MISSISSAUGA, Ontario — Liam Kirk occasionally takes a 15-minute stroll from Peterborough Memorial Centre to The UK Shoppe in search of a taste of home. Kirk, 18, is 3,400 miles away from his family in Maltby, England, playing ice hockey — a sport many of his friends teased him about while growing up.
In June, the Arizona Coyotes used a seventh-round pick to select Kirk, making him the first player born and trained in England to be chosen in the National Hockey League draft.
Now Kirk finds himself in Peterborough, Ontario, a suburb 87 miles northeast of Toronto, playing for the Ontario Hockey League’s Petes in the hopes of adapting to the smaller rink and faster style of the North American game and developing enough to earn a contract from the Coyotes.
“The adjustments have been a little difficult,” said Kirk, who scored only two goals in his first 23 games. “Obviously, moving to a new country, away from your family and stuff like that. It’s the best junior league in the world, still got to adjust to that.”
Max Kolu, an amateur scout based in Helsinki, Finland, was the first member of the Coyotes’ organization to watch Kirk play in person, traveling to Sheffield, England, last season to see him with the Steelers of the Elite Ice Hockey League.
“Really raw, but showed some skill, good feel with the puck and skated well,” Kolu said.
Kirk became interested in hockey as a child because his parents, Matthew and Maureen, took him and his older brother Jonathan to Sheffield Steelers games about 15 miles from Maltby.
Kirk played three seasons with the Steelers in the Elite Ice Hockey League, which is made up of 11 teams from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. According to the league website, ice hockey is the third-largest winter spectator sport in Britain, after soccer and rugby.
According to the International Ice Hockey Federation, there are 8,162 registered players in Britain, 3,751 of whom are junior-age players like Kirk, in a country with a population of about 65 million.
Only 52 British-born players, most before the 1960s, have suited up in at least one NHL game, but never has a player born and trained exclusively there, like Kirk, done so.
Forward Tony Hand, an Edinburgh native, was selected by the Edmonton Oilers in the 12th round of the 1986 draft. He played just three games in junior hockey in Canada before returning home. Center Colin Shields, who is also Scottish, was taken in the sixth round of the 2000 draft by the Philadelphia Flyers but returned to Britain after playing college hockey at Maine and a few seasons in the Elite Ice Hockey League.
Matthew Kirk, Liam’s father, understood that for his son to pursue his NHL dream, he needed to leave home. Once Liam turned 18 and finished his schooling, he was welcome to explore opportunities to further his hockey career.
“I think he’s got no choice, to be fair,” Matthew Kirk said during a recent trip to Peterborough. “Obviously, his goal is to play in the NHL, so he’s got to come across the pond and match himself against the kids of his own age.”
Liam Kirk’s background has companies lining up to attach their name to the 6-foot-1, 167-pound wing.
During the annual scouting combine in June, equipment makers Bauer and True Hockey met with Kirk to outfit him with gear, unusual for a player not considered a top prospect. In October, EA Sports, maker of the NHL 19 video game, released a roster update for download, which included Kirk in its social media posts.
A Sheffield sporting goods store called Puck Stop, which specializes in hockey equipment, made 39 Peterborough Petes’ Kirk jerseys available online in October. They sold out in less than three hours.
“They’re cluing in too that he’s becoming a way bigger star than I think even he expected,” said Kirk’s agent, Nic Mayne. “If he continues to work hard and makes it, he’s got this built-in fan base that is going to continue to embrace him.”
Kirk’s success has prompted agents like Mayne to pay closer attention to talent in Britain.
“Just the fact that there’s two or three players in the U.K. that I’m watching; before Liam, I never even would’ve thought that,” Mayne said. “I think absolutely it’s opened the door and created some buzz.”
Kirk, who entered Friday with nine goals and eight assists in 31 games, is not the only Englishman playing hockey in a North American league. Mason Alderson-Biddulph, 17, a native of Bromley, plays for the Islanders Hockey Club in the National Collegiate Development Conference, a 12-team junior hockey league in the northeastern United States. He is hoping to land an NCAA scholarship before turning pro.
His father, Brian Biddulph, began playing ice hockey in England at 14 and came to Canada when he was 19 — too old to have much success in North America.
Biddulph spent the 1986-87 season playing for the Langley Eagles in the British Columbia Hockey League, a Tier II junior league often used as a steppingstone to an NCAA scholarship.
“The routes were to either go major junior or have four years of schooling that could possibly be paid for and then I could have a degree at the end of it, a sustained life and a good job,” said Alderson-Biddulph, who is eligible for the 2020 draft.
Alderson-Biddulph thought the Islanders Hockey Club — based in North Andover, Massachusetts — would give him exposure to colleges playing in Hockey East. Through 18 games, the 6-foot-2, 185-pound wing had two goals and three assists.
An 11th-grader at Triton Regional High School in Byfield, Massachusetts, Alderson-Biddulph has had discussions with the likes of Colgate, Princeton and St. Lawrence universities.
He said in England, “it’s fun being a big fish in a small pond, but you really don’t know how good you are until you jump into the sea.”
Alderson-Biddulph added, “I just wanted to see how I’d fare against the kids that play every day in and out like the same way a British kid would play” soccer.