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Hand continues building on Gretzky-like legacy

by Bill Meltzer

British hockey legend Tony Hand is a former draft pick of the Edmonton Oilers, and is considered the best U.K.-trained player ever.
It’s been said of Wayne Gretzky that a man with half his accomplishments would still be a Hall of Fame player. In the international pantheon of players, the same holds true for Scottish-born British hockey legend Tony Hand

Relatively few hockey fans in North America are familiar with Hand, who is still an active player/coach in the U.K.'s bmibaby Elite League at the age of 41. Indeed, cynics might suggest that being the best hockey player to come from the United Kingdom is akin to being the best cricket player from North America.

But in his prime, Hand was good enough to have played in almost any league in the world — perhaps even the NHL. To date, he is the only British-born player who was entirely trained in his home country to have been chosen in the NHL Entry Draft. 

When he was 19, the Edmonton Oilers chose Hand in the 12th round of the 1986 Draft, and he attended training camp with the club late that summer. Hand impressed Edmonton coach Glen Sather, who kept the youngster on for the duration of the two-week camp.

"At the training camp I could see that he had a great ability to read the ice and he was the smartest player there other than Wayne Gretzky. He skated well. His intelligence on the ice stood out. He was a real prospect," Sather recalled in Hand’s autobiography, "Tony Hand: A Life in British Ice Hockey."

The Oilers arranged for Hand to further his development in Canadian major junior hockey. But after just three games, Hand chose to return home to resume his career in the British league. He's remained there ever since — and has turned down offers to play in higher-profile (and higher-paying) European leagues.

Hand's brief stint in North America with Gretzky's Oilers is a footnote to a career that has seen the Scotsman dominate his home league and the lower international levels in Gretzky-like fashion for two decades. Like Gretzky, Hand serves as the Phoenix head coach — except it's the U.K. Elite League's Manchester Phoenix rather than the NHL's Phoenix Coyotes.

Hand recently announced plans to return for another season, his third with Manchester. This past season, the player/coach tallied 24 goals and 87 points in 61 games. That was tops among British-born players in the Elite League. To date, Hand's career totals in Britain stand at a staggering 3,659 points (including 1,380 goals) in 1,260 games. In 57 IIHF-sanctioned international tournament games, he's racked up an even 100 points for Team Great Britain.
"I've wondered what could have happened if I had remained in Canada," Hand told The Sunday Herald. "But it was the right decision at the time, and I have no regrets. I've had a successful career here, I've done well out of the game. But if I was 22 or 23 years old again, I'd definitely give it a better shot than I did. I could have played in the league below in America and I could have had a good opportunity to get into the NHL."

In Hand's prime, he made mincemeat of the lower-grade opposition he faced in Britain. Four times in his career, the 5-foot-10, 185-pound center topped 200 points in a season. In his best season, he averaged a hat trick per game en route to racking up an astounding 105 goals and 216 points in a mere 35 matches.

Even in his 40s, Hand still has the skills to dominate in the Elite League against much younger, bigger players — some of whom have North American minor-league or even NHL experience. Apart from his extraordinary ice vision and quick release, Hand's biggest asset is his ability to control the puck. He can still sail the through the neutral zone with remarkable agility, elude checkers at will, circle out from the corners and maintain control of the puck until he sees a scoring opportunity.

Hand was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on Aug. 15, 1967. His older brother, Paul, was a local hockey star who went on to have a fine career in the Scottish National League and the former British Premier Division. But Tony was the true prodigy of the Hand clan.

Shortly after his 14th birthday, the Edinburgh-based Murrayfield Racers recruited Tony Hand to suit up due to a shortage of qualified older players. Despite the fact he was playing against men, Hand scored four goals and 11 points in 19 games in the Northern League and Scottish National League.

Murrayfield was promoted to the British Premier Division in 1982. The following year, the 16-year-old Hand made his Premier League debut. All he did was rack up 52 goals and 95 points in 30 regular-season games and 10 goals and 15 points in six playoff games. Over the next several years, Hand rapidly became the most dominant player in the league.

By the end of the 1985-86 season, when he compiled 72 goals and 164 points in 36 games, it was clear that his talent far exceeded the level of competition he faced in the UK. The Calgary Flames invited the 19-year-old to attend a camp with the club and Edmonton drafted Hand in the 1986 Draft.

"At the training camp I could see that he had a great ability to read the ice and he was the smartest player there other than Wayne Gretzky. He skated well. His intelligence on the ice stood out. He was a real prospect." -- Former Edmonton Oilers coach Glen
Sather on Tony Hand
After impressing Sather and the Oilers during the preseason, Hand reluctantly went to play junior hockey for the WHL's Victoria Cougars. After just three games — in which he scored four goals and eight points — a homesick Hand elected to go home. He never returned to North American hockey.

