It turns out that Eve Pearce, who wrote a guest post a few weeks back, is British and lives in England. I didn’t know this until recently. I wonder if she (a) likes the Beatles, (b) eats bangers and mash, (c) realizes she drives on the wrong side of the road, (d) has been to a Buckingham Palace garden party, and (e) knows Blue Bayou.
The last story Eve wrote focused on hockey and its European beginnings. Today she talks about hockey in the U.K. and a couple of guys from there who did well in the N.H.L.
Britain, NHL and the Next Generation
Britain isn’t exactly famous for producing top quality Ice Hockey players. Lack of government funding and a meagre climate are both plausible reasons why a distinct ice hockey culture hasn’t flourished within the borders of the UK. Despite a lack of financial infrastructure and a somewhat chequered history, domestic leagues in Britain still exist with the Elite Ice Hockey League leading the way as the highest level of competition in the UK. The league comprises of ten teams, with representatives from all four home nations – surprisingly the only league in any sport to do so. Nevertheless, most players from Britain want a shot at the big time, the NHL. The glitz, glamour and those machismo tendencies make it a very popular spectator sport for Americans and Canadians alike.
45 players from Britain have played in the NHL. The figure may seem surprisingly high for some, but the league dates back to 1917-18 when it was first conceived in Montreal, Canada. Of those 45 players, 19 are English, 19 Scottish, 4 Northern Irish and 3 Welsh. The most coveted players are Steve Thomas and Owen Nolan, who both played over 1,000 games in the NHL. These Britons were important players of the modern era, both finishing their careers in the 21st century. There are, however, no British born players currently participating in NHL, so these two players will be the main focus of this article.
Thomas started his NHL career in 1984-85 season after joining the Toronto Maple Leafs as a free agent from the Markham Waxers where he made a name for himself after scoring 51 goals in the 83-84 season. He proved to be an astute bit of business by the Leafs, as he became a bona-fide goal scorer in the NHL with nine 20-goal seasons to his credit.
Born in Stockport, England, Thomas was actually raised in Markham, Ontario, Canada and so qualified for the Canadian national team. Although he never qualified for the national team, his domestic career was anything but a failure. After scoring 35 goals in the 86-87 season, he helped Toronto reach the 2nd round of the playoffs and then moved to Chicago to take the next step in his career.
Unfortunately, the talented sniper failed to make an impression with the Hawks following an extended period on the sidelines with several injuries. Eventually he did find success in the 1989-90 season where he scored 40 goals for the Hawks whilst also showcasing his speed and quick release of the puck.
This wasn’t his best season in the NHL though. He set a career high goal tally in 93-94 when scoring 42 goals playing for the New York Islanders, where he spent the best years of his career.
As the 90’s came to a close, Thomas was now considered a veteran winger at the age of 35. However, he didn’t lack the energy and adrenaline to survive in this league, enjoying second stints with the Leafs (1998-2001) and Chicago (2001-2002) before joining the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. The forward clearly still had enough passion for the game as he steered his team towards the Stanley Cup final. The Ducks eventually lost in seven games to the New Jersey Devils but Thomas was a key contributor throughout.
Thomas finished his career with the Detroit Red wings in 2003-04, having cemented his legacy as one of the greatest NHL players ever to be born in the U.K.
Like Steve Thomas, Nolan was also raised in Ontario, Canada but was born in Belfast, Northern Island. Nolan is probably the more famous out of the two, having been chosen as an NHL all-star in 1991–92, 1995–96, 1996–97, 1999–2000, 2001–02 and also playing 16 internationals for Canada.
He was drafted first by the Quebec Nordiques in the 1990-91 NHL season and played with them for over 5 seasons, at which point he was swapped to the San Jose Sharks for Latvian defenceman Sandiz Ozolinsh.
It was in San Jose where Nolan elevated himself to elite status. He was quickly named captain and registered career high figures in 1999-2000, finishing with 85 points and 44 goals in total. One of these goals came with 10 seconds left in a match with first seeded St. Louis Blues. He beat goaltender Roman Turek from just past centre ice and gave the Sharks a 2-0 lead.
In the 2003 trade window, Nolan was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs for Alyn McCauley and Brad Boyes. However, his success was restricted by bad performances and a series of injuries and so he never quite reached the heights achieved when at the Sharks.
His time with the Leafs was full of contract issues and financial squabbles so in the summer of 2006, he decided to join the Phoenix Coyotes on a one year $1 million contract. He did well at the Coyotes scoring 16 goals with 24 assists.
He never really settled anywhere in his later career. He spent the 2007-08 season with the Calgary flames where he played his 1000th game and hit his 11th career hat trick against his former team, the San Jose Sharks.
On July 6, 2008, the power forward signed a two-year contract worth a speculated $5.5 million with the Minnesota Wild, where he spent the last years of his career.
Can Britain inspire a new generation?
Britain has produced some important NHL players but most of them, as the examples above may testify to, were merely born in Britain – they were not nurtured or influenced by the UK coaching system hence why they legitimately qualify to play for the Canadian national team. Herein lies the problem and one that has more to do with British culture than a lack of effort in private investment.
Throughout the 40’s and 50’s, Ice Hockey was part of a whole host of activities that took place on the ice such as figure skating, ice dance, speed skating etc. Private businesses invested in local ice rinks and crowds were reaching capacity as professional ice hockey in Britain was seemingly thriving. However, by the mid 60’s, these crowds began to dwindle and professional ice hockey in Britain became no longer viable. British ice hockey then became stagnant and entered an ‘amateur’ phase in its history which was to remain for about 20 years.
Despite encountering a relative boom in the 80’s as professional ice hockey was reintroduced in Britain, all those years in the dark highlight a discouraging attitude amongst the public towards ice hockey. An attitude that is no doubt deep-set and rooted in British culture, as a whole.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. Throughout the 80’s the number of ‘imports’ was limited paving the way for home grown junior amateurs to develop. Players like Tony Hand, who was the first ever British player to be drafted by an NHL team when he joined the Edmonton Oilers in ‘86, was a product of a Scottish junior development program. The problem is that not enough players reach this level and this is largely to do with the popularity of the sport and perhaps the fact that other sports are so much more important in British culture. Most kids at secondary school start playing the sports that feature in the school curriculum. Football, Rugby, Cricket, Tennis and Golf are all prioritized ahead of ice sports. Marketing and investment are also problems but it is the youth that hold the key to the future and Britain seemingly cannot inspire this new generation.