Liam Kirk stays focussed on NHL target while he prepares to pull on Sheffield Steelers jersey again

AS much as Sheffield Steelers’ fans will look forward to seeing Liam Kirk pull on their team’s jersey once again, there should be no doubt that his target very much remains making it in the NHL.

HELLO< AGAIN: Liam Kirk, on the Sheffield Steelers' bench during the 2018-18 EIHL season, where he first came to the attention of NHL scouts. Picture: Dean Woolley.

With the likelihood of a return to Peterborough Petes for a third season – this time as an overage player – less and less likely, the 21-year-old winger has taken out an understandable insurance policy.

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His name on the Steelers’ ‘protected’ list of five players they wish to ensure are on their roster for next month’s Elite Series has been made possible due to him signing a deal to play for the reigning Challenge Cup champions next season.

RIGA-BOUND: Liam Kirk, seen in action above for Great Britain during the 2019 World Championships, is expected to be part of Pete Russell's squad for this year's event in Latvia inMay and June. Picture: Dean Woolley/MB Media/Getty Images

Again, while that news is sure to send some Steelers’ fans dizzy with anticipation, they should not get too far ahead of themselves just yet.

For both Kirk and the Steelers, the deal is mutually beneficial. If Kirk is offered some kind of a future in North America - either through an NHL entry-level contract or some other promising avenue - then he will be free to take up that option.

If not, he now knows he will be guaranteed ice time back in the EIHL with the Steelers, who are keen to ensure they are his first port of call.

Kirk is currently gaining ice time with neighbouring Sheffield Steeldogs, where he first made his senior hockey debut back in January 2016, but, with the World Championships in Riga looming large on the horizon, he and numerous other Great Britain hopefuls are now be assured of crucial further preparation time ahead of the flight to Latvia.

DECISIONS, DECISIONS: Sheffield Steelers head coach Aaron Fox, pictured during the 2019-20 season. Picture courtesy of Dean Woolley

“I do want to be back in North America, that is still my main goal,” said Kirk. “My focus for next season is to maybe have a good showing in the worlds and prove myself to earn an NHL entry level contract but, if not, look at the AHL or other options.

“There are out clauses with the Steelers deal, but it’s really more like a back-up option that if Covid is still around and there are no options for me in North America then there’s available ice in England and that I do have a guaranteed place to play come next season.”

Speaking a few weeks ago, shortly after he was unveiled as an addition to the Steeldogs’ roster for the behind-closed-doors Spring Cup, Kirk was still hopeful of returning for a third stint with the Petes, where he has developed over the past two years under the watchful eye of head coach and former Steelers’ defenceman, Rob Wilson.

But, while some areas of Canada appear to be pressing ahead with junior hockey, Ontario remains in lockdown, with the OHL still to announce any kind of return to play timetable for what would essentially be a short, 2021 campaign.

AIMING HIGH: Liam Kirk, in action for the Peterborough Petes. Picture courtesy of Peterborough Petes.

Even if the circumstances were to change in the next few weeks, Kirk is not sure if he would risk giving up the guaranteed ice time he has with the Steelers and, all being well, at the worlds with GB.

“I think Peterborough went back into red-level threat for Covid recently so they are pretty much on lockdown again,” explained Kirk. “It’s looking less and less likely like there is going to be something and even if there is this late on, I’m not really sure about it.

“I’ve got guaranteed ice over here with the Elite Series starting and then, hopefully, the World Championships, I’m leaning more towards that.

“Obviously it is not how I saw this season going but, I think I’d be daft to give up the opportunity to play at the worlds where your certain to get the guaranteed ice when there is a lot of uncertainty right now around Canada and the OHL.

“That’s not 100 per cent guaranteed. I mean, if the OHL does put a plan out there then I’ll obviously go through it with my agent and everyone else, but it’s looking more and more likely at this stage that it is not really a viable option.”

Since arriving in Sheffield, Fox has got to know Kirk reasonably well, even helping facilitate his brief spell in Sweden earlier this season. Talks of him pulling on a Steelers’ jersey again began after his return from Hanhals IF in the HockeyEttan, with agreement being reached following talks with his North American agent.

“I’m excited to get to know Liam a little bit more as a player and have him for these five weeks,” said Fox. “We’ve done a deal with Liam for next year, so if that North American opportunity isn’t there for him, he might start the year with us and then have an NHL training camp available to him.

“With the NHL starting as late as they are, there’s a good possibility that training camps in the NHL don’t start until the end of October.

“He is too old to go back to the OHL next year, this was the last year that he could do that. And if an NHL team give him a contract or a training camp or an American league team, we won’t hold him back from that opportunity but, if he is going to be back in the UK, it’s good to know that he is back with us and wearing orange.”

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