This weekend I had an opportunity to do something a little different in the UK hockey world. Something that more people should. I watched 12 games of British junior hockey across four age-groups from u12 to u18 over two days, including some of the best club teams in Britain, at the EIHA junior finals.
And in those two days, I had a truth driven home to me over and over again…that the accepted narrative in the EIHL and indeed all of British hockey that “elite young British talent is hard to find”…a myth that has been used persistently by some in the British game over the past season or two to justify (yet another) increase in the numbers of imports per team and defend the lack of chances given to British-born youngsters by some teams at the top level…simply isn’t true.
The argument, it goes, is that there simply aren’t enough good British players out there, or enough truly superb British talent coming through in either the men’s or women’s game. The pipeline, it is claimed, isn’t gushing, but trickling…or British kids simply aren’t developing to any sort of level.
To hear some talk, there’s just not that much skill and talent out there in Britain…for whatever reason, UK kids simply can’t take to hockey at anywhere near the level they might take to football.
This weekend, and the EIHA Conference showpiece weekend at the beginning of May, which bring together the best junior players from all over Britain to compete, are mute testimony that if you’re willing to look, potential future stars are everywhere.
Look at Lee Valley’s 11-year-old netminder Emma Nichols, who this week became a viral video star across the hockey world thanks to an astonishing performance for the South East at the Conference weekend…the video of her shutout has now been viewed over 125,000 times since Friday, and promoted by the vast majority of the biggest hockey sites on the planet…
And…oh yes, this 11-year-old also has already been endorsed as a future talent by the first professional women’s hockey league in the world:
And, just as an aside, she’s also been endorsed by the best (and probably most famous) female hockey player on Earth, too- the USA’s superstar, Hilary Knight:
Emma Nichols may be the current standard-bearer for British youth hockey, but she is merely the tip of a very talented iceberg of both male and female players. Watching the Junior Finals, this was IMMEDIATELY obvious. From u12 to u18, there was a constant parade of talented junior hockey players at iceSheffield this weekend…it almost seems unfair to pick a few out to watch. But here’s the names who were exceptional and particularly caught my eye throughout the weekend, position by position. This is not an exhaustive list of British talent (for a start, there’s no Scottish or Welsh players and there were only 16 teams to choose from – the Conference weekend is far better for a “true” definitive list of the hottest British prospects) but the sheer number of talented players even in this small sample should show just what a wealth of potential there is out there…
Ella Howard (Bracknell u12s) – Coming in early into a game as relief against a Bradford team that had the prodigous talent of Alex Graham (more on him later), she may have been forgiven for losing heart as Graham took over the game. But she denied him more that once on the breakaway, and moved with a sense of positioning that belied her young age, just like Emma Nichols. Despite finally losing the game 12-5, she stood out on a Bracknell squad that was simply overmatched against a generationally-talented opponent, and kept the score even close to respectable single-handedly at times.
Courtney Smith (Bradford u12s). This was the little 11-year-old’s first full season in net. You wouldn’t have known it. Like Ella Howard, she was calm, agile and confident, refusing to let an early goal in the final get her down. She’s agile, fearless and stood up incredibly well, particularly to a lot of pressure in the final. At u12 level, the girls ruled the weekend. She also has a heck of a glove hand.
Josh Winstanley (Guildford u12s) – This kid had a much tougher weekend than the scores show…particularly in the final against Bradford. Again, he was beaten mainly by the sheer class of Alex Graham for Bradford in the final, but was still strong and positionally aware throughout the weekend.
Ethan James (Okanagan u16s/18s): The standout goalie of the weekend by a distance…not least because he played four games in two days. Although James had a good team in front of him and lost both finals (to Guildford and Chelmsford) I can’t remember a single goal that was his fault…they all came from ricochets, superb shots or plain bad luck. Positioning, moving laterally and agility-wise he was a class above, and incredibly composed in a way that made him look much older than his 15 years. This kid has a MASSIVE future…if given the chance, he could well be a senior GB goalie down the line. He’s also already tipped for big things by none other than Ben Bowns…that’s one hell of a recommendation in itself.
