Liam Kirk prepares to put in the hard yards at Tucson Roadrunners in order to achieve NHL dream with Arizona Coyotes

ALL being well, Friday night will see Liam Kirk take another significant step on the way to achieving his NHL dream.

AIMING HIGH: Liam Kirk, inaction for Tucson Roadrunners against Henderson Silver Knights. Picture courtesy of Chris Hook/Tucson Roadrunners.
AIMING HIGH: Liam Kirk, inaction for Tucson Roadrunners against Henderson Silver Knights. Picture courtesy of Chris Hook/Tucson Roadrunners.

Having signed a three-year entry-level contract with the Arizona Coyotes in the summer, it has been an eventful few months for the 21-year-old GB international from Maltby in Rotherham.

Having impressed in the NHL team’s development camp – much like the one he attended after first being drafted back in 2018 – he was included in the Coyotes’ pre-season training camp.

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Along with a number of other hopefuls, however, he was sent down to the Coyotes’ AHL affiliate, Tucson Roadrunners, where he now hopes to have done enough to earn his debut at that level tomorrow night when they open their campaign on the road at Stockton Heat in California.

PUSHING HARD: Liam Kirk, in action for the Arizona Coyotes against the Vegas Golden Knights at Gila River Arena in September. Picture: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

A second successive meeting follows between the two before Tucson return to Arizona ahead of their home opener against the Texas Stars on Saturday, October 23.

Kirk has already made his mark in pre-season, scoring an assist on a third period goal by Cameron Hebig in a 4-1 win at Henderson Silver Knights on Sunday.

Now, if he can earn himself a regular start with the Roadrunners, Kirk will put himself in a battle with his own team-mates to try and earn the call-up to the NHL that they all so desperately want.

And, like he did during two years in the OHL at Peterborough Petes – where he was under the watchful gaze of former Sheffield Steelers’ defenceman Rob Wilson – he is happy to put in the work required to get to where he wants.

LEARNING CURVE: Liam Kirk pictured playing for the Peterborough Petes at the Oshawa Generals during what turned out to be a second season in the OHL for him that was hampered first by injury and then the coronavirus pandemic. Picture: Chris Tanouye/Getty Images

While there was understandable disappointment at getting sent down by the Coyotes, Kirk – like everything else thrown at him in an eventful three years or so – remains as determined as ever to prove he belongs at the very top of the sport.

“It was a big adjustment and a learning curve for me,” said Kirk of his time with the Coyotes during the Autumn. “I’ve been out of this environment for a while and at this point last year I wasn’t even playing any hockey. But I took a lot of positives from it and learned a lot of things and the feedback was pretty positive.”

One thing the pandemic did for Kirk and all other hockey players was throw them out of their routine. Kirk returned to the UK in March 2020 after an injury-ravaged second season in Peterborough, uncertain of when, or if, he would return to North America.

Once the various lockdowns began to ease, he spent a short time in Sweden before playing in behind-closed-doors series’ with former clubs Sheffield Steeldogs and Sheffield Steelers, gaining invaluable ice time to enable him and other Great Britain players to get ready for the World Championships in Riga.

Liam Kirk gained valuable ice time with former team Sheffield Steelers in the behind-closed-doors Elite Series at Nottingham's National Ice Centre ahead of the World Championships. Picture courtesy of Karl Denham/EIHL .

Once in Latvia, Kirk seized his opportunity with both hands, showing all those watching what he was capable of and finishing the tournament as joint-top goalscorer with seven goals in as many games for GB.

His performances over those 11 days at Riga’s Olympic Sports Centre were what, in the words of Coyotes GM Bill Armstrong, “earned” him his contract.

Kirk realises he will now have to show the same “passion and desire” with Tucson which so impressed Armstrong in Latvia if he is to earn that call up to the NHL.

“Every step that I take is going to be more difficult and harder,” added Kirk. “I know that’s how it is in professional hockey – the higher you go, the harder it gets.

Liam Kirk was able to gain valuable ice time with former team Sheffield Steeldogs in this year's behind-closed-doors Spring Cup. Picture: Andrew Bourke.

“I want to play at the very highest level, so I’m aware it’s going to be a big task.

“It is a big adjustment, but I’m just doing what I can myself to improve and get more comfortable and understand the different systems and roles and the way that I need to play in order to get to the next level.

“We have a good group of guys on this team and it’s a good, strong team environment but everybody is working towards getting one of those one or two spots that are available at the next level.

“So, as a result of that, the competition is very high and the battle level is high – but that can only help make you a better player.”

Liam Kirk, in action for GB against Switzerland at the IIHF World Championship in Riga, Latvia earlier this year. Picture courtesy of Dean Woolley/Ice Hockey UK.