters leave for foreign programmes, especially in recent times. Which leaves plenty to question, is allowing the most talented youngsters to leave the answer for the British game or does the trend highlight the lack of development available in our junior system’s?

If you study the current Great Britain u20’s squad you will find a near perfect split, 12 remain in the UK and 10 have chosen to move abroad. The most notable squad member is, of course, Liam Kirk who had the honour of being drafted 189th overall, this summer by the Arizona Coyotes, and was astonishingly invited to the NHL Camp before later joining up OHL side the Peterborough Petes. Kirk is now the poster-boy of British ice hockey, rightly so, and a hero for many of the younger generation who aim follow in his footsteps. But what path will they have to take in order to fulfill their hockey ambitions?

The Paul Thompson experiment:

The former Sheffield Steelers head coach, Paul Thompson, might well have left the British game on a sour note (especially when you consider he will most likely be one of the most decorated coaches in British ice hockey history), but his impact on the current crop and future British talent’s cannot be questioned. In 2016, Thompson announced the Sheffield Steelers would be taking on two ‘apprentices’ in the shape of Cole Shudra and Liam Kirk. This decision was most definitely a shock to some around the league, as the highly physical Elite League was largely considered ‘no place for a boy to develop’, especially for two supremely talented youngsters both under the age of 18. However, Thompson’s vision would soon come to fruition, after the dissolution of the semi-professional EPIHL (second tier) advanced their movement to the Steelers. The pairs improvement could mostly be accredited to the EPIHL, before this point in time, as both had seen significant minutes for the Sheffield Steeldogs in the 2016/7 season. By the start of the 2017/8 season, Kirk and Shudra would be skating full-time for the Steelers in the Elite League and NHL scouts (many for the first time) would be coming to watch ice hockey in the UK for Kirk. This turning point put the British game on the map first time, for many across the pond, and could well have opened the door for more aspiring youngsters to make the leap.

The u23’s contract and improving EIHL standard:

After the EPIHL folded in 2017, many fans feared what would happen to the youngsters that need more opportunities for development before being able to step-up to the Elite League. However, this angst would be short-lived as the EIHL’s announcement of the u23’s contract allowed teams to dress 19 skaters (14 imports) + 3 players under 23. Since its implementation, the majority of EIHL outfits, including the Top Four: Belfast, Cardiff, Nottingham and Sheffield, have ‘bought into’ the idea. The additional depth provided by the u23’s has been recognised throughout the league and consequently enabled the young developing talent to train with the league’s best players. You only have to scroll through team roster’s to see the potential benefits this can have, for example Cardiff Devils youngsters Toms Rutkis and Samuel Duggan are now training with former NHL and KHL players, an opportunity they realistically wouldn’t be afforded elsewhere in Europe. This type of player pedigree brings me onto my next point, the improving EIHL standard. The European success of the Nottingham Panthers (Continental Cup winners and CHL knock-out stages) and more recently Belfast Giants (qualified for the Continental Cup finals). Coupled with a gold-meal winning GB men’s team, in the summer, portrays the image of improvement better than I can hope to explain. The improved standard of play in the Elite League, has come about through the increased standard of player it is now able to attract. Beer-hockey days might now be in the rear-view mirror for many Elite League supporters, as DOPS and on-ice officiating have reacted severely to any hint of ill-discipline and ‘goonery’. This change in tact from league officials has been taken with the future in mind, as the NHL, AHL and other top league’s have already begun to move-away from fighting and move towards skill and speed. Therefore, through fear of becoming irrelevant again, British hockey has rightly changed with the times, in a move that will only benefit the youngest British talent and their chances of making the NHL.