Sonny Phillips (Chelmsford u18s): We didn’t really see the best of him in the semi-although it took 59 minutes for Nottingham to finally beat him. In the final, though, against a powerhouse Okanagan squad, he was immense…the battle between him and Ethan James was one of the highlights of the weekend. Big and agile, vocal to his defenders and brave and strong in melées around his net, he was one of his team’s stars.
Molly Brooks (Nottingham u18s); Girls in goal was something of a theme of the weekend…but Molly Brooks in particular kept her Nottingham team respectably close to a superb (and eventual championship-winning) Chelmsford team in the semi-final. Facing a heavy load of shots, she too was strong and stopped shots that many seniors would have been beaten by throughout the game. GB women have a heck of a goalie pipeline coming through.
Liam Steele (Guildford u12s) – One of several exceptionally talented offensive defencemen we saw throughout the weekend, Steele looked like a player far beyond his tender years. Smooth-skating, positionally perfect and constantly aware with an accurate shot, he looked like a truly gifted player. Along with Stanley Johnston, another superb little skater, he drove the team forward and looked a constant threat attacking, while barely putting a foot wrong defensively.
Alexis Smith (Guildford u12s) – The main thing noticeable about this young lady was her stickwork-her pokecheck and solid defensive play was the perfect counterpart to Steele. She just did things very, very well all weekend, while never being flashy or trying to do too much. One of several girls with a bright, bright future.
Max Gibson (Bradford u12s) – The Bradford u12 captain, and like Steele a super skater who simply did what he had to do all game – Gibson was quietly superb and had stickhandling older players would envy for days.
Tom McFadden (Bradford u14s) Along with Jordan Griffin, McFadden quietly did his work, like Max Gibson, and also controlled a very good point shot. He wasn’t afraid to get involved physically where required, either, which was particularly noticeable on the Sunday.
Edward Bradley (Guildford u14/16) – Probably the standout defenceman of the weekend. Bradley was unbelievably good in both zones in all four games he played, running his team’s offence from the point, skating beautifully and barely putting a foot wrong all game and joining the rush perfectly every time. He’s also got no mean finish in front of net. George Hoang was also superb for Guildford, too, but Bradley wasn’t just good to watch, he was an absolute joy. Expect to see him (hopefully) work his way through the ranks to EPL level sooner rather than later. This kid is one of England’s top offensive defencemen at junior level…not just for his age group but at all. One of the stars of the weekend.
Ben Jones (Sheffield u18s) – Held his team together almost single-handedly at times, and led like a true general from the blueline against Okanagan.
Ben Nethersell (Okanagan) – Offensive defencemen seemed to be something of a theme this weekend, and Nethersell was another of these who marshalled his team’s blueline at u18. With a solid shot, patience and calmness, he was probably only bettered by Edward Bradley in terms of being a sheer standout player on the blue.
Ollie Baldock (Chelmsford u18s) – Again, by picking just one Chelmsford player on D I’m doing a massive disservice to the rest of them…but Baldock was the standout…just. Running his team’s powerplay like a veteran and with great speed and hands as well as strength to hold off anyone, he was one of his team’s many stars.
Alex Graham (Bradford u12/u14) – 155 goals in 16 games. 15 goals in two games over the weekend, and singlehandedly a game winner. Has the stickhandling and shot of someone much older, stockily built and developing at a rate of knots, he’s one of two Bradford prodigies up front and probably the best u12 player in England by a way. The second Bradford prodigy, we’ll come to shortly.
Zac Descarries-Gravel (Guildford u12/14) This kid grew early. He’s already stocky and fast, with a tireless workrate. Strong in the corners and with a very good shot-not quite Alex Graham’s level, but then nobody at u12 is, frankly.
