Today in Non-NHL Hockey: September 20, 1981: Tony Hand Makes His Debut

While the NHL and NHLPA bicker amongst themselves, let's remember that 31 years ago saw the beginning of the greatest career in British ice hockey history. A career that continues to this day.

This will be an intermittent series during the NHL lockout looking back at interesting events on this day in hockey leagues other than the NHL. After all, who says Bettman and Fehr's money-scoffing bunch are the only hockey we should care about? There are leagues around the world, from junior to overseas elites, that deserve more attention than they sometimes get. Their histories are just the sort of fascinating, characterful, and coloured stories which so much of us know and love from the big league. For every Summit Series, there's a Spengler Cup, and it's the latter that I'll be bringing to you twice a month.

Go to the bar and ask who's the greatest Canadian hockey player of all time. There'll be an argument. Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Bobby Orr, Mark Messier? Who's the greatest Czech? Probably Dominik Hasek but Jaromir Jagr will have his defenders. The greatest Russian? Take your pick; Kharlamov, Tretiak, Larionov, shall I continue? Who's the greatest Finn? Teemu Selanne, Jari Kurri, maybe even Teppo Numminen or Jere Lehtinen...

Now, who's the greatest British player, born and raised? Tony Hand. We're done.

31 years ago today, just over a month after his fourteenth birthday, that undersized kid took his first shift for the Murrayfield Racers in the Scottish National League against the Fife Flyers. He had no goals and no assists for no points and no penalty minutes. Indeed, his rookie season he played 20 games in both Scotland and the Northern League, managing eleven points[1] at a low level even for Britain. Not a huge haul for a rookie campaign in a weak league.

What makes this day in hockey history special isn't how Tony Hand started. It's how he kept going.

In 1983-84, Hand broke out with 95 points in 30 games in the old British Hockey League Premier Division, adding 20 more in 7 games of the Autumn Cup. He was not among the league leaders in a pinball-scoring league; Dundee's Roy Halpin had 175 points in 30 games. But Hand was also 16 when the season concluded and led his team. The next year Hand, who still couldn't legally buy a drink, improved to 164 points, 17 behind Peterborough's John Lawless.

From that point on, Hand was omnipresent in British hockey. He was a regular fixture near the top of the assist charts. He weathered every storm. In 1996-97 British hockey began its modern era with the British Ice Hockey Superleague, dominated by Canadian and American import players. Well, mostly dominated; Hand was one of the best players in that league too. And remained one through decades and a constant swirling mass of leagues disbanding, reforming, splitting, and re-uniting, never knowing whether his team or his league will exist next season.

Inevitably Hand, who turned 45 this past August, could not dominate a first division into middle age. The 2008-09 season was Hand's last at the highest level, when he was 41. Instead, he became player-coach of the second-division Manchester Phoenix where he remains to this day. Last year he had 32 points in 21 games and the best points-per-game on his team.

Tony Hand was more than the first and only great British player. He was an adapter, somebody who hurdled every change in the most chaotic hockey environment in the world and remained an icon for it. And it all started in a little Scottish rink before a few dozen fans thirty-one years ago.

A player like Hand can become lost in myth. It's easy to look at his career and assume he made Gretzky look like an amateur, demolishing an entire country with four-point-per-game seasons. In fact Hand did not win his first British scoring title until 1992-93, when he was 25 and entering his prime. He won again in 1997-98 (tying for the lead) and while he won three consecutive scoring titles from 2001-02 to 2003-04, that was in arguably the weaker of two leagues dividing the best of British hockey. Five scoring titles (one fewer than Mario Lemieux, for context), across an era where no two seasons were of equal quality.

So what makes Hand so remarkable a player? Longevity: a quarter century at the top of British ice hockey, at the end of which he was still one of the finest players in the game and remaining a leading player in the lower divisions. Consistency: he was among the top ten scorers in the top league fifteen times. And novelty, for no British-born and trained player has made such an impact on his home league before or since. By any historical measure, Tony Hand stands above his countrymen on Nelson's Column.

When he started in 1981, British ice hockey was nothing. The fact that a 14-year-old was playing in the Scottish National League is proof positive of that. There was little newspaper attention given to games, even local ones. When Hand got into the papers it was largely because he drew attention overseas: drafted by the Edmonton Oilers, a brief but spectacularly successful turn with the WHL's Victoria Cougars, and (as every press release to this day will insist on mentioning) spending pre-season time on a line with Wayne Gretzky.

The British Hockey League began in 1982, with a combination of domestic players and Canadians in Britain for non-hockey reasons. The Canadians ran the show. The first BHL Premier scoring champion, Jim Earle, was born in Ontario, played before a few dozen fans sitting on bleachers, wore a Calgary Flames jersey (the "C" for his club, Cleveland), and managed 116 points. Roy Halpin of Quebec City won the 1983-84 title, Orillia's John Lawless in 1984-85, and Ottawa's Tim Salmon the next year. The trend continued in almost every season to follow.

