“Talent hits a target no-one else can hit. Genius hits a target no-one else can see”
Today is a sad day in British ice-hockey. It’s a day that sees the greatest Briton ever to take up a pair of hockey skates and use them in anger decide to pack his Bauer Supremes away for the last time.
It’s a day that sees one of the hidden greats of world ice hockey finally step aside from the frozen stage for the last time.
Today, via the Manchester Phoenix facebook page, we learned that the man known as the “British Gretzky” and Edinburgh’s favourite hockey son, Tony Hand, is retiring from playing:
It is impossible to explain to anyone outside British hockey just how important to the sport in the UK Tony Hand has been. He’s been a leader, a linchpin, a golden boy, a crutch, and an inspiration to everyone who’s been involved in British hockey at any level-and continues to be so. If it could be done in hockey…if it could be won…he’s probably done it. And won it.
Born in Edinburgh in 1967, Tony started his pro career aged 14-a career that’s taken him all over Britain and the world via Edinburgh, Victoria BC, Edmonton, Sheffield, Ayr, Dundee, Belfast, Edinburgh, and for the last nine years, Manchester. He’s been a pro hockey player for 33 of his 47 years on this earth, all but a few months of it spent playing for British teams.
He’s won countless titles. He’s been a legend at more than one club and for his country, representing every team he’s played for with quiet pride and the kind of skill that takes your breath away.
The sheer numbers alone are incredible.
34 seasons played. Over 1500 games. 3,770 points (and counting). More assists in his career than Gretzky. 10 league and playoff titles. Innumerable individual awards.
Oh yes, and also this one line that makes him almost unique among native-born British players, tucked away at the bottom of the 1986 NHL draft list:
|#252||Edmonton Oilers||Tony Hand (C)|
Yup. Tony Hand is, to this day, one of only two native-born British players ever drafted by an NHL team (the other, Colin Shields, is also still playing in the EIHL, and at 35 is a young buck compared to Hand’s 47).
The sheer numbers and facts don’t convey just what it was and is like watching Tony Hand play for a British hockey fan, though.
Hand is not and never was a rough-and-tumble player. He could handle himself where necessary (he is Scottish, after all) but his game has not and never will rely on pure brute strength. It relies instead on skating, on guile, and on a hockey brain that ticks along like the finest of Swiss watches while rarely missing a beat.
To watch Hand play, even to this day, is to watch an artist work, using the ice as his canvas and his stick as the paintbrush. His skill with the puck has been matched by few, if any players he’s played with or against in his career.
A typical Hand play is to skate almost lazily into the zone, head up and puck on stick, before either placing a killer pass for a scoring opportunity or starting a move that led to him or a team-mate putting the puck in the net…and if you watch him you always notice that even away from the puck, his head and eyes are always moving, watching, processing the situation around him and reacting to it at a speed that seems almost unearthly. At times you’d watch Hand receive the puck, slow up just a little and the entire arena seem to pause to take a breath and slow around him before beginning to bend itself to the shape he wanted.
Tony had a gift that very few hockey players have ever had-the ability to remain unhurried and unruffled like an oasis of serenity in the madhouse that is pro hockey. He had the ability to make the game seem to go at his pace, so seamlessly did he constantly adjust his pace to fit the game. Passing isn’t a mundane skill in his hands-it is a mean to eviscerate an opposition defence, prompt an attack, relieve pressure…a many splendoured thing.
To watch Hand prompt and subtly probe an opposition defence for weaknesses was like watching a surgeon at work, or an engineer methodically testing the workings of a machine for weaknesses…patient, thorough, unerringly accurate.
If you were on the opposition side of the ice in any capacity, watching the Scottish master work was terrifying in its quiet relentlessness…it brought to mind waves eroding away at a cliff or the quiet concentration and dogged persistence of a mathematician working out a problem. He rarely misplaced a pass or got caught out of position. At times he almost seemed to take joy in playing with opposition defences, using his team-mates as rebounding boards to pull them apart, sending them this way and that in an attempt to keep up with both him and the puck.
The only word appropriate for someone like Hand when he was on form was “mesmerizing.”
As a coach, he’s already won several titles while still remaining among the leading playmakers on his team despite reaching the age of 47.
Men of 47 simply don’t play a high-speed, contact sport like ice-hockey to the level he does.
Even when not at work, Hand has an aura of greatness around him for British hockey people of any description. I once had the chance to play on a line with him in a training session when he came along to coach the rec team I played…and it was an experience akin to a footballer sharing the pitch with Pele. The constant thought of “good god…I just took a pass in a drill from the greatest British player ever…” or “I HAVE to get stuff right…he’s watching” was prevalent.
And as for a word of praise, even for a pass that connected…that was like praise from the top of Olympus itself.
As of the end of this season Hand will no longer play-just take a full-time off-ice coaching role. He will no longer take the ice as a player, but he leaves a legacy of British hockey that it’s likely very few if any will ever match.
The most-loved British player of several generations. Career points totals that will likely never, ever be matched in British hockey again. 30 years of bewitching the rinks of Britain with his skills. Countless hockey fans who will remember watching him play the way Canadians remember Gretzky, Russians remember Tretiak or Americans remember the “Miracle On Ice” team. Already there are calls for him to be given the highest possible tribute the sport can give, and for his number 9 to be unilaterally retired across UK hockey.
It would be a fitting tribute to British hockey’s greatest native son. But it still wouldn’t all the gifts that the 5’10, 181lb proud Scot has given to British hockey.
Farewell and thank you, Sir Tony. If anyone has earned a rest from playing, you have.
Bidh mi ‘gad fhaicinn and Sealbh math dhuit, GB’s number nine.