Great Brits Abroad
Whilst the presence of imports in British Ice Hockey is a topic widely discussed by coaches, players and fans alike, the icing of British ice hockey players abroad is a theme largely overlooked within the sport.
Emigrating from Ireland in his youth, right winger Owen Nolan is a prime example, the Brit having enjoyed a playing career of longevity overseas prior to his retirement in 2011. Settling in Canada, Nolan began his ice hockey career with Thorold Blackhawks junior team before making his switch to the Ontario Hockey League’s Cornwall Royals in 1988.
In his first season with the Royals, Nolan put on a fantastic display to grab thirty four goals and twenty five assists, but the best was yet to come from the player as he hit one hundred and eleven points in his second campaign at the club, to become the OHL’s fourth highest points scorer that season.
The following year, Nolan was drafted into the NHL to ice for the Québec Nordiques, a move which saw his career blossom in the league. Eventually signing for San Jose Sharks, Nolan quickly became one of the game’s most influential players. Awarded the role of captaincy at the club, the skilled winger only gave up the role subsequent to yet another transfer, this time to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Also playing for Phoenix Coyotes, Calgary Flames and Minnesota Wild before retirement, Nolan clearly made a lasting impression in the NHL for which he is still recognised today.
However, when British players whom have been the mainstay of the sport on domestic ice take a season or two out to play overseas, their success is somewhat placed on the periphery. Switching from Sheffield Steelers to Djargårdens IF in the Swedish Hockey League for the side’s 2001-2002 campaign, David Longstaff featured in forty five games for the team, racking up twenty points to match that of Swedish defenceman Björn Nord and exceeding the tally of several other experienced forwards in the team.
As the only British player in the side at that time, Longstaff’s achievement was a great one as his skill shone through to equal that of some of the SHL’s finest. This accomplishment was further enhanced when the right winger headed off to Switzerland’s National League B. Playing just seven games for HC Sierre before signing for Newcastle Vipers, Longstaff managed three goals and five assists for the side in a team largely made up of players from Switzerland and Canada.
Speaking about his time in Sweden and also his decision to return to Britain, Longstaff stated: “Sweden was a great experience for me at the time. It was the strongest league in Europe. That’s why I picked that league ahead of Germany and Finland. I played with some great players and my game improved playing there. I was offered a three year extension but turned it down so my kids could go to an English school and that worked out well. My boys started playing football in Newcastle and eventually both started playing for Newcastle United youth teams.”
Also heading overseas to play ice hockey six seasons ago, Solway’s Ross Murray enjoyed a spell in the Greater Metro Ice Hockey League in Canada. Dividing his first season between the Vaughn Wild and the Sturgeon Falls Lumberjacks, Murray snatched seven goals and four assists in just fourteen games for the latter of the two teams.
In the season that followed, Murray then joined Temiscaming Titans and, featuring in twenty six games, the Dumfries-born forward picked up forty four penalty minutes, quickly becoming renowned for his ability to fight when required and taking the title of NIHL’s Most Penalised Player in Solway Sharks’ 2014-15 campaign. Additionally, British blue liner Todd Munden starred in the GMHL after breaking through the ranks of Bracknell’s junior development system to head to Canada, a move which saw the youngster feature for Deseronto Storm from 2008 to 2012.
Scoring over forty points in three out of the four seasons he played, Munden also notched up the penalty minutes to contend with the tough competition in a league dominated by Canadian and American players. Despite this, Munden was not the only British player to feature for the Storm as current Basingstoke Buffalo forward Greg Martyn also made thirty six appearances for the team before returning to EPL outfit Bracknell Bees in 2009.
Not unlike Murray and Munden, Billingham Stars’ Tom Keeley also played ice hockey overseas for several seasons, first featuring in the OEMHL with the OHA Mavericks 1 Midget AAA in the side’s 2010-11 campaign before moving onto the Maroon Mavericks where the defenceman played forty four games over two seasons, earning his team nine points in total and serving thirty penalty minutes during his time with the club. In the following season, Keeley made the switch to Space Coast Hurricanes in the United States Premier Hockey League Elite, playing sixteen games and nabbing two assists as one of the outfit’s most consistent blue liners. Since then, Keeley has played two seasons with Billingham Stars, making regular appearances for the Teesiders, and is presently one of the team’s top ten points scorers.
Whilst these players have experienced ice hockey at a very different level, there are currently several Brits at present who are working hard to develop their game overseas, one of which is Basingstoke-born Scott Conway. Originally playing junior ice hockey for Nottingham, Conway moved to Canada as a teenager before making his first appearance in the Tier One Elite Hockey League (formerly the United States’ Midwest Elite Hockey League) for Belle Tire Bantam Major AAA where he accumulated twenty five points in thirty games.
Eventually progressing to T1EHL U18 with Victory Honda, Conway went on to play for Texas Tornado in the North American Hockey League. Attaining eighteen goals and thirty six assists, the youngster was heavily involved in the outfit’s creative play and made his presence felt on the ice to finish the season as the side’s fourth highest goal scorer.This was a massive achievement in a league dominated by American players, with Conway, Alexei Solovyev and Lukas Zet the only other players not of U.S. origin.
After featuring in the USHL and NCAA for Indiana Ice and Pennsylvania State University respectively, Conway made the decision to sign for Penticton Vees this season. Playing in the British Colombia Hockey League, the talented centre is in the process of recording his best stats to date as alternate captain, so far scoring fifty goals and amassing an amazing fifty two assists.
Meanwhile, former Solway Shark Jordan Crowe departed from the Scottish team to integrate himself, like Keeley, in the OEMHL with the Maroon Mavericks before joining L/A Fighting Spirit, a team based in the amalgamated U.S. city, Lewiston-Auburn. Grabbing a goal and fourteen assists so far this season, defenceman Crowe has matched the points tally of fellow blue liners Zach Goodman and Gibson Stuart as the only British player in Fighting Spirit’s line up at present.
Similarly, Craig Thurston has also made his mark in the U.S. as he takes to the ice with Cheyenne Stampede in the Western States Hockey League. In his last campaign with the side, Thurston achieved thirty three points in forty one games and, as he continues to make appearances for the team, it is hoped he can equal, if not improve on, his performances of his 2014-15 campaign. Having impressed in his first season in the States, Thurston briefly returned to England and stepped up from the NIHL to play fourteen games in the EPL with Hull Pirates, suggesting any permanent return to domestic ice would result in the forward playing at a higher level.
Likewise, Duggan brothers Sam and Thomas have also experienced similar journeys. Whilst youngster Sam Duggan is currently progressing through the ranks of junior hockey with Örebro in the Allsvenskan, the second highest tier in Swedish ice hockey, his older brother Thomas experienced life in America’s United States High School League in his youth. Playing four consecutive seasons with Shattuck St. Mary’s from 2004, Thomas Duggan starred alongside Ty Gretzky, son of Wayne Gretzky, and David Toews, brother of high profile Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews. Following his time overseas, Duggan has used his experience to integrate himself in the EPL, building up excellent points tallies at Bracknell Bees, Manchester Phoenix and, more recently, Guildford Flames where he has played for several seasons to be awarded the role of alternate captain.
With such players developing their game away from domestic ice, and meeting the higher expectations of American, Canadian and Swedish leagues, the transition of British players to foreign territory is one which is incredibly beneficial to the sport. Nurturing, refining and shaping the future of young British players, the icing of Brits abroad can only be a positive move for British ice hockey as the return of these players provides an influx of experience, skill and high quality gameplay to domestic leagues.
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