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Draft-eligible Liam Kirk driven to become NHL's first UK born-and-trained player

Liam Kirk won't find his name among the top draft prospects, but the UK-born-and-trained forward is turning some heads in North America with his play in Great Britain's top league.
Liam Kirk

Liam Kirk’s name will not appear on the NHL Central Scouting Bureau’s list that goes out to the public next week, but it will be on a “limited viewing” list that is sent to every NHL team. Actually, the term “limited viewing” is a bit of a misnomer because the reality is that nobody from the league’s in-house scouting service has ever seen the kid play live.

That’s because Kirk, who turned 18 in early January, plays for the Sheffield Steelers of the Elite Ice Hockey League, the highest pro league in Great Britain. The reason CSB is putting him on the “limited viewing” list is it has seen enough from him on videotape to dig a little deeper. And if it likes what they sees in person, Kirk could find himself on the final list that goes out before the draft and get an invitation to the annual prospect combine.

“For this kid to be doing what he’s doing in that environment (the men’s league in Great Britain) makes it worth our while to get to know him a little better,” said NHL director of central scouting Dan Marr. “There are NHL clubs aware of him and CHL (Canadian Hockey League) clubs are definitely aware of him. If he were in North America playing Jr. A or high school, or even in a junior league in Finland, there would be some buzz about him.”

Players born in the United Kingdom are hardly an anomaly in the NHL – at last count there have been 82 all-time – but there has never been a player born and trained there who has made it to the show. The closest to do that was Scotland-born Tony Hand, Britain’s version of Jaromir Jagr, who was drafted by the Edmonton Oilers with the last overall pick in 1986 and attended a couple of Oilers camps. Liam Stewart, the son of legendary rocker Rod Stewart, played four years for the Spokane Chiefs of the Western League and 13 games in the ECHL. He now plays for the Guildford Flames in the same league in which Kirk plays.

There is no question Kirk has designs on becoming the first UK-born-and-trained player to make it to the NHL. He’s 6-foot-2, but only 160 pounds, so he knows he’ll have to put on some muscle in the coming years. But he skates well and has some legitimate offensive talent, which he put on display when he scored seven goals and 14 points to help Great Britain to a bronze medal in the Division II-A World Junior Championship. Central Scouting will have people looking at him when he plays in the Division II-A Under-18 World Championship in Estonia in April and, if he’s there, in the Division I-A World Championship in Hungary. After playing 19 games in the pro league last season, Kirk is playing full-time in a league chock full of veteran players with pro experience in other countries and a league where coaches are under intense pressure to win. In the British League, playing largely fourth-line minutes, he has three goals and seven points in 29 games.

When asked if he truly believes he can play in the NHL someday, Kirk doesn’t mince words. “Yeah, I think so. I don’t see why not,” Kirk told in a telephone interview. “I think I have the right attitude towards it. A lot of kids I know who are my age, if someone mentions the NHL they kind of laugh it off, but I’m not looking at it that way. If I can get better every day and keep improving myself…”

In order to do that, Kirk realizes he’s going to have to play in a North American league with his peers. And he’s prepared to do just that. At least one NHL team has been to Sheffield to see him and teams in both the Ontario and Western Leagues have indicated an interest in taking him in the CHL Import draft. He’s also hired Gold Star Hockey, which also represents NHL scoring leader Nikita Kucherov, to help him. 

It’s important to note that this is not some kind of lark or sideshow, particularly with the interest that is being shown in him. Whether Kirk ever plays in the NHL, or even comes close, will be determined in the next couple of years. But he can draw inspiration from Nathan Walker, who coincidentally was born in Wales, but played his all his hockey in Australia before going to the Czech Republic when he was 17. A third-round pick of the Washington Capitals in 2014, Walker made his NHL debut this season and has played a combined nine games with the Capitals and Edmonton Oilers.

Until then, Kirk will try to continue to impress playing in the EIHL and international events, hoping an NHL team might be willing to gamble on him with a late-round pick. The problem for Central Scouting is it’s difficult to draw comparisons with his peers. “He’s got decent size, but he’s going to have to get bigger and stronger,” Marr said. “He’s a really bright kid and he’s a very good skater. His hockey sense is pretty good and his skills are decent.”

There are a lot of North American kids who have forged good NHL careers with a lot less. It will be interesting to see where Kirk’s path takes him in the next couple of seasons.

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