Destination unknown for Sheffield Steelers’ Liam Kirk as NHL Draft arrives

AIMING HIGH: Liam Kirk is set to be picked in Saturday's NHL Draft in Dallas. Picture: Dean Woolley.
AIMING HIGH: Liam Kirk is set to be picked in Saturday's NHL Draft in Dallas. Picture: Dean Woolley.
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WHILE IT is likely to prove one of the most momentous days in the whole of his career, Liam Kirk is determined to treat today just like any other.

Later on this evening, the 18-year-old Sheffield Steelers forward should find out which NHL club has picked him as part of the league’s annual Draft which, this year, is being held in Dallas, Texas.

The event started last night with the big-name, first-round prospects being distributed among those clubs who had one or more picks.

But for British ice hockey fans, the interest will peak today – understandably more so in South Yorkshire – as they wait to see where Kirk will be heading.

Even if Kirk doesn’t get drafted in rounds 2-7 today – which would go against the predictions of experts on both sides of the Atlantic – it is expected that the Maltby-born teenager will, one way or another, be playing junior hockey in the CHL next year, ending his two-year association with the Steelers, which began when he was offered an apprenticeship by head coach Paul Thompson.

While Kirk admits he is excited at the prospect of today’s second day of trading at the American Airlines Centre, he insists he will not be sat glued to the TV or computer screen waiting to discover his fate.

Instead, he will try to treat it like a regular weekend, heading out first to the gym to continue the physical development required to make the jump to the North American game, before taking in a casual round of golf with his father and brother.

When Kirk became the first-ever British player to complete the NHL Combine in Buffalo, New York last month, he found himself the centre of attention – the rarity of a British-born, British-trained player being invited to the Draft not lost on the assembled media.

He certainly won’t be the first such British player to be drafted – Tony Hand and Colin Shields are the most recent examples – but, if he is able to make it all the way to ‘The Show’, he will have made history.

“I am very excited now,” said Kirk. “I’ll probably just keep myself busy – go to the gym, then maybe go for a round of golf with my brother and my dad, just spend time with my family. I might put it (the Draft) on in the background, but I don’t want to be sat there glued to the screen.

LEADING LIGHT: Liam Kirk, in action for Great Britain earlier this year. Picture: Dean Woolley.

LEADING LIGHT: Liam Kirk, in action for Great Britain earlier this year. Picture: Dean Woolley.

“I’m confident I’ve shown my abilities throughout the year and I’m confident I had a good Combine. A lot can happen on draft day, but it’s more about what you do after the draft.

“Whether I get drafted or not – hopefully I get to go to NHL camp – but , if not, the intention is to play in the CHL and show them what I can do and develop my game further.”

One person who doesn’t doubt Kirk’s ability to adapt to life in North America – wherever he ends up playing – is Greg Wood, former player-coach of the Sheffield Steeldogs and the man who gave Kirk his first taste of senior ice hockey in the UK.

Kirk had to wait until his 16th birthday before he could make the transition from junior hockey but Wood, who was aware of the slightly-built youngster through the Sheffield junior programme, knew he was dealing with a special talent.

I’m confident I’ve shown my abilities throughout the year and I’m confident I had a good Combine. A lot can happen on draft day, but it’s more about what you do after the draft.

Liam Kirk

“At the start of my first year as coach is we held a prospect programme, where we chose five or six young kids to come and skate with us every week to try and develop them more with a view to bringing them through to the Steeldogs,” said Wood.

“Liam was one of those kids and you could see he had that natural ability. It got to the point where we were waiting for his 16th birthday to come around just so we could get him into the line-up and give him a chance.”

After half a season at the Steeldogs, Kirk began his apprenticeship at the Steelers, but spent most of the following season loaned back to Wood’s team in the now defunct English Premier League where he finished the 2016-17 season as their second top points-scorer, posting 45 points – including 20 goals – in just 38 games.

It was the following season, when he found his ice-time steadily increasing with the Steelers, that Kirk then began to get noticed by NHL scouts.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a British player with that sort of offensive talent, that all-round package,” said Wood.

“Liam’s got that intrinsic motivation that will carry him through. He has the skill-set but, also, that mental toughness he has is what will get him over the line. He will fit in anywhere.”