Liam Kirk wants to help Jukurit reach a play-off spot and develop British hockey - “I hope that kids can see me as an example"
Liam Kirk, the 23-year-old forward from Great Britain, joined Mikkelin Jukurit at the turn of the year. Despite his young age, Kirk has experienced a lot during his career. Starting from the rather small hockey circles of the UK, Kirk has already reached the top-scorer spot at the World Championship, made a historic step as an English-born player to be drafted to the NHL and having played in North America.
Liam Kirk’s first week at Jukurit had a running start. Having a long flight at the start of the week from the US to Finland and even though being jetlagged, Kirk played his first three Liiga games during the first week.
- It was tiring especially the next day after landing. I'm still feeling some of the effects but hopefully this week I can get some more rest and be good to go from there, said Kirk.
After the first week, Kirk has only positive things to say about his new team.
- The first week was a little bit of a whirlwind but I was also excited. We’ve got a great group here. The players and coaches have been so welcoming and I can’t wait to get to know everyone even better. We had tough games last week and hopefully we can bounce back this week.
During his first week at Jukurit, Kirk got a chance to play his first home game in front of Jukurit fans as well. His debut at Jukurit home arena couldn’t have gone better: he scored 1+2 against the opposing team Sport and had the home fans chanting for him after the game.
- It was special. They were great at welcoming me. And I was glad I was able to have a good game and we can get the result. And it was nice to hear them chanting my name, I've never had that before. It's exciting to be here and exciting to see the passion that the fans have here in the city. So hopefully, we can keep it in results, and they can keep bringing the noise.
In the following weeks, Kirk is looking forward to getting to know his new hometown a little better.
- I went to the big shopping mall Stella but other than that, I haven’t had the chance to get to know the town that much. My fiancée is coming in this weekend so I'm sure we'll have a little walk around and see the sights.
Hockey player from a young age
Many people may have had to do a double take when reading about Kirk’s transfer to Mikkeli: a player from the UK moving to the Finnish Liiga? The British national team has been playing at the Elite Division of the IIHF World Championship in the recent years, but the country is still better known for its football stars and the very popular sport in Britain, rugby, in which the Brits have been very successful.
Kirk, however, ended up choosing hockey instead of football or rugby and has stayed on that path since three years old, when he begun his hockey journey in the junior team in Sheffield, a town known for its steel industry.
- My parents went to watch the team in Sheffield. And then my older brother started playing so I was kind of born into it and fell in love with the game. So it's really down to my parents and my older brother.
Kirk has been playing pro since 15 years old when he started at the second highest league in Britain, moving into the main league already the next season. While playing in the U18 series, Kirk was the top goal scorer of the season. Playing pro at age 15 was a huge learning experience for the young forward.
- It was definitely an adjustment and a different challenge. It was quite nerve wracking at that age, especially when you grow up and you watch these people. But it was a good experience. There were lots of good foreign players that helped me adjust and show me the ropes which was great.
In many countries where hockey is not the most popular sport, the most promising young players leave their home country to gain experience in foreign series. Kirk is an exemption to this since he played in Britain’s series until 18 years old. Kirk thinks that hockey facilities in Britain are getting better even though its behind in popularity to football, for example.
- The situation is definitely getting better. There's not that many rinks but they are pretty good standard. The interest and level in hockey is growing. And with the success of the national team that we've had, the interest was growing, and teams sell out their arenas for games. It's exciting to see how things will develop, hopefully we can get more government funding and things like that to help promote the sport and get kids on the ice a little bit more.
North America calling
The biggest factor for Kirk leaving England was the NHL draft in summer 2018, as Arizona Coyotes selected Kirk in the 7th round, making one of the young Englishman’s dreams a reality.
The draft made history since Kirk became the first player born and trained fully in England to be drafted into the NHL. Before Kirk, the only players trained in England and drafted into NHL were Scottish Tony Hand and Colin Shields.
- It was exciting. Obviously, it's something that every kid dreams about but being from England, it's a little different, you kind of have a different pathway in your mind. When I knew it was coming up on the news, an opportunity of me possibly being drafted, it was exciting. And then when I found out, it was crazy and really special. And to be able to share that with my family, it was special as well.
Kirk was selected also later that summer by Peterborough Petes in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) Import Draft’s first round, and the forward moved to play in North America that same fall.
During his two OHL seasons Kirk posted 97 points over 110 games. Even more valuable than the points, was the chance of getting to learn the small ice game style.
- It was a lot different. It was a huge adjustment going from European style and bigger ice to small ice and North American style of hockey, it was a completely different game. One that took me quite a while to adjust to but definitely improved.
- It helped me grow as a person helped me grow as a player and it made me learn to react a little quicker and make plays a little quicker and see the game and entire areas a little better. Overall, it was a great learning opportunity for me.
