We’ll never know if Tony Hand could’ve made the NHL, but the man called the ‘Scottish Gretzky’ had a pure dead brilliant career in the U.K.
By Dave Lambert There isn’t much that keeps Tony Hand awake at night. Comparisons to Wayne Gretzky…he takes them in stride. Being widely acknowledged as his country’s greatest hockey talent…he doesn’t let it affect him. Even walking away from the 1980s dynasty Oilers as a teenager to return to his native Scotland isn’t something he loses any sleep over. Now, at 47 years old, the man nicknamed the ‘Scottish Gretzky’ has called it a career after a staggering 34 seasons. Before the points, the plaudits and the Oilers’ interest, Hand was just a hockey-mad kid, trekking six miles to a barn of a rink each day to get on the ice. Growing up in a rough neighborhood, he used the rink as an escape, spending hours on the ice and eventually saving up to buy his first stick – a sturdy $5 Koho, which Hand said “weighed a ton.” His perseverance paid off, and he made his professional debut for his hometown Murrayfield Racers at the tender age of 14.
It takes a special talent for a coach to even consider throwing a 14-year-old in the deep end against grizzled veterans, but Hand was, indeed, special. He held his own against players twice his size, notched his first point a month later and never looked back. In all, he racked up 14 seasons with the Racers, eventually moving on to add six other clubs to his resume over the course of his career. “He is the best we have ever produced, and the best ambassador for the British game we could hope for,” said Paul Thompson, who coached Hand for Great Britain in international competition. “Tony Hand is a real one off.” While a teenager with Murrayfield, Hand was drafted by the Oilers in 1986 – a move he knew nothing about until he took a phone call from a stranger who told him he was expected in Edmonton. Hand laughed it off. He didn’t follow the NHL closely and had no idea how the draft worked. As it turned out, Hand had been recommended to the Oilers by ex-NHLer Garry Unger, who was working as a part-time scout for Edmonton. Unger was finishing his career in the U.K. and had spotted Hand while playing against him for the Dundee Rockets.
Taken dead last (252nd overall in Round 12), Hand became the first Brit to be drafted to the NHL. He said he went into training camp with no nerves, painfully aware he wasn’t expected to last. He was just a skinny 165-pound teenager from a country not exactly considered a hockey hotbed. But Hand impressed the Oilers brass. Coach Glen Sather called him the most intelligent player on the ice…bar Gretzky, of course.
Hand didn’t make the team but was offered a contract. “I don’t think they expected him to be as good as he was, but he came over and had a really great camp,” Unger said. “The Oilers wanted him to stay, and I really think he could’ve made it at the very highest level if he’d stayed.” In the end, Hand made perhaps the biggest decision of his life – he turned his back on the Oilers, went home and returned to Murrayfield. He was homesick after weeks abroad, but there were other factors, including pressure from the Racers, who were desperate for their young superstar to return. Hand has described training with Gretzky, Mark Messier and Jari Kurri as a dream, but he has never obsessed over what might have been. “In hindsight, it would have been great to stay out there and make a real go of it,” Hand said. “But I had nobody to guide me on how to handle something like that or tell me what I should do. At the same time I had people asking me to come back. I loved Murrayfield and I’m a loyal person. I didn’t want to let anyone down there. Of course, I would love to have seen what would have happened if I’d stayed out there and given it everything, but I don’t dwell on it and it doesn’t keep me up at night.” Hand returned to the U.K. and piled up season after outstanding season, and he has the overflowing trophy cabinet to prove it. Not only has he been playing longer than most of his teammates this season have been alive, but he has taken on the dual role of player/coach on every team he’s been with since 2001. In the U.K., where one-year contracts are the norm, every summer for the past decade there have been rumors Hand would hang up his skates, only for him to continue skating circles around his opposition. He finally decided this season would be his last.
Hand finished his career as player/coach of the Manchester Phoenix in the English Premier League, a second-tier British circuit. It was his ninth consecutive campaign with the club, where he will continue on as coach next season. All told, Hand played upward of 1,600 games, collecting almost 4,200 points. “I think I’ve squeezed every drop of what I’ve got left out of myself,” he said. “I’ve always worked hard to be at a decent level, and now I want to make sure I go out while I’m still remembered like this. I’ll be sad not to be out there skating, and I’m sure it will be hard, especially at first, but I’ve got everything out of the game I could ever have dreamed of or hoped for.” Hand doesn’t like talking about himself. He’s quiet and modest away from the ice, but he has always accepted the pressure and expectation that comes with being the greatest player ever produced in the U.K. He was robbed of the fairytale ending when Manchester lost in the final – Hand’s last game – but even that can’t take the shine off an astonishing career. Tony Hand is one of hockey’s great “what if?” stories, but he’s also a great in his own right. “I’ve had a great career, and I can’t ask for any more than that,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed everywhere I’ve played and coached, and I’ve never regretted anything.”
This feature appears in the Playoff Preview 2015 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.