TUCSON – Any questions about the growth of hockey in England can be answered by examining the sport’s presence in Arizona.
Think of Liam Kirk, a left wing and center for the Coyotes’ AHL affiliate, the Tucson Roadrunners. Or Brendan Perlini, the former Coyotes forward who is now with the Edmonton Oilers.
“Hockey in England is growing,” Kirk said.
Indeed. Kirk made history at the 2018 NHL Entry Draft when the Coyotes selected him in the seventh round, 189th overall, making him the first player born and entirely trained in England to be drafted by an NHL team.
He came along four years after the Coyotes selected Perlini, who was born in Guildford, England, but moved to Canada as an 11-year-old. The Coyotes selected Perlini with the 12th overall pick in the 2014 Entry Draft.
Kirk and Perlini both have older brothers who played hockey, and all managed to reach the highest levels of the sport despite a lack of resources for young hockey players in Great Britain.
“In England, it is very tough to get on the ice,” Perlini said.
“We train once a week (on the ice),” Kirk said. “We train on Monday nights and if you played up (a level), you played with the older team, then you practice on the same night afterward. So you maybe get in three hours of training a week.”
That is just a fraction of the time a youth hockey player might get in North America. So Brendan Perlini, and his older brother Brett, said they had to improvise to quench their thirst for hockey.
“We found other ways to play hockey and develop our skills such as street hockey and playing roller hockey,” Perlini said. “We always had a place to shoot pucks set up in the backyard at whatever house we lived at.”
Perlini grew up in a hockey family, and his parents instilled a work ethic that he and his brother applied to their craft even at a young age. His mother, Vicki, coached Brendan until he was 10 in England. Brett was coached by their father, Fred.
“I grew up in a hockey environment, so I made sure my kids did something every day to get better,” Vicki Perlini. “Work ethic always wins.”
Brett Perlini, 31, was born in Canada while Fred Perlini was playing hockey in England and he and Vicki returned to Canada during the offseason. But like his younger brother, he played youth hockey in England.
“I lived in the UK until I was 14 years old and played all of my hockey in England,” Brett said. “I was pretty fortunate to be a part of a great junior program in Guildford that had many ex-players – including my dad – overseeing the program, which had a big impact on my development.”
Drafted by the Anaheim Ducks in 2010, the older Perlini brother returned to England in 2017 when he joined the Elite Ice Hockey League and started playing for the Nottingham Panthers.
“I really enjoyed my time with the Nottingham Panthers. Coming from North America I didn’t really know what to expect when I first got to the UK.” Brett said. “My first year with the team we were in the Champions Hockey League playing top teams from all over Europe and I enjoyed that a lot. On top of that, I got to work with a lot of good people at the club and I am good friends with many former teammates.”
He also was Kirk’s teammate on Great Britain’s national squad at the IIHF World Championship in 2019 and 2021.
“I’ve played with Liam on the men’s national team now for three years and it’s been great to see his progression each year,” Brett Perlini said. “On the ice, you could tell he was growing as a player after playing major junior hockey in Canada, and then this past World Championships, he took it to a whole new level leading the tournament in goal scoring on a team that was underdogs in every game we played.”
Although the popularity of hockey in the United Kingdom pales next to a country like Canada, Kirk said hockey fans there are as passionate as any, especially after the national team’s recent success.
“The fans have been huge with my journey and supporting me and the national team and all the club teams, so it’s definitely special,” Kirk said.
“The fans are very passionate about getting better and improving, whether it’s in international or club hockey,” Brendan said.
But to continue growing, he said, “You have to have progressive people in charge to push the envelope … people who want to truly make a change and not just be a figurehead in a program. I would like to see more involvement to what they can do to help grow the hockey community.
“I think there are very good players who are still playing or are retired who they should involve because those players have been on the front lines playing the game and traveling, not sitting and criticizing. These players know the ins and outs of the game, what it takes to be successful and what teams need to be successful.”
The Perlini brothers got involved in the English hockey community because their father Fred Perlini was playing hockey in the United Kingdom. Fred Perlini finished his career with the Guildford Flames.
Kirk grew up watching his brother Jonathan Kirk play.
“My parents went to watch the local team in Sheffield when they started and they had my brother Jonathan and he played,” Kirk said. “Then, as I grew up, I just copied him and wanted to be like him. I fell in love with the sport from there.”
Brett Perlini believes Kirk and his brother Brendan are great examples of two English hockey players who put in the hard work and are now doing great things in professional hockey.
Kirk signed a three-year entry-level contract with the Arizona Coyotes this past July. Kirk currently plays for the Arizona Coyotes AHL affiliate team, the Tucson Roadrunners.
Brendan Perlini is currently under a one-year, two-way contract with the Edmonton Oilers.
In his four NHL seasons with the Arizona Coyotes, the Chicago Blackhawks and the Detroit Red Wings, Brendan Perlini recorded 46 goals and 30 assists in 239 games played.
The younger Perlini brother has some advice for English-born players looking to pursue ice hockey.
“Don’t listen to anyone. Listen to yourself,” he said. “People are going to say, ‘You’re from England, you can’t be a hockey player.’ People are going to criticize you. They will question you, and they will possibly make fun of you for doing something that’s so profoundly different from the culture in England. That is why I say don’t listen. If you want to be a hockey player, you go do it and follow your heart.
“Don’t be afraid to take risks.”