Tony Hand is the most successful British ice-hockey player of all time. After growing up on a council estate in Edinburgh he became the first Brit to be drafted into the National Hockey League, the top league in the world, and has been one of the highest scorers in the country for 25 years.
Hand’s colourful career has seen a fair amount of controversy after he was banned due to failing a drugs-test and arrested after a brawl with a rival fan. He is now seen as a legend of the sport in Britain, has been honoured with an MBE and is a well-respected coach and a role-model for young players across the country.
Hand was born on 15th August 1967 and discovered ice-hockey at an early age. He progressed through the development sides of local team, the Murrayfield Racers, while working at the rink to pay for his equipment. He made his debut for the Racers in the British Hockey League at the age of 14, due to a player shortage and impressed so much that he played a further 18 games that season, scoring four times and adding seven assists.
At this time all the best teams played in the British Hockey League, sponsored by Heineken. They also competed in the Autumn Cup and the playoff competition at the end of the season known as the British Championship. There were also the regional competitions such as the Southern Cup, Northern League, Regal Scottish League and the Scottish Cup.
The standard of opposition was not always very good but Hand’s incredible puck handling skills and ability to read the game meant that he stood out as a huge talent in a league riddled with average British players and veterans from North American and Scandinavia who were winding down their careers.
Throughout his career in the British Hockey League, Hand would score well over one hundred goals nearly every season and get at least four or five points (goals and assists) in most games.
In 1983 Hand signed his first professional contract and became the Racers’ star player. After racking up well over 100 points and finishing as the club’s top scorer for the 1983/4 season he narrowly missed out on his first trophy when the Racers were defeated 5-4 in the biggest game of the year, the British playoff final, by rivals the Dundee Rockets.
He became the youngest player, aged 16, ever to be named in the league’s All-Star team. Hand went on to be part of this team for 11 of the next 12 years. Hand also represented Great Britain at the 1984 World Junior Championships, registering six goals and three assists.
In the next two years Hand grew from an exceptional young talent into the best player in the British league, as he recorded over 180 points from under 40 games in consecutive seasons. He was named Young Player of the Year in 1985, after once again leading the Racers to the playoff final where they were defeated by the Fife Flyers. Hand won his first silverware in 1986, as the Racers won the Autumn Cup and then were victorious in their third straight playoff final against Dundee.
In the summer of 1986, the 18 year-old Hand was chosen in the 12th round 1986 NHL draft, by the Edmonton Oilers. The draft is the way in which teams choose the best young players from around the world to join their junior ranks. Hand went to Canada for a two week trial, where he played with the likes of NHL legend’s Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri and Mark Messier, and impressed the Oilers’ coaches enough to be offered the chance to play for their junior team, the Victoria Cougars for a year.
The then Oilers coach, Glen Sather, says of Hand At the training camp I could see that he had a great ability to read the ice and he was the smartest player there other than Wayne Gretzky. He skated well: his intelligence on the ice stood out. He was a real prospect.
But Hand was suffering from homesickness and decided to postpone his move to Edmonton for a year. He came back in 1987 to play for the Cougars in the Western Hockey League but struggled with the demands of training, a packed fixture list and considerable press attention, all for less money than he would have been earning in Edinburgh. Hand admits in his autobiography that this decision may have been a mistake but that at the time it seemed as though he had no other choice.
Return to the Racers
Hand’s return to Scotland led to a very successful period for himself and the Racers. Between 1986 and 1989 he had three consecutive 250 point seasons. The Racers won the British Hockey League, the Regal Scottish League and the Scottish Cup in 1987. They retained the league title the following season.
In the summer of 1988 Hand was given the chance to play for Geneve-Servette in the far superior Swiss league. But the Scotsman refused and played for Murrayfield in the 1988-89 season, during which he scored his 500th goal for the club and 1000th career point, as the Racers won the Regal Scottish League and Scottish Cup.
He was also awarded the Player of the Year Award by Ice-Hockey UK. Hand was called up to the Great Britain team for the World Championship and was the star, as they claimed a bronze medal in Belgium. He managed 6 goals and 12 assists in just four games.
In the following season, Hand recorded another 200 point haul as the Racers once again won both Scottish competitions and the Autumn Cup. But the season was to end in bitter disappointment as Hand missed the decisive penalty in the 1990 play-off final shoot-out against the Cardiff Devils at Wembley.
He had a much more successful post-season as he led Great Britain to promotion from World Championship Group C and was awarded the Most Valuable Player Award for the competition.
During 1990-91 season he once again racked up over 250 points as the Capitals won the Scottish Cup once again. He set a British record when he assisted 11 goals in a game against Trafford Metros in the Autumn Cup.
The 1991-92 campaign started badly for Hand as he was banned for 8 games after a cold medicine he was using was found to contain performance enhancing drugs. He responded in incredible fashion, as he finished the season as the top scorer in the country yet again and was voted Players’ Player of the Year. He was also voted Best Forward in the 1992 World Championship as Great Britain were promoted to Group B, the second highest tier of international competition.
Another exceptional season for club and country was to come in 1992-93, as Hand led the Racers to victory in the Autumn Cup and picked up his second BHL Player of the Year Award. He was part of the Great Britain team who gained promotion to the top tier of international Ice Hockey in Team GB’s most successful tournament in the last fifty years.
Hand scored 6 goals and assisted 8 others in just 7 games. In 1994 the team competed in the World Championship. Despite losing every game, their mere presence at the tournament was seen as a huge advancement for British ice-hockey.
Hand’s fierce patriotism as well as his talent meant he was a hero for British players and fans throughout his international career. He is considered by most people involved in the game to be the main reason that the early nineties was so successful for Team GB.
