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Kirk hopes to make England proud in 2018 NHL Draft

Can become first player born, trained in country selected

by Mike G. Morreale @mikemorrealeNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

Liam Kirk might have been the only prospect asked for his opinion on the British royal wedding during interviews at the 2018 NHL Scouting Combine.

The question may seem a little odd, but not to Kirk, who said it was a popular topic of discussion. Kirk, born in Rotherham, Great Britain, was the first player born and trained in England to attend the combine.

The 18-year-old left wing hopes to become the first player born and trained in England to be selected in the NHL Draft, and the first born and trained in the United Kingdom to play in the NHL.

 

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"The kids in Rotherham and in Maltby, where I live now, looked at hockey as kind of a weird sport," Kirk said. "They just don't think anyone in England plays it. I played by myself on rollerblades outside my home. The running joke from a few of my friends is that if they had a pair of skates, they could turn up to the rink and make Great Britain's national team."

Matthew Kirk, Liam's father, played cricket, a more popular sport in England. Liam tried playing the No. 1 sport, soccer, but said he sat on the bench, lacked interest, and wasn't very good.

So how does someone with no hockey background become the poster boy for any player looking to someday reach the NHL from a non-traditional hockey country?

"As a kid from Britain, you don't expect this," he said. "I still remember my parents taking me and my brother to watch the (Sheffield) Steelers (of the United Kingdom's Elite Ice Hockey League) when I was a kid. My older brother started playing and I just kind of copied him and here I am.

"When I was 6 years old I just wanted to play for Sheffield. I didn't know much about the NHL in England back then. I started learning about the NHL when I was 7 or 8 years old."

Kirk said he won't attend the 2018 NHL Draft at American Airlines Center in Dallas on June 22-23 but will watch on his computer. The first round is June 22 (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVAS). Rounds 2-7 are June 23 (11 a.m. ET; NHLN, SN, TVAS).

"He carries the hopes and the prayers of everyone in the UK that, maybe, he's our first guy (to play in the NHL)," Sheffield coach Paul Thompson said. "It's tough for a young kid to break in but he's got a big desire and is a committed young man."

Kirk (6-foot-1, 156 pounds) worked his way up the development ladder in England before his promotion to Sheffield as a 16-year-old in 2016-17. Sheffield, which has former NHL players Tim Wallace and Zach Fitzgerald, has an average age of 28. Kirk compared the EIHL to the ECHL.

"He went through so many challenges to get to where he is, so why stop now?" Thompson said. "He'll probably play in the Canadian Hockey League next season to gain experience in North America. If that happened, we'd be over the moon that a kid from a mining town a couple miles outside of Sheffield would get this opportunity."

Kirk will likely be selected in the CHL import draft on June 28. He's been a key player for his country at almost every major international event since the age of 16. He played for Great Britain at the 2016 IIHF World Under-18 Championship Division 2, Group A at 16, played in the 2017 World Junior Championship Division 1 Group B tournament at 17, and this season led Great Britain to a gold medal at the 2018 World U18s Division 2, Group A, and a bronze medal at the World Junior Championship Division 2, Group A with a tournament-best 14 points (seven goals, seven assists) at age 18.

Kirk also won a gold medal as the second-youngest player on the Great Britain men's national team at the 2018 IIHF World Championship Division 1, Group A tournament in April. A 3-2 shootout win against Hungary in the final game of the round-robin tournament secured Great Britain a promotion to the elite level of the World Championship for the first time since 1994.

"The experience in Budapest (Hungary) was incredible and we got the gold so next year we'll be with the big countries," Kirk said. "We entered the tournament with the mindset we can do whatever we want as long as we believe. We got huge support when we returned home; the clapping was tremendous."

Kirk, No. 65 on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of International skaters eligible for the draft, had 16 points (nine goals, seven assists) for Sheffield this season, the most points by an under-18 player in EIHL history.

"That's a significant amount of points considering he really didn't receive any time on the power play and he didn't play in our top six," Thompson said. "He only played regular shift minutes the last 30 percent of the season as he continued to learn."

Kirk played a fourth-line role alongside 35-year-old captain Jonathan Phillips. Thompson said he had Kirk there to make him comfortable in his role while not taking away from his offensive game.

"His goal was to make it here, get drafted and play in the NHL, and he'll come over here and play in North America next season to help accelerate his development," Director of NHL Central Scouting Dan Marr said. "When I contacted him to invite him to the combine, he was initially shocked."

Thompson said Kirk's ascension has done wonders for hockey in England. He says Kirk is fast and good at handling the puck, but will need to continue to work on his all-around game.

"We're not a small hockey nation as far as Europeans go," Thompson said. "We're bigger than Denmark and Norway, but not Sweden or Finland. But it's incredible to me that we have yet to have an indigenous player get an opportunity.

"I give Liam a 100 percent chance of one day playing in the NHL because of his attitude. And with the way he's played the last three months of the season, why not?"

Kirk, who was surrounded by media members after he completed the fitness testing at the combine, appears up to the challenge.

"Before coming to the combine, my strength and conditioning coach in Sheffield (Danny Mawer) asked me if I expected any media scrums and I told him 'No, but it'd be nice,'" Kirk said. "Everyone wants to play in the NHL as a kid growing up, but in Britain you kind of get told stay in school and get ready for a real job. But I want to prove that if you have that belief, no matter where you're from, you can do it."

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