These Canadians weren't "imports" in the classic sense: they had moved to the United Kingdom for a variety of reasons and happened to find the skills of a good tier II or major junior scorer made them a star. Many remain to this day. The league quickly improved and the leaders became those with a few quality major junior seasons and skills just below the North American pros. But they were invariably Canadians, born, bred, and trained. It wasn't until Rick Smith in 1988-89 that a player from outside Ontario or Quebec won the British scoring crown, and even he was from Saskatoon. It was also in that year that Hand took his first Ice Hockey Journalists UK Player of the Year award; the first ever won by a British player and the first of six in Hand's career[2].

So Tony Hand's 185 points in 35 games in the 1992-93 season wasn't just a great season. It was the first time a British born-and-trained player had won the scoring championship in his own league. Imagine if no Canadian won the NHL scoring title for ten years; if they were all Americans who came up here to hew wood and draw water and maybe beat the natives in their spare time. Every single other player anywhere near the lead in any statistical category was Canadian that year, every single other season. Almost all had played major junior; the rest had played university hockey. Canadians owned that league, lock stock and barrel. If you were a Brit in your own damned country it meant you were third-line garbage, except for the little guy from Edinburgh with a bit of a funny stride and magnificent touch on the puck who won the whole thing.

No words I will ever write can express what an achievement that was. Of course he was Player of the Year for the second time; that is almost an anticlimax.

Had it just been one season Hand would be a footnote. But Hand was steadily among the best. The next year, 1993-94, was the first of two 200-point seasons. Hand formed a lethal scoring partnership with Midland, Ontario's Chris Palmer; a ridiculous scoring season saw Manitoba's Patrick Scott lead the charts with 180 goals and 139 assists but Hand was still tenth in the league. But the next year scoring rates were back to normal and 207 points put Hand second in the league, behind only Steve Moria of Vancouver. Injuries marred Hand's 1995-96 season, and while healthy in 1996-97 he finished outside the top ten.

There are a few YouTube videos of Hand and his Murrayfield/Edinburgh Racers around this time. Watch Hand score for Edinburgh in 1995: poor defense, a spectacularly ill-advised Cory Cross-style premature shot block from Rick Brebant (a former Ohio State man and the team's leading scorer who should have known better) and very mid-90s goaltending from Steve Butler*... but at the same time, such calm and élan by Hand, like he's a man among boys. A later goal from that same game sees Hand pick off a pass, dump it off, then collect the return for a breakaway. If you saw somebody do that in junior hockey you'd move him up a level.

The league was improving and other Europeans were crossing the Channel, but Hand remained among the elite. In 1997-98 he won his second scoring championship in a tie with Mark Montanari from Toronto. That year Hand played in Sheffield alongside Vancouver's Ken Priestlay, who wound up third in league scoring: in one of the most charming of hockey coincidences Priestlay was also Hand's short-term teammate on the 1986-87 Victoria Cougars. For the first time former NHLers were appearing on the board, and in 1998-99 former San Jose Shark Ed Courtenay took the title while Hand slipped to tenth. Courtenay and Hand were both 31, and while Courtenay would spend most of the rest of his career in Britain he still had two good ECHL seasons in his mid-thirties. Hand was still content to play in Britain and can only be compared to his peers by proxy.

In 1999-2000, Hand was second in league scoring with the Ayr Scottish Eagles. Among those behind Hand was Kevin Brown, one of ten NHLers since 1970 born in the United Kingdom but raised and trained in North America. Brown, who played 64 games with Hand's could-have-been team the Edmonton Oilers, was seven points behind Hand despite being seven years younger and sharing a line with scoring leader Greg Bullock.

At this time British ice hockey was divided, with the BISL and British National League vying for the title of Britain's best. The BISL teams were predominantly the richer[3] and encouraged imports to the point that in their last season only four players in the league were British[4], while the BNL favoured developing British talent[5]. After 2001-02 both Ayr and the BISL were in financial difficulty, neither surviving the 2002-03 season, and Hand jumped to Dundee in the BNL. The junior circuit proved easy pickings, and Hand took the scoring title all three years he played along with a regular-season championship in 2001-02. The field was still strong. In 2003-04 Hand led the league with 84 points and the top non-Edinburgh scorer was Fife's Daniel Goneau with 59. Goneau was twice an NHL second-round pick and played 53 big-league games. Hand was 36.

When British hockey reunified there were other NHLers to pose a challenge. In 2004-05, during the NHL lockout, big leaguers came to Britain and the newly formed Elite Ice Hockey League. The late Wade Belak turned out for Coventry. Defenseman Rob Davison played for Cardiff. Eric Cairns played for London. Ian Moran and Nick Boynton signed with Nottingham, though they didn't play the full season. Combined with players who would have played in strong European leagues but for NHLers forcing them off the roster, and it was the strongest season in the EIHL's history.

Hand was in his single season with the Belfast Giants; his old Edinburgh Capitals didn't defect from the National to the Elite league until November[6]. Hand's team included two former NHLers (goon Mel Angelstad and forward Jason Bowen) and two former AHLers (George Awada and Curtis Bowen). Most of the rest had elite experience in major junior, NCAA hockey, or major European leagues. Hand, Marc Levers, Graeme Walton, Leigh Jamison, and backup goalie Chris McGimpsey were British-trained, and of those only Hand was a core player. Hand himself was 38 and ought to have been insignificant on a team stocked with good professional talent. Naturally, the aging Hand didn't win the scoring title that year.