Move to Sheffield
By the mid-nineties the financial situation at the Racers had become very unstable. In 1994 the club was liquidated and renamed the Edinburgh Racers but this did not improve the club’s fortunes as another bankruptcy came after only one season.
By the start of the 1995/96 season Hand, who had stayed loyal to the Racers for well over ten years despite being approached by much richer and bigger clubs, had no choice other than to move away.
Hand’s consistent point-scoring and extraordinary talent meant he was targeted by teams from across Europe. He did not want to move far away from his beloved home town and his family. Eventually Hand signed for the Sheffield Steelers due to Sheffield’s comparative closeness to the Scottish capital and the increased wages the wealthiest club in the country could offer him.
Hand could not have dreamt of a better first season with his new club, as the Steelers won the ‘Grand Slam’, taking the league, Autumn Cup and play-off championship. Hand racked up 170 points, including 23 goals in just 12 Autumn Cup games, including a brace in the final as the Steelers romped to a 5-2 victory against bitter rivals, the Nottingham Panthers.
The Steelers also defeated the Panthers in the final of the play-offs. This team is considered one of the greatest ever to play in Britain.
In 1996 the British Super-league was formed by the richest clubs in the country, in an effort to attract better players and increase the popularity of the sport in Britain.
Hand’s days of scoring five points in almost every game were over but he remained one of the better players in the league and recorded figures of 19 goals and 54 assists in 59 games, as the Steelers finished second in the league behind the Cardiff Devils. The Steelers retained their playoff crown by beating the Panthers 3-1, with Hand getting two assists.
The Steelers struggled in the next two seasons, finishing in sixth place both years. They did manage to win the 1999 Challenge Cup, a new Superleague cup competition. Hand continued to wow the fans, getting well over a point per game on average, whilst making the 1997-98 All-Star team and claiming the new British Top Scorer Award in 1999.
Ayr Scottish Eagles
In 1999 Hand returned to Scotland where he joined the Ayr Scottish Eagles for two seasons. By this time he was 32 years old and could no longer use his once blistering pace and fast reactions to score goals and so reverted to a more creative role.
Whilst he only scored 11 goals in his first season at Ayr, his huge experience, innate understanding of the game’s rhythm and mercurial skills on the puck allowed him to assist 45 goals. In the following season he showed he could still find the back of the net with 25 goals to go with his 49 assists, as he once again made the team of the year and retained the British Top Scorer for the third consecutive year.
Beginning a coaching career
Despite attempts by the Eagles and other Superleague clubs to retain his services, Hand decided to drop down a league and begin his managerial career. He became player coach of the newly formed Dundee Stars in the British National League (BNL).
He was by far and away the best player in the league and after bringing in some other Superleague-quality players, such as Paddy Lochi and Scott Young and British net-minder Stephen Murphy, the Stars cruised to a league and playoff double. Hand scored 128 points and won the BNL player of the year award.
Hand retired from international hockey in 2002 to concentrate on his coaching career. The next two seasons were frustrating but gave him valuable managerial and personal experiences. The Stars failed to win a trophy in the 2002-03 season, due to the dominance of the Coventry Blaze.
The Blaze and the Stars developed a fierce rivalry and participated in some classic games, with Hand playing a central role in most of them. It was in one of these games, a crucial defeat at the Skydome in Coventry in 2003, when Hand was taunted by a Blaze fan whilst in the penalty box. A fight ensued and the Scotsman was arrested but released the next day and never charged.
Return to Edinburgh
In 2003 Hand returned to Edinburgh to coach and play for his beloved home town club, now renamed the Capitals. He received a hero’s welcome from the fans but did not have the same resources as he had had at Dundee and the club could only finish mid-table.
Hand’s personal form was still superb, as he scored 100 points yet again and won the BNL Player of the Year for the second time.
Belfast and Buckingham Palace
The following season he was given the position of player-coach of Elite-league team, the Belfast Giants. He was named joint Player of the Year with Neal Martin and was the top scorer in the league, as the Giants came second behind the Coventry Blaze.
This season proved he could coach at the highest level in Britain but he was criticised for signing some exceptional players and some poor players, rather than spreading quality throughout the team.
In her 2005 Birthday Honours list the Queen awarded Tony Hand an MBE for services to British Ice-hockey, making him the first ice-hockey player to be honoured. Queen Elizabeth described Hand’s profession as an unusual sport.
Hand was once again lured back to Edinburgh for the 2005/06 season but was yet again frustrated by the limited funds at his disposal, as the Capitals finished eighth out of nine teams and were easily brushed aside in both the cup and the playoffs. Hand was the Capitals’ top scorer and won both the Best British Forward and the Top British Scorer Awards. He was also named in the All-Star team.
Manchester and the future
The following season Hand was named the Head Coach of the Manchester Phoenix and guided them to the semi-finals of both the British Knock-out cup and the Challenge Cup, as they finished sixth in the league.
Hand was then ejected from the play-off quarter final against the Cardiff Devils after fiercely disputing the referee’s decision. He once again won the Best Forward and Top Scorer Awards and was coaxed out of international retirement to play in the 2007 World Championships, in which he picked up 3 assists as they were unlucky not to pick up a medal.
Hand, who is still player-coach of the ever-improving Phoenix, is considered to be not only the best Brit ever to play ice-hockey but one of the most dangerous and influential players in the British Elite League.
Recently he has become vocal with his opinions on how the sport should develop in this country, including stricter wage caps and import limits being imposed to allow home-grown talent to flourish.
His emergence as a genuinely world-class player changed the perception of British ice-hockey forever and it looks as though he may still have even more to give, as a coach and ambassador, to the sport he loves.