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When the Coyotes selected Liam Kirk in the seventh round of the 2018 NHL Draft (No. 189), he thought he had a clear and defined path to point him toward his NHL dream. Five days after Arizona called his name on the draft floor in Dallas, the OHL’s Peterborough Petes made him the eighth overall pick in the 2018 CHL Import Draft and he played two seasons there, amassing 47 goals and 97 points in 110 games.
Kirk soon discovered what numerous players over the past couple of years have learned: development is anything but linear.
First, the global pandemic struck, interrupting the 2019-20 OHL season and canceling the 2020-21 season altogether. Those decisions forced Kirk to return to Europe to play 12 games on loan to Hanhals in Sweden’s Hockeyettan, and 14 games in England with his old club, the Sheffield Steelers, in what was largely a suspended EIHL season.
Not yet under NHL contract, Kirk was also forced to take a part-time job at a grocery store in England where he spent mornings finding items and packing them in bags to be delivered to people who had ordered them online during the COVID-19 outbreaks.
Kirk’s attitude, passion and commitment level — coupled with the progress he had shown in the OHL — convinced Coyotes GM Bill Armstrong to reward him with a three-year, entry-level contract and assign him to the AHL’s Tucson Roadrunners. Kirk was thrilled for the opportunity, and so was England’s growing cadre of hockey fans, but in just his eighth game with Tucson, Kirk tore his ACL against the Henderson Silver Knights, ending his first season of North American professional hockey.
“Just got my skate caught in a rut and felt a pop in my knee,” he said.
Kirk spent the next nine months rehabbing. While he has been taking part in the Coyotes’ informal skates at the Ice Den Scottsdale without limitation, he is still feeling the effects of that surgery after 10 months.
“It still doesn’t feel 100 percent; there’s still some pain that I’m working through, but I’ll be ready to go for camp,” he said. “There’s just pain on the tendon, but I think building strength and not having pain comes with time and working through that pain.”
Once Coyotes camp cuts are announced, Kirk will be assigned to the Roadrunners again, where he will resume a learning process that was only just beginning.
“It took him a little while to understand what the standard was that we were expecting from him,” Roadrunners coach Steve Potvin said. “Honestly, it’s just trying to get guys over that hump of playing junior hockey and then really dialing in on some of the details; the details that the game requires to get to the next level.
“You have to really win your one-on-one battles. You have to get to the blue paint. You have to be willing to go to those areas and win battles to actually give yourself a fighting chance to play at the next level. In his actions you could see he was motioning forward. I remember the conversations about really trying to own that blue paint and the next day, he arrived on time at the paint, and he was rewarded with a goal. Unfortunately in the next game, we couldn’t really see much more because he hurt himself in the first period.”
Kirk went back to England for a month early this year, but he returned to Tucson to dive into his rehab and be sure that he would give himself a chance at his first full hockey season since 2018-19.
“I definitely learned a lot about work and time and patience just to get the contract,” Kirk said. “Obviously, I was coming off a COVID year where I didn’t play much hockey, so you’re excited and looking forward to getting going because there’s so much opportunity. I knew I needed to come in and adjust as quickly as possible, but just as I started to feel more comfortable this happened so it was frustrating.
“Fortunately, I’ve been pretty mentally strong. I’ve got a great support system around me with my fiancée and my family. Even coming to the rink every day and seeing the guys helped.”
Potvin has goals in mind for Kirk this season.
“We don’t really have a read on how much of what he learned is going to stick with him after being out so long, but he’s an intelligent player, and he’s an intelligent man,” Potvin said. “I think he understands what he needs to do and where he needs to go, and he’s going to have a good support system here to help him along the way.
“He has a lot of hockey IQ, he can manage pucks, he knows how to put pucks in areas where we’re gonna get it back and he has good timing. He arrives on time to make the play work. If somebody’s looking to make a play, he jumps the hole. He has good offensive instincts. For him, it’s about growing his body and really growing a little bit more courage in those harder moments; those harder areas, but that’s common for a lot of the young guys coming through the ranks.”
The summer wasn’t all work for Kirk. He got to travel to Greece and Budapest. He and his fiancée, Alisha, set a wedding date of July 12, 2024, and when Alisha completes her preceptorship (she works as a midwife), she will join Kirk in Arizona in November, and perhaps move here full-time next year.
“Luckily, this injury occurred in my first year of my contract because it would have been a lot more stressful if it had been my second or third,” Kirk said. “You just have to find the positives and the silver linings in everything and focus on coming back and having a good year.
“It’s probably gonna be a little tough at the start; readjusting to not playing for nine months can be quite tough. You kind of forget the small details so that’s one thing I will need to work through to be at game speed. I’m just looking forward to a good year. It’s just exciting to think about playing again, especially after coming off such a long injury.”
Top photo of Liam Kirk courtesy of Tucson Roadrunners