The Big “What if”: Tony Hand in the NHL

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Tony Hand (left), receiving the Torriani Award from IIHF President Rene Fasel at the 2017 IIHF Hall of Fame ceremony

June 21st, 1986

MONTREAL, QUEBEC

The late rounds of the NHL Entry Draft can sometimes be a time for teams to experiment a little bit, and see if they can find a gem that nobody else has discovered yet. It could be a star in an unknown league, a simple hunch a GM has, or, in many cases, a European talent that is unlikely to ever travel over to North America at all (especially in the case of Soviet players, who certainly won’t make the trip). With the last pick of the 1986 Entry Draft, the Edmonton Oilers decided to go way off the board and take a player from Great Britain, of all places; as it turned out, they may have had a sleeper on their hands.

Playing in the British Hockey League at the time, Garry Unger placed a call to Glen Sather, urging him to select a player by the name of Tony Hand. Hand had just been named the Young Player of the Year in the BHL, which came with an invitation to Calgary’s training camp that year. He would never join the Flames, instead attending camp with their Alberta rivals, where he survived the whole two weeks without being cut. “Slats” was impressed with the Edinburgh native, who he said was the “smartest player on the ice other than Wayne Gretzky”, and offered Hand a junior contract. Feeling homesick, Hand would turn down the offer, but gave his word that he would return to camp next year.

Though he would play three games for the Victoria Cougars in 1986-87, the pressure of junior hockey life was too much for him, and Tony would return home to play for the Murrayfield Racers, the team he had made his name with in the BHL. He would never sign outside of Great Britain in his whole career, but managed to set multiple scoring records in the process. He would amass over 4,000 career points, as well as helping his country reach the World Championships in 1994. His on-ice career would stretch all the way to 2014-15, with Hand finally hanging up the skates at the age of 47; his exploits as a player would make him a national legend, and he even received an MBE for his contribution to British hockey, making him the only player in his sport to receive the honour.

He was the first British-born and trained player to ever be taken in the NHL Draft, and though he would never play a game in the National Hockey League, he still had an immense impact on the sport in his home country, in part thanks to his sustained success and his lengthy on-ice career. But how could he have done had he not gotten homesick, and tested himself in North America? Would he thrive in the juniors the same way he had in Britain? Could he make a mark for himself in the NHL, especially at a point when the spotlight would be shining on him more than ever? And if he stayed in the NHL, what kind of effect would that have on the game back home?

WHAT IF TONY HAND PLAYED IN THE NATIONAL HOCKEY LEAGUE?

WHAT MUST BE CONSIDERED, AND WHAT MUST CHANGE: The question of Tony Hand is not one of skill; after all, he managed to survive two weeks of training camp with the Edmonton Oilers, who had won two Stanley Cups in the last three years. Where things went wrong for Hand was his inability to adapt to being in North America, quite a ways away from home. He felt uncomfortable staying overseas for even a brief period of time, and that homesickness would persist throughout his entire career. He didn’t even play professionally in mainland Europe, instead sticking to the British Isles throughout his playing days.

What has to change is simply that he doesn’t feel that homesickness, and that he is somehow able to handle the pressure of hockey in Canada, whether at the junior or NHL level. This means not only staying with the Victoria Cougars, but also staying with the Edmonton Oilers, and also accepting assignments to AHL (or other minor-league) teams when appropriate. But with all that in mind, how long would he stay in North America in this new reality?


CALCULATING HAND’S STATS: In the past few years, there have been many attempts to create an equivalent value for points in one league compared to the NHL. In particular, Gabriel Desjardins created an NHL Equivalency for several leagues, including the KHL, Swedish Hockey League, SM-Liiga, major junior and college leagues, and even the old WHA. But for all of the efforts people have made to try and calculate how players’ points in different leagues would translate to the NHL, I couldn’t find any such figures for the British leagues that Hand played in.

With no known values for the British hockey scene, I took it upon myself to calculate the NHLe factors myself, using a similar procedure to how I determined the equivalency factor for Valeri Kharlamov. I took any top ten scorers in a British league during said league’s existence, then looked for a comparable season in a league with an existing NHLe value. Eventually, I tally up the players’ NHLe points, as well as their points in the British league (assuming an 82-game season), then divide the NHLe total by the British total.

The resulting NHLe factors for the British leagues that Hand played in are as follows (and I should note, these are only my personal estimates):

British Hockey League (1980-1996): 6.05%

British Ice Hockey Superleague (1996-2003): 22.05%

British National League (1996-2005): 9.36%

Elite Ice Hockey League (2003-Present): 12.25%

English Premier Ice Hockey League (1997-2017): 4.71%

In addition to these conversion factors, I am taking an extra step to add a 1.5x multiplier to Hand, as I am taking Glen Sather at his word that Hand was legitimately the smartest player at Edmonton training camp not named Gretzky. If you’re getting that kind of praise from the guy that assembled a dynastic team like the ‘80s Oilers, it’s gotta count for something. I am also applying power play bonuses: 5 points if he is rated as a team’s second-line forward, and 10 points if he is considered a first-liner.


