If someone had told Liam Kirk he’d be one day playing hockey for a team in Peterborough, he likely would not have thought that would be much of a stretch. After all, the Peterborough Phantoms are a perennial contender in the English Premier Ice Hockey League, which is one tier below the top pro league there, the English Ice Hockey League.
As it turns out, the 18-year-old seventh-round pick, who is vying to become the first U.K.- born and –trained player to play in the NHL, his hockey journey will take him to a Peterborough on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. With the eighth overall pick in the Canadian Import Draft, the Peterborough Petes took Kirk.
It has been a whirlwind week for Kirk, who has never seen an NHL game live. First, he was taken in the seventh round by the Arizona Coyotes last weekend. Then he got his first taste of the NHL in the Coyotes’ development camp, then came the news that his CHL rights had been acquired by the Petes, a once-proud organization that has fallen on hard times of late. Kirk will be given every opportunity to develop his game in the OHL.
“Absolutely,” said Coyotes director of amateur scouting Tim Bernhardt when asked whether Kirk will be able to handle the competition at the major junior level next season.
Like a lot of other scouts, Bernhardt hadn’t actually seen Kirk play live before seeing him at developmental camp. When the Coyotes took Kirk, they were going off reports from their European scouts who had seen him play for Great Britain at the Division I, Group A World Championship in the spring and when he dominated with 14 points in five games at the Division II, Group A Under-20 World Championship earlier in the season.
What Bernhardt likes about Kirk is the potential for him to grow and improve. He hasn’t been exposed to the same level of competition and coaching the kids in North American and the hockey-playing European countries have and he’s already got some very good attributes to his game. There are times when elite players top out as teenagers, both physically and in terms of their potential as players, but Kirk seems to be just getting started.
“He’s got speed and skill and he’s a really competitive kid,” Bernhardt said. “This kid is determined to go as far as he can.”
In Peterborough, Kirk will also have a coach who is familiar with his style of play and his hockey background. This spring, the Petes hired Rob Wilson, who spent a decade playing in Great Britain and was once captain of the Sheffield Steelers team for which Kirk played last season. He also played for and coached the country in international play and has spent the past four years coaching in Germany.
“It’s still early, but the great thing about a kid like this is we don’t know how good he’s going to be,” Bernhardt said. “He’s underdeveloped because he hasn’t been in a really high-level hockey program. He hasn’t had what the Canadian and American kids have had, but he also has lots of room to grow and develop and evolve. That’s the X factor with him. There’s some catching up, but that’s a good thing.”
Like Bernhardt, Wilson has not seen Kirk play, nor had he even spoken to him before Wednesday afternoon. But he and Petes GM Mike Oke did their homework on Kirk, with Wilson using his contacts in Sheffield to get as much information on Kirk as he could. “There may have been more flashy players available,” Wilson said, “but this boy fits everything we’re trying to do. He played with men and people might say the British league isn’t the best league in Europe and it’s not, but it’s a very physical league and he wasn’t intimidated by anybody. Everyone I’ve talked to tell me this boy really wants it and we think there’s huge upside potential there.”
Kirk will undoubtedly be one of the more intriguing players in major junior hockey this coming season. He has excelled at every level to this point and was able to play in a league with former pros, many of whom have played in the American League and the ECHL. There will be a learning curve to be sure, but Kirk is singularly focused on putting in the work.
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