GB u20’s squad split:

Currently training in the UK:

Jordan McLaughlin (G), currently signed two-way with Glasgow Clan and Solway Sharks/ 24 pro games

Bradley Bowering (D), signed with Peterborough Phantoms/ 0 pro games

Reece Cochrane (D), signed with Fife Flyers/ 42 pro games

Jordan Griffin (D), signed with Sheffield Steelers/ 11 pro games

Joseph Hazeldine (D), signed with two-way with Nottingham Panthers and Telford Tigers/ 19 pro games

Kieran Brown (F), signed two-way with Sheffield Steelers and Blackburn Hawks/ 33 pro games

Jordan Buesa (F), signed with Fife Flyers/ 66 pro games

Mac Howlett (F), signed with Glasgow Clan/ 23 pro games

Jordan Kelsall (F), signed with Nottingham Panthers and loaned to Dundee Stars/ 24 pro games

Richard Krogh (F), signed with Guildford Flames/ 64 pro games

Chad Smith (F), signed with Fife Flyers/ 77 pro games

Josh Waller (F), signed with Guildford Flames/ 24 pro games

These 12 players combine for 407 professional games, not bad considering they’re all still teenagers. However, it must be considered and recognised Brown, Buesa, Howlett, Krogh and Waller have all had junior training overseas before returning to the UK, perhaps they benefited more from this than time in our juniors system’s. All five skaters mentioned above are currently contracted to EIHL clubs, so you could assume they all believe turning professional earlier improves their chances of development. Whilst, the remaining 10 skaters, in the squad, have opted to persist with junior programmes, albeit overseas.

Currently training outside the UK:

William Kerlin (G), signed for Ontario Hockey Academy Maroon/ Last game in the UK, 2014/5 season.

Edward Bradley (D), signed for CIHA White Midget AAA/ Last game in the UK, 2014/5 season.

Cameron Pound (D), signed for Kingston Voyageurs/ Last game in the UK, 2012/3 season.

Ben Solder (D), signed for Ontario Hockey Academy/ Last game in the UK, 2014/5.

Mason Alderson (F), signed for Islanders Hockey Club/ Last game in the UK, 2017/8 season.

Tyler Cooper (F), signed for Shattuck St. Mary’s Midget Prep/ Last game in the UK, 2014/5 season.

Harry Gulliver (F), signed for Ogden Mustangs/ Last game in the UK, 2015/6 season.

Liam Kirk (F), signed for Peterbough Petes/ Last game in the UK, 2017/8 season.

Cade Neilson (F), signed for Yarmouth Mariners/ Last game in the UK, 2014/5 season.

Morgan Pizzo (F), signed for Syracuse Juniors Stars/ Last game in the UK, 2015/6 season.

This significant split to me highlights the want for development within the UK is strong, so strong, in fact, it can stretch the largely amateur UK system too far. Before continuing it must be noted, I am not for one minute slating or chastising anybody involved or associated with our junior system’s. As the knife-edge which British ice-hockey lives upon is real, no matter how optimistic you consider yourself, and as a result so do the majority of junior set-ups. Since the dissolution of the EPIHL, the gap between Elite League hockey and the new second-tier NIHL has grown enormously, in less than two years. Well simply put, if the junior system’s continue to lack funding and sufficient opportunities for talent the most talented juniors will have no option but to go abroad or risk stagnating in the NIHL if no EIHL teams offer them a contract.

Key Points to consider:

  • The now star of British hockey, Liam Kirk, got drafted by deciding to remain in the UK and performed admirable in a professional league at the tender age of 17, so it can be done without needing to go abroad.
  • Further encourage every EIHL team to take on young British prospects, rather than signing veteran imports that are close to retirement.
  • In the long-term look to introduce a draft system for u23 players, which includes an opt-in or opt-out player option (in case outside commitments make it logistically impossible).
  • Smaller junior programmes should look to form more partnerships with both EIHL or NIHL sides, so clearer pathway are apparent for all members.
  • Encourage further partnerships between British and foreign junior system’s, Okanagan Hockey Academy is the perfect example of this. The partnerships they have across Scandinavia and North America has enabled some of the most talented youngsters to go abroad and learn.
  • Try to copy/mirror the structure of successful junior system’s outside and inside the UK, after all they do say success breeds success.

I felt the best way to canvas my remaining opinions, ideas and views would be in the form of bullet points. Please let us know what you think in the comments below!

Feature image: British ice hockey page

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