British ice hockey legend Tony Hand discusses being drafted in the NHL, his reasons for returning home and why he thinks it would be hard for players from these shores to repeat his achievement in the modern era.
Tony Hand has seen and done it all in an ice hockey career, lasting an incredible three decades as a player.
He has an honours list as long as your arm, including an MBE from The Queen for his services to the sport, which he received in 2004.
In 1986 he was given an incredible opportunity to rub shoulders with the world’s best players in the NHL, but ended up going elsewhere.
As the first UK-trained player to get a chance in the world’s top league, it began a four-month episode of his life unlike anything else he’s ever experienced.
Hand said: “I was originally meant to go to Calgary Flames’ camp as a reward for winning Young Player of the Year through a magazine here.
“Bur I was drafted by the Edmonton Oilers and I was fortunate to get the chance to be invited to their training camp, which was great.
“My original trip to Calgary was a prize in conjunction with the Canadian consulate and I didn’t get to fulfil it as the Oilers had drafted me so they had my rights in the NHL. I couldn’t go.
“Looking back, I didn’t know what it meant to be drafted as I wasn’t a great follower of the NHL at the time.
“But when I got to Edmonton, the organisation was fantastic and I got to work alongside Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier – two men considered as the best players in the world.
“They were nice guys. Glen Sather, who was the head coach at the time, was instrumental in me being there and couldn’t have been nicer towards me.
“They welcomed me into the club and here was me, a kid from Edinburgh, among some truly great names in ice hockey at that time.”
Hand was drafted in the 12th round (252nd and last overall) and survived the full two weeks of camp, being put through his paces against top players more accustomed to the physical demands.
He impressed in his brief spell at the Oilers, with Sather once quoted as saying that Hand was the most intelligent player on the ice – bar his teammate Gretzky, of course.
But as he was farmed out to affiliate side, Victoria Cougars in the Western Hockey League, homesickness started to set in. The uncertainty of where he was, coupled with missing the life he left behind in Edinburgh was starting to take its toll.
After four months, the then 19-year-old decided he wanted to come home and swapped the high life in Canada for a return to Murrayfield Racers.
As he reflects on it, Hand freely admits it would be something he would stick at now in one of UK ice hockey’s biggest ‘what if’ stories.
He added: “Looking back at the experience now, I should have stayed and worked at it. I didn’t know what to expect when I went out there and there was no guidance to help me.
“I was the first Brit to get that opportunity so there was no internet either to give me the information on what was in store for me.
“Once you were in North America, you were cut off from the rest of the world and that was difficult to adjust to. It could have been easier if someone had done it before me.
“In hindsight, it would have been logical to stay there and see where it took me. It’s not something I reflect on every day though.
“Homesickness was the reason for coming home in the end and when it came down to it, I missed playing about with my mates and, of course, my family too.”
Only one other Brit – Belfast Giants’ Colin Shields – has been drafted to the NHL when Philadelphia Flyers picked him up in 2000.
Hand, although admitting he wasn’t able to pass on advice to fellow Scot Shields, would urge any kid to take the opportunity to go the best league in the world.
But he believes it could be a long way off as long as the UK’s top league, the EIHL, continues with a high import quota, currently at 13 players.
Hand said: “Colin went down the university route and I didn’t know him too well back then to offer him advice on how to handle the move and give him an idea of what to expect.
“For anyone else lucky enough to get that opportunity, I would urge them to do it, but do it for the right reasons, but I would advise them to be prepared for what’s in store.
“Whether anyone from the UK will gain that opportunity again, I think it’s going to be tough and that’s down to the way our league is designed now.
“The only way it’s going to happen is more players coming through at the top level. There is a heavy influx of imports that restricts those opportunities.
“If the Elite League looks more at giving young players a chance and develop them, then hopefully that would be the case.”
(Image: Richard Amor Allan)