BRITISH ice hockey fans may be relieved to know that teenage prodigy Liam Kirk is in safe, familiar hands over the next couple of years – but that does not mean he is in for an easy ride.
Having last week made history by becoming the first English-born and trained player to be picked in the NHL Entry Draft – a seventh-round selection by the Arizona Coyotes – former Sheffield Steelers’ winger Kirk has endured a manic few days.
Within 12 hours of finding out he had been picked 189th overall, the 18-year-old was on a plane bound for Phoenix where, a day later, he began a two-week development camp.
But his immediate development will take place some 2,300 miles away in Ontario, under the watchful eye of former Steelers’ captain, Rob Wilson who, two months ago was appointed as head coach at junior hockey league side Peterborough Petes. On Thursday, after discussions with the Coyotes, the Petes selected Kirk as the eighth overall pick in the Canadian Hockey League Import Draft.
It means Kirk, after a short stint back in the UK, will return to Ontario in August to continue his hockey education under the watchful eye of Wilson, who has previously coached at Newcastle, Ritten/Renon in Italy and, most recently, in the German top tier with Nurnberg Ice Tigers.
Wilson, who has fellow former Steelers Mike Duco and Andrew Verner on his staff, is excited to have Kirk on board for, potentially, the next two years – but he predicts lots of hard work ahead for the British youngster.
“Liam made a great improvement this past year under Paul Thompson,” said Wilson. “There is a lot of upside to him, we’ve heard a lot of good things about him, both as a player and as a person.
“For the next two years he’ll be under my eye and he’s got to be ready – but I really feel he will be.
“It is a grind and it’s not going to be easy because the competition is fierce – it is the best junior league in the world. He’s going to be playing against people his own age who are going to be the best players in the world.
“It’s going to be very difficult and I’m going to have a lot of patience with him and a lot of time for him. He needs to put the work in, but that’s something which I’m confident he will do.”
It’s not going to be easy because the competition is fierce – it is the best junior league in the world. He’s going to be playing against people his own age who are going to be the best players in the world.Rob Wilson
Wilson said he had tracked Kirk’s progress over the last few months and knew he was bringing in a player for 2018-19 who had all the basic attributes required to progress.
“These days the name of the game is skating and Liam can really skate,” added Wilson. “The first thing I look for is if a player can skate and he can. I’ve seen him play a little bit too and he always seems to be around the puck a lot and the puck always seems to find him and he always seems to get scoring chances.
“Liam was doing really well down at the development camp in Phoenix and he had really impressed the Coyotes both as a man and as a player. So we sat down at the table and we had some meetings and I liked the thought of having Liam on board, my GM Mike Oke liked the idea of having Liam so we decided to take him.
“The Coyotes are very happy that he is coming to us as well. There are so many scouts in Ontario that he’s going to get a lot of exposure.
“It really is an outstanding opportunity for Liam. It will not be an easy ride but – at the same time – I think Liam is ready for it.”