No, he was second, one point behind Coventry's Dan Carlson. Carlson was 26, a former AHLer and first-class player at Notre Dame who was a three-time point-per-game man in the ECHL. Hand was old enough to retire and had played three games with a WHL team that doesn't exist anymore. His Giants finished second in the league, behind Belak and Carlson's Coventry team. Hand was Player of the Year for the fourth time, naturally, tied with Coventry defenseman Neal Martin.

The 2004-05 season may have been Hand's masterpiece: only a historically strong Coventry team stopped him from owning the league in the strongest season of British ice hockey while at an age where other scorers are falling to the third line. A few good seasons of Elite hockey remained in Hand, however. In 2005-06, 2006-07, 2007-08, and 2008-09 Hand remained in the top ten of EIHL scorers. His last year, Hand tied for eighth, behind seven players who had all played professionally in North America. Five of those seven were more than a decade younger.

Hand remains in action with the second-division Manchester Phoenix, where he coaches and plays part-time. He is still, certainly, the team's best offensive player, but today his job focuses more on developing British talent. Not counting Hand himself, thirteen of the team's players are British. Hand also coaches the British national team, and in his first attempt at the World Championships led Britain to a fifth-place finish in Division I Group A that, while disappointing, included a 4-3 overtime win over former championship contenders Ukraine. The star of that game was winger Rob Dowd, an undersized British-trained 24 year old who recently signed in the Swedish Allsvenskan[7]. Hand's influence is spreading through Europe at last.

Scroll back to the top and read that introduction again. 31 years ago today, Tony Hand played his first game, and 31 years later he still hasn't played his last. In between he has scoring championships, team championships, a fistful of All-Star nods, Membership of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire on the 2004 New Year Honours List[8], every honour British ice hockey could bestow upon a centreman, and of course immortality. He is more clearly the greatest British hockey player of all time than any other person is the greatest at anything. And his influence continues today, with British-trained professionals like Dowd and David Longstaff playing alongside or underneath the legendary Hand.

Hand would be Britain's Anatoli Tarasov, but Tarasov was never the player Hand was. In the ranks of hockey legends, and not just British ones, Tony Hand stands alone.


* — Butler was one of the British-trained players of significance in the league that year. In 31 games, he had a 5.02 goals-against average and a .841 save percentage. The next year he dropped to 6.36 and .837 before mercifully ceasing to be part of history. Throughout the history of the British leagues a surprising number of goaltenders have been domestic, doubtless contributing to the insane scoring rates when ex-CHL forwards face goalies who could never have cracked an Albertan junior "B" team. This has gotten better in recent years, and particularly in the EIHL days teams sensed a cheap efficiency by bringing in import goaltenders to gain an edge. In the EIHL Hand played with professional goalies, including ex-NHLer Scott Fankhouser in 2007-08, and when a Brit did start in goal for the 2008-09 Manchester Phoenix it was Stephen Murphy, who is quite a good one.

[1] — All statistics from Tony Hand's profile at HockeyDB, EliteProspects, and EuroHockey.net.

[2] — "Player of the Year Trophy." Ice Hockey Journalists UK. Accessed September 17, 2012. http://www.ihjuk.co.uk/awards/player.html.

[3] — "New teams to join Elite." Coventry Evening Telegraph, December 9, 2004. Accessed September 19, 2012. http://www.coventrytelegraph.net/coventry-warwickshire-sport/tm_objectid=14960546&method=full&siteid=50003&headline=new-teams-to-join-elite-name_page.html.

[4] — "GB coach sees bleak future." BBC Sport, January 27, 2003. Accessed September 16, 2012. http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport2/hi/other_sports/2699535.stm.

[5] — Starforth, Miles. "Merger plans are put on ice." The Evening Chronicle, May 15, 2003. Accessed September 18, 2012. http://icnewcastle.icnetwork.co.uk/0200sport/page.cfm?objectid=12960936&method=full&siteid=50081&headline=Merger%20plans%20are%20put%20on%20ice.

[6] — Starforth, Miles. "Vipers aiming to earn Elite status." The Evening Chronicle, November 29, 2004. Accessed September 19, 2012. http://icnewcastle.icnetwork.co.uk/0200sport/icehockey/tm_objectid=14925459&method=full&siteid=50081&headline=vipers-aiming-to-earn-elite-status-name_page.html.

[7] — "Giants' Dowd signs for Swedish club." UTV News Sport, April 23, 2012. Accessed September 19, 2012. http://www.u.tv/sport/Giants-Dowd-signs-for-Swedish-club/1fbc1dda-fc7b-4d23-86f9-bf49beaef66d.

[8] — "Honours for Scottish sport." BBC Sport Scotland, December 31, 2003. Accessed September 19, 2012. http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport2/hi/scotland/3357403.stm.

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