Hand preferred the security of playing at home for Murrayfield and knowing he was the best player in the United Kingdom to the uncertainty of trying to work his way up to the NHL. In explaining his decision years later, Hand said that if he'd been born a few years later — when the NHL began to significantly expand in the 1990s — he might have been more inclined to take his chances.

"It's a fact that there are a lot more leagues now and more teams so it's easier to make the NHL. When I was there, there were hardly any openings and it's the same for the players who came across here to play. There are so many things going on now over there which weren't available when I was coming through," he told the Sunday Herald.

Hand was welcomed back to Murrayfield with open arms, responding with the first of his four 200-plus point seasons and leading his team to the first of two consecutive British Premier Division championships. The Oilers attempted to lure Hand back to North America — this time with an offer to play in the minor leagues — but he again politely declined.

Over the next seven years, Hand had several offers to play for teams elsewhere in Europe. But he was content to stay at home, where he was well-paid enough to comfortably make hockey his year-round job. In international play, he helped boost Great Britain from the C pool of the IIHF World Championships between 1991 and 1993, averaging better than two points per game.

The British team was relegated back to the second level in 1994, the same year Hand set a career best in club-team play with a 222-point campaign for Murrayfield. Hand remained loyal to the Racers until the end. The financially strapped club reorganized as the Edinburgh Racers in 1994 but, despite Hand’s on-ice heroics (71 goals, 207 points), the club folded after the 1994-95 season.

With the demise of the Racers, Hand signed with a team in England for the first time in his career — the Sheffield Steelers. The following year, the perpetually troubled British Premier Division reorganized as the Ice Hockey Super League and significantly upgraded the competitiveness and talent within the league. 

Now approaching his 30th birthday, Hand was no longer able to put up the sort of mind-boggling offensive totals he did when the top circuit featured opposition that was roughly the equivalent of a lower-tier Canadian junior hockey league. Nevertheless, he won his fifth league scoring championship in 1997-98.

Hand spent four seasons with the Steelers, then elected to return home to Scotland. In the spring of 1999, he turned down an offer to play in Finland’s SM-Liiga. Instead, he moved down a level in the domestic league to sign with the Ayr Scottish Eagles of the British National League, subsequently playing with the Dundee Stars and Edinburgh Capitals.

"I love playing and I still get a fantastic buzz out of it." -- Tony Hand
The results were predictable: Hand led the National League in scoring three straight seasons from 2001-02 to 2003-04, with a top performance of 104 points in 44 games during 2001-02. He also continued to dominate internationally at the Division I World Championship level. Hand was a one-man wrecking crew in the 2001 tournament, where he racked up 16 points in five games for Great Britain.

While Hand was away from the Ice Hockey Super League, the circuit reorganized yet again in 2003 — taking on its present structure as the Elite League, with teams based in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales and a series of in-season and postseason championship tournaments.

In 2004, Hand was invited to become a player/coach for the Belfast Giants. Still a elite player at the age of 37, Hand won league MVP honors and led the Giants to a second-place finish in the regular season. He then returned home to Edinburgh for a final season before taking on his current role as player-coach of the Manchester Phoenix.

Hand celebrated his 39th birthday with his strongest Elite League campaign in several years, tallying 72 points in 51 games during the 2006-07 season. He also played what will likely be his final IIHF Division I World Championship tourney, posting three points in five games.

This past season, there was uncertainty over whether Hand would hang up his skates at the end of the year. Despite leading all British-born players in scoring, Hand's young Manchester team finished seventh in the Elite League and lost to the Sheffield Steelers in the playoffs. 

In April, Hand ended the retirement speculation by announcing that he had a handshake agreement with team owner Neil Morris to extend his contract by two seasons. Hand will have the option of deciding what he wants to do after the 2008-09 season.
"This club is still growing and learning, and I'm proud to be a part of it for another season at least," he said on the Phoenix's official Web site. "We've come a long way in difficult circumstances, and we've still got a long way to go to challenge on all fronts. I know it's a cliché, but Rome wasn't built in a day and the success we all want doesn’t come overnight. We've worked hard all season, and I really believe that the good foundations we've laid will bring success to Manchester in the years to come.”

Being the Wayne Gretzky of the U.K. may not carry the international acclaim of being an NHL player, but very few players have ever been as important to their country's hockey program as Tony Hand has to hockey in the United Kingdom. The ultimate testament to his contributions is that Hand is the first and only hockey player to be bestowed with an MBE medal (Member of the Order of the British Empire) from Queen Elizabeth II. He received the distinction in June 2004. 

"I love playing and I still get a fantastic buzz out of it," Hand said. "Age does not come into it. I keep in good shape, and while I'm not as energetic as I was when I was 25, I can still play to a good level."

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