SAVANNAH NUGENT Cronkite News
TUCSON – Any questions about the growth of hockey in England can be answered by examining the sport’s presence in Arizona.
Consider Liam Kirk, left winger 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 in the 2018 NHL Draft when the Coyotes selected him in the seventh round, 189th overall, making him the first player born and fully trained in England to be drafted by a team from the NHL.
It came four years after the Coyotes picked Perlini, who was born in Guildford, England, but moved to Canada at age 11. 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 Britain.
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“In England, it’s very difficult to go on the ice,” said Perlini.
“We practice once a week (on the ice),” Kirk said. “We train on Monday nights and if you’ve played (a tier) you’ve played with the older team and then you train the same night afterwards. So maybe you can get three hours of training per week.
It’s only a fraction of the time a young hockey player could spend 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, like street hockey and roller hockey,” Perlini said. “We always had a place to shoot pucks set up in the backyard of the house where we lived.”
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 trained by their father, Fred.
“I grew up in a hockey environment, so I made sure my kids were doing something every day to improve,” 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 moved back to Canada during the off-season. But like his younger brother, he played junior hockey in England.
“I lived in the UK until I was 14 and played all my hockey in England,” Brett said. “I was lucky enough to be part of a great junior program at Guildford which had many former players – including my father – overseeing the program which had a big impact on my development.”
Drafted by the Anaheim Ducks in 2010, Perlini’s older 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 arrived in the UK. said Brett. “My first year with the team , we were in the Hockey Champions League against the best 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’m good friends with a lot of former teammates.
He was also Kirk’s teammate in the Great Britain national team at the IIHF World Championship in 2019 and 2021.
“I’ve played with Liam on the Men’s National Team for three years now and it’s been great to see his progress every year,” said Brett Perlini. “On the ice, you could tell he was growing as a player after playing major junior hockey in Canada, then at the last World Championships he took it to a whole new level by leading the tournament in chapter goals in a team that was underdog in every game we played.
Although the popularity of hockey in the UK pales in comparison to a country like Canada, Kirk said hockey fans there are as passionate as any, especially after the recent success of the National team.
“The fans have been huge with my journey and have been supporting me and the national team and all the club teams so it’s really special,” Kirk said.
“Fans are very passionate about getting better and better, whether it’s international or club hockey,” Brendan said.
But to keep growing, he said, “You need to have progressive people in charge of pushing boundaries… people who really want to make a change and not just be a figurehead on a program. I would like to see more involvement in what they can do to help grow the hockey community.
“I think there are some very good players who are still playing or who are retired and they should be involved because those players have been on the front line to play and travel, not to sit and criticize. Those players know the ins and outs of the game, what it takes to be successful, and what teams need to be successful.
“Don’t be afraid to take risks”
The Perlini brothers became involved in the English hockey community because their father Fred Perlini played hockey in the UK. Fred Perlini ended his career with the Guildford Flames.
Kirk grew up watching his brother Jonathan Kirk play.
“My parents went to see the local team in Sheffield when they started and they had my brother Jonathan and he was playing,” Kirk said. “Then growing up I just copied him and wanted to be like him. I fell in love with the sport from there.
Brett Perlini believes that Kirk and his brother Brendan are great examples of two English hockey players who worked hard and are now doing big things in professional hockey.
Kirk signed a three-year entry-level contract with the Arizona Coyotes last July. Kirk currently plays for the Arizona Coyotes’ AHL affiliate team, the Tucson Roadrunners.
Brendan Perlini is currently under a one-year contract with the Edmonton Oilers.
During his four NHL seasons with the Arizona Coyotes, Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings, Brendan Perlini scored 46 goals and 30 assists in 239 games played.
Younger brother Perlini has some advice for English-born players looking to get into 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 will criticize you. They will ask you questions and maybe laugh at you for doing something so profoundly different from English culture. That’s why I say don’t listen. If you want to be a hockey player, go ahead and follow your heart.
“Don’t be afraid to take risks.”