HAND IN NORTH AMERICA

1986-87 (VICTORIA COUGARS, WHL): There is little to be excited about for a team that has just finished last in the WHL, but there is a special bit of intrigue at this year’s home opener for the Victoria Cougars, as British-born Tony Hand is set to make his debut for the Cougars after impressing at training camp for the Edmonton Oilers. Hand starts off hot, putting up eight points in his first three games, and despite constant attention on him, he continues his form throughout the year. His 67 goals are enough to put Hand in 3rd in the WHL that year, while his 140 points put him in 3rd as well, ahead of the likes of Joe Sakic and Theoren Fleury. Hand would also show a bit of grit as well, racking up 172 penalty minutes.

The Cougars would advance to the playoffs, but they would be eliminated by Kamloops in six games. Hand played a huge part in the Cougars winning a game at all, as he would register nine points in the post-season to lead the team once more. Tony would end up being nominated as the Rookie of the Year in the WHL Western Conference, joining Eastern nominee Joe Sakic.

HAND SEASON TOTALS: 70 GP, 67 GOALS, 73 ASSISTS, 140 POINTS, 172 PIM

HAND PLAYOFF TOTALS: 6 GP, 4 GOALS, 5 ASSISTS, 9 POINTS, 8 PIM


1987-88 (NOVA SCOTIA OILERS, AHL): After impressing in his first year in North America, Hand would attempt to compete for a spot on the Oilers in training camp, but would be a late cut this time around, instead being assigned to the team’s AHL affiliate in Nova Scotia. Tony would earn an immediate cult following in the province due to the Scottish connection, but once he started playing, that cult following became an actual following; Hand would prove a very quick study in the pro game, leading the AHL Oilers in goals and points at the age of 20. He would finish 2nd in the AHL with 114 points, while also winning the Red Garrett Memorial Award as AHL Rookie of the Year.

The Oilers would get an all-Maritime series with the Fredericton Express, and Tony would prove that his success in the regular season was once again not a fluke. He would carry most of the load for the Oilers in the post-season, helping Nova Scotia sweep the Express, then knock the Maine Mariners out in six games. Despite his Oilers being swept by the Hershey Bears in the Calder Cup Final, Hand would finish with the league lead in playoff goals, as well as a tie for the lead in points. After only one season, Tony had proven he was far too good for the AHL, and looked to be a shoo-in for the Edmonton squad next year.

HAND SEASON STATS: 80 GP, 47 GOALS, 67 ASSISTS, 114 POINTS, 120 PIM

HAND PLAYOFF STATS: 14 GP, 12 GOALS, 4 ASSISTS, 16 POINTS, 45 PIM


1988-89 (EDMONTON OILERS, NHL): In August of 1988, chaos engulfed the Edmonton Oilers. Already having traded away the likes of Paul Coffey and Andy Moog to shed salary, the Oilers would follow those deals up with an unthinkable move, sending Wayne Gretzky to Los Angeles in a massive exchange. The trade received instant backlash from Edmonton fans, with owner Peter Pocklington’s effigy being burned in protest. For the likes of those still with the Oilers, and especially those who had just arrived (like Jimmy Carson, who was now expected to take Gretzky’s place as the team’s #1 centre), it was extremely uneasy having to go to the Northlands Coliseum knowing that fans were placing massive expectations on them to perform without the “Great One” in town.

Tony Hand may not have had the same pressure on him that someone like Carson did, but he still knew that he would have to show he could help lessen the blow of the Oilers losing Gretzky. With the likes of Esa Tikkanen, Craig Simpson, Jari Kurri, and Glenn Anderson still on the squad, Hand would not get as much ice time, but he at least showed that he could hang at the NHL level with 42 points in his rookie season. He would link up well with line-mate Craig MacTavish, as the two gave the team a good depth option whenever the top two lines weren’t up to snuff.

Edmonton would have a hell of a fight on their hands in the playoffs. Their opponents in the first round were none other than the Los Angeles Kings, with the “Great One” on board. Still beloved by the Edmonton faithful, Gretzky received cheers every time he touched the puck – either at home, or on the road. Though the Oilers would take a 3-1 lead, #99 would pick up seven points in the next three games to turn the series around and eliminate his old team in seven. As for Hand, he showed he wasn’t completely out of place in the post-season, picking up a couple of assists while playing all seven of Edmonton’s games. He would also tie for the team lead with 21 penalty minutes.