The pivotal World Championships
Team Great Britain was promoted to the elite division of the IIHF World Championships
in the spring of 2018, making it Great Britain's first appearance in the elite division in 25 years. Kirk played in the tournament, as well as the following spring’s tournament in which Britain had a sensational win over France, thus keeping their position in the elite division.
The following year’s Championships were cancelled due to the COVID pandemic. The World Championships were held again in 2021 even though COVID still had a big impact on the season, with the hockey leagues in several countries being put on hold or cancelled entirely. This was the case also in OHL where Kirk was planned to continue playing. His season continued with loan contracts in the third highest leagues in Sweden and England, due to the seasons in the higher leagues being cancelled.
Despite the challenging starting points to the tournament, the Riga IIHF World Championship was a huge success for Kirk. Britain won only one game in the tournament, but the 21-year-old forward became a household name in hockey circles after scoring seven goals in the tournament and finishing joint-top of the goalscoring charts together with Canadian Andrew Mangiapane.
- It was a little bit of a mishmash kind of year for us and we hadn’t been able to play much in England. We played some games in EIHL and in the second league in England. But we all wanted to go and have fun at the tournament to make sure we played the right way and showed that we could perform as a team.
Kirk’s success at the World Championships did not go unnoticed in the NHL because in summer 2021 Kirk signed an entry-level contract with the Coyotes.
- Obviously, I knew that that might be my last big chance to prove I could play at a high level and into an NHL contract. So I knew I wanted to go out there and play the right way and have some success. And it worked out well for me at the time and was a fun experience.
“I'm excited for this opportunity and definitely up for the challenge”
Kirk started last season in the AHL with the Coyotes' affiliate, the Tucson Roadrunners. The season had a positive start, Kirk played in eight matches, with a score of 2+1, before suffering a season-ending knee injury in November 2021.
- First it was an adjustment, playing for the first time in North America. But by game four or game five, I started to really feel more comfortable out there and find my game and knew how I can have an impact. Unfortunately, the season was quite short with the injury. Especially with the team in Tucson last year, we had so many guys injured and sick for COVID, there was so much more chance for an opportunity to express yourself and show your game. That was definitely a tough time. Now I'm just looking forward and trying to improve, says Kirk.
Kirk was excited to start this season after the injury, but he was featured in only one game in AHL before he was re-assigned by the Coyotes to secondary affiliate, the Atlanta Gladiators of the ECHL. Kirk registered 11 points through 15 games in Gladiators.
At the end of 2022, Kirk was given an opportunity to transfer to Europe. Coyotes considered this as the best option for Kirk’s development and finally out of the few remaining options Jukurit from Mikkeli, Finland, was chosen as Kirk’s new club.
- I planned to be this season in North America, playing in the AHL, but it wasn't to be for certain circumstances. There was an opportunity that came close Christmas time that there was some interest from teams in Europe. Arizona decided it was the best option and I also agree that playing in one of the top leagues in Europe is an amazing opportunity. Especially for me to develop my game over here, I'm excited for this opportunity and definitely up for the challenge.
The decision to transfer to Jukurit was made a little easier by the fact that Kirk had been negotiating with the club already in spring 2021. At that time, the NHL contract offered by Coyotes changed the plans.
- When the opportunity came to come back to Europe, Jukurit was very interested, and it helped that I had had previous conversations with Olli [Jukurit head coach Jokinen] the year before. Arizona did their research as well, because there were a few teams and they felt Jukurit was the best team and Olli the best person to help me develop.
Aiming for play-offs
For future goals, Kirk aims to return to North America and to play in NHL. At the moment, however, his sights are firmly set on the current season.
- Of course, my future goal is to play an NHL game and make it in North America. But last season after my injury I have tried not to focus too hard in the future instead of being in the present. Coming to the rink every day and doing the right things. I think that's the most important thing for me now, to control what I can control, and that's my attitude when it comes to the rink and how I play on the ice, Kirk states.
Kirk has had a strong start in the Jukurit jersey and he hopes to continue that in the following games as well.
- I think for us as a team, we want to have a good play-off push. We want to make sure that we go deep in trying to win a championship. That's the main aim. For me, I want to be a part of that and I want to help push this team over the edge and hopefully develop as a player and a person along the way.
In addition to his personal goals and dreams, Kirk also wants to help make British hockey more known around the world and by being an example to young players, also courage and inspire the young British hockey players.
- I hope that kids can see me as an example of someone that never left England growing up, I played in England up until I was drafted. So if I can do it, why can't anyone else. There's a lot of kids out there that have a lot of talent. I wasn't the most talented growing up but there's more about having to work hard and wanting to be the best every time I was on the ice that helped me get to the next level. Come with the right attitude every day, do the right things and anything's possible.