By Kevin Ferrie – The National
THE youngsters in the Great Britain squad that is set to take part in the World Under-20 Ice Hockey Championships this weekend will have access to far greater experience than the man in charge of their campaign had at their age, precisely because of the experiences that Tony Hand had at their age.
It was 30 years ago that the most famous product of the Scottish domestic game who is now GB Ice Hockey’s head development coach, played his solitary game for the National Hockey League’s Edmonton Oilers, a year after he had first been drafted as a teenager by what was then the leading club in the sport.
Since he was subsequently to become known as “two point Tony” The outcome of that encounter, an exhibition match against the Canadian national team, fitted perfectly since it was drawn with the sides scoring two points apiece. Naturally he remembers it as the highlight of what was to be an astonishing career.
“I actually got an assist and it’s the highest level I played at,” he said, by way of explaining why he rates that above all the trophy wins and international appearances he was to make thereafter.
Playing in the same squad and same position of centreman as two of the greatest players in the history of the sport, Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier, it seems hard to believe that having survived the cuts through training camp it was the lad from Muirhouse who then made the decision that he was not going to pursue a career in North America and would instead return home. In explaining that he admits to some regret, but not of the sort that keeps him awake at night.
“It was totally my doing, my fault,” he said of the missed opportunity.
“But when we’re going back to those days there were no mobile phones, no internet. To phone someone from Canada you had to go to a phone box and I was just thrown in there, so because I didn’t know what I was doing I just felt it was too much.
“I enjoyed it, but I loved being in Edinburgh so much and loved the Murrayfield Racers and obviously had family and friends here it was obviously a much easier option.
“In hindsight I wish I’d stayed. I don’t sit back and think about it all the time, but if you never wondered you’d be off your head. I would have liked to find out.”
In the course of those two years in the Oilers training camps he did manage to establish that he had, through no real fault of his own, fallen short on a basic requirement.
“What held me back as well was my fitness. I wasn’t remotely as fit as I should have been,” he said. “People think you’re lucky to have the talent, but you’re not, you’ve got to work hard.”
That sort of message has become a familiar refrain in Scottish sport, but it can be no coincidence that, armed with that information, Hand went on to have a 34-year career at the highest level of the British game.
In doing so Hand has acquired knowledge of what is required to get to the top that would be transferable to any sport and he believes there is work to be done to create the environment necessary to let that happen in British ice hockey.
“You’re only as good as the level you’re playing at,” he said.
“And I do think the level has changed. I don’t think it’s gone stratospheric or crazy, but as has happened in a lot of sports the fitness is key.”
While the work he and others are doing is beginning to make a difference, then, he clearly believes it will be some time before another British youngster gets the opportunity that came his way all those years ago.
“I don’t think our development is currently going to get players to the highest level,” said Hand. “Teams aren’t playing as many games as they should be.
“We’re getting there, but not as quickly as I’d like.”