Theo Sire (Guildford u12) – Diminutive but fast, Theo and his sister Margot were two of a kind…quick and shifty with stick skills many older kids would kill for.
Luke Smital (Bracknell u12) – Son of Bracknell Bees legend Lukas Smital, Luke is like his dad…strong, quick and with a very good shot.
Mason Biddulph (Guildford u14/16) The stick skills this boy has are unreal. Look out for the video of two of his goals in the semi-final, both of which would dominate highlight reels for week had they been scored in the NHL. Biddulph is fast, skilled and with passing that could put the puck through the eye of a needle already.
Kieran Brown (Bradford u14/16) – This kid has been hyped to the skies as the British Connor McDavid. He could be it. Really. Watching him play is an experience because he has a killer instinct in front of the net, loves to land big hits and skates like the wind. He scored 114 goals at u14 and led the country at u16, too. He and Alex Graham are a truly terrifying pair. They will play Elite League at least if they continue being allowed to develop. The sky’s the limit for this kid.
Jose Da Silva (Guildford u16): Fast and with hand-eye co-ordination on a different level, his two-goals in the semi were crucial to beat Sheffield.
Liam Kirk/Aaron Lyon (Sheffield u16/18): The Steelers need to be watching Liam Kirk already. He’s a magician with the puck, fastest on the ice and with the vision of players far more experienced than him. At u16 level he was a standout above the rest of a very good team – I’d be surprised if the NIHL squad aren’t already looking to get him on their roster, as with the Steeldogs. If Sheffield Steelers set up their u20 team, expect him and Lyon to both be offered a place on it. Lyon is more of a scorer, but one massive hit is what he’ll be remembered for this weekend…a beautiful open-ice hit that destroyed a Guildford player.
Mac Howlett (Okanagan u16/18) Again, to be honest we could pick out several more of the Okanagan squad, not least Corey Neilson’s son Cade, but Howlett was incredibly impressive, not least because he’s incredibly small and fast even for an u16, never mind an u18. Used on the point on the PP too, his shot is hard and accurate but it’s his playmaking that’ll make him a career.
Seb Downing/Brandon Ayliffe (Chelmsford u18) – These two were awesome on the Sunday. Ayliffe’s hat-trick in the semi on Sunday showcased his speed and shot, while Downing is a tremendously-skilled winger with a tireless forecheck and skating style…he’s a little small but he simply never stops working. Ever.
Adam Finlinson (Okanagan u18) – Standout qualities are his speed and a super shot-his work along the boards and movement is what made him stand out, though.
Bear in mind that the above list mentions around 30 players, and frankly I could’ve probably included another 15 or so given space, and you start to realise the depth of talent out there. Also bear in mind that I (purposely) left out the likes of Glenn Billing, Toms Rutkis Luc Johnson, Michael Stratford, (all Okanagan) and Charlie Phillips (Chelmsford) at u18 level, as they’re all already playing senior hockey in the NIHL and EPL as well as being key in the GB teams…and also bear in mind that this only scratches the surface of the talent out there (it’s not even all the best players in Britain due to the restricted purview of club as opposed to conference teams, and doesn’t include any from Scotland or Wales at all, nor does it include any youngsters (below 18) already playing at senior level or in juniors abroad, such as 2016 NHL draft prospect Sam Duggan, and you realise just what a depth of talent the British game has if it’s managed right.
So, next time someone tells you that there’s no talent coming through in the British game, point them to this post. Point them to the Conference weekend. And laugh at their ignorance.
Because, as this weekend alone proves, there is a very rich and growing seam of both male and female homegrown talent out there in Britain, just waiting to be discovered.
It needs a system to take advantage of it desperately, and senior teams and fans at EIHL level to stop saying that there’s “no place” for young kids at the top…no place for every team in the EIHL to roll four lines including a “kid line”.
The talent is there. The diamonds are lying in the British hockey desert waiting to be picked up.
All it needs is for more senior teams to commit to going out and finding them. They’re definitely out there in abundance.