NHL hopeful Liam Kirk backed by coach Pete Russell to play lead role for GB in future

PETE RUSSELL believes Liam Kirk possesses all the qualities to go on and be a future captain of the Great Britain national team.

US-BOUND: Liam Kirk has kept his hopes of playing in the NHL alive after securing a three-year entry-level contract with the Arizona Coyotes. Picture courtesy of Dean Woolley.
US-BOUND: Liam Kirk has kept his hopes of playing in the NHL alive after securing a three-year entry-level contract with the Arizona Coyotes. Picture courtesy of Dean Woolley.

Yesterday saw the 21-year-old keep his hope of playing in the NHL alive after signing a three-year entry-level contract with the Arizona Coyotes.

Obviously, it remains to be seen where Kirk will be playing his hockey come September-October but his ambition of returning to North America next season has now been realised.

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There is clearly no guarantee the deal will see Kirk go on to play in the world’s top league. Clearly, lots more hard work lies ahead but, as he has proved over the years, that will not be an issue.

DRIVEN: Liam Kirk is heading back to North America for the 2021-22 hockey season. Picture courtesy of Dean Woolley.

One possible scenario is that Kirk will get an opportunity to try out for the Coyotes AHL affiliate Tucson Roadrunners but, what is certain is that his eye-catching performances in the recent World Championship in Riga with GB helped prompt the NHL outfit to offer him the contract.

Maltby-born Kirk finished the tournament as joint-top goalscorer with seven goals, an effort that garnered him headlines around the hockey world and no doubt reminded the Phoenix-based organisation why they made him a seventh round draft pick back in 2018 in the first place, in doing so, making him the first English-trained player to be drafted.

For Russell, Kirk’s performances in Latvia were not unexpected, having tracked the youngster for a number of years, first picking him for his senior squad in time for the World Championship Division 1A campaign in Hungary in 2018.

Russell’s team went on to stun the hockey world that year by earning a gold-medal promotion back to Pool A for the first time in 25 years. The following year, in Slovakia, GB produced another minor miracle when they avoided relegation in their final game by coming from 3-0 behind to defeat France 4-3 in overtime.

Liam Kirk returned to play for the Sheffield Steelers in the recent Elite Series. Picture courtesy of Karl Denham/EIHL.

And although the threat of relegation was removed in Riga, GB came home with its reputation further enhanced, a regulation win over Belarus and an overtime loss to Denmark giving them a respectable four-point haul, a return which saw them rise three places in the world rankings to 16th.

There were various reasons behind the impressive results attained by GB – the hunger, desire and commitment by all involved being the main one.

Kirk’s eye for goal also helped.

“We all know about what Liam did in Riga,” said Russell. “It was a fantastic tournament for him.

LEAD ROLE: Great Britain head coach Pete Russell believes Liam Kirk has made remarkable progress in the three years since he was first selected for the GB Men's team. Picture: Dean Woolley.

“Three years ago he was picked as an 18-year-old and everybody was surprised that he was going to Hungary. He played on the fourth line back then. This year, he is the joint-top scorer for the whole tournament – that is amazing growth.

“He’s a pure goalscorer, he finds ways of getting pucks to the net. He has really matured as a player, he’s got faster and stronger. He’s the best talent we’ve had for a long, long time.”

Russell said what had impressed him most about Kirk was that he had continued to develop his game under trying circumstances.

A good chunk of his second season in the OHL with Peterborough Petes saw him on the injured list then,as he was just getting back, the coronavirus pandemic struck and the sport went into lockdown.

Liam Kirk, in action during a 2018 development camp with Arizona Coyotes. Picture courtesy of Arizona Coyotes.

This past season, he managed to secure ice time for a short time in Sweden’s third tier before returning to his roots with both Sheffield Steeldogs and Sheffield Steelers in two different behind-closed-doors tournaments.

The Steeldogs waltzed to the Spring Cup title, while the Steelers finished runners-up in the Elite Series.

“Just look at the development that he’s made from actually playing only one-and-a-half seasons in Peterborough – it’s quite amazing,” explained Russell. “I’m not putting pressure on him but he is definitely a top quality hockey player. He’s just a really likeable kid.

“I’d say he’s probably a future captain for the national team. He’s got that bit of something about him. You watch him talking to the media, he knows how to handle himself. He doesn’t say stupid things, he’s very much about his team-mates.

“He’s got a little bit of a calmness about him but, inside, he’s got a fire – he wants to do well. He’s extremely focussed – he’s a driven kid.”

DEVELOPMENT: Liam Kirk, in action for Peterborough Petes against OHL rivals Hamilton Bulldogs in November 2018. Picture: Claus Andersen/Getty Images