HAND SEASON TOTALS: 78 GP, 17 GOALS, 25 ASSISTS, 42 POINTS, 127 PIM

HAND PLAYOFF TOTALS: 7 GAMES, 0 GOALS, 2 ASSISTS, 2 POINTS, 21 PIM


1989-90 (EDMONTON OILERS, NHL): It seemed like the sky was falling in Edmonton. Once a near-lock for a Stanley Cup, the Oilers had been knocked out in the first round in 1989; to make matters worse, it was none other than the Los Angeles Kings – Wayne Gretzky’s new team – that had eliminated Edmonton. One of the few bright lights for the Oilers was that they had some young talent on the way. Jimmy Carson had picked up 100 points in his first year, while British-born Tony Hand, the last pick of the 1986 Draft, showed he could cut it at the NHL level. Both players, however, would report having trouble dealing with the pressure of playing in Edmonton, and Carson would eventually be traded early in the season to Detroit.

As for Hand, he wasn’t going to be dealt anywhere soon, as he was, in a way, Glen Sather’s new pet project. He would finish out the season with the Oilers, and would continue to play for the team in the post-season. Though he would continue to struggle in the playoffs, only putting up 7 points, it hardly mattered. Thanks in large part to outstanding performances from the likes of Craig Simpson and Bill Ranford throughout the post-season, the Oilers would return to the Stanley Cup Final, eventually beating the Boston Bruins in five games. Against all predictions of doom and gloom, the Oilers were back on top of the hockey world. And despite not being one of the key players, Hand made a little bit of history, becoming the first British-born and trained player to get his name on the Stanley Cup.

HAND SEASON TOTALS: 80 GP, 12 GOALS, 21 ASSISTS, 33 POINTS, 65 PIM

HAND PLAYOFF TOTALS: 22 GP, 2 GOALS, 5 ASSISTS, 7 POINTS, 37 PIM


1990-91 (EDMONTON OILERS, NHL): There were positives and negatives to take away from the previous season for Tony. On one hand, his point total had slipped from the previous year, but on the other, he had proven himself adequate for his role in the playoffs, and got a Stanley Cup out of it. This year would add a new wrinkle to the situation, as Jari Kurri would hold out, leaving a potential top-six forward slot up for grabs. Unfortunately for Hand, he would not be able to stake a full-time claim on a premium spot, as Edmonton would rely more on players like Craig MacTavish, Ken Linseman, or former Dynamo Moscow star Anatoli Semenov.

It was very clear that if Tony Hand had any place on the Edmonton Oilers, he would have to come up big in the post-season. For much of the first-round series against Calgary, he was a regular fourth-liner, but it would be in the second round against Los Angeles that Hand showed his stuff, putting up five points in six games. His heroics in that series, however, would not hold up against Minnesota, as the surprising North Stars stunned Edmonton in five to reach the 1991 Stanley Cup Final. Though he had impressed at points during the post-season, Hand still looked in danger of being left unprotected in an upcoming expansion draft if he didn’t keep it up next year.

Of note, the Oilers would draft Philippe Boucher in the 1st Round of the 1991 Entry Draft.

HAND SEASON TOTALS: 76 GP, 12 GOALS, 19 ASSISTS, 31 POINTS, 103 PIM

HAND PLAYOFF TOTALS: 18 GP, 3 GOALS, 7 ASSISTS, 10 POINTS, 21 PIM


1991-92 (EDMONTON OILERS, NHL): The sell-off of Edmonton players continued in the 1991 off-season, as Peter Pocklington looked to reduce payroll quickly. Gone was Jari Kurri, whose rights were traded to Philadelphia in May – only for the Flyers to flip him to Los Angeles to reunite him with Wayne Gretzky. Gone were all of Grant Fuhr, Glenn Anderson, and Craig Berube, all dealt to Toronto in a package deal that brought back Vincent Damphousse among others. And gone was the one and only Mark Messier, traded to the New York Rangers after a public trade demand. Edmonton was a shell of the team that had won five Stanley Cups in the past eight years, and now finally looked to be on the way to missing the post-season.

Despite the massive purge of top-name talent, the Oilers continued to remain competitive. Bill Ranford, who was so effective in the 1990 Cup run, was now the true #1 goalie, while former Leaf Damphousse would lead the team with 89 points in his first year with Edmonton. Many players seemed to benefit from the turn towards youth; one player who was left to stagnate, however, was Tony Hand, who was now finding himself on the fourth line more often than not, clearly not favoured by new head coach Ted Green. Hand would score a career-low 28 points, but did at least play all 80 games. He may not have had much opportunity to play on a top unit, but damned if he wasn’t going to put in a shift every game night.

Much as they had done the previous year, the Oilers seemed to punch above their weight in the post-season. Not only would they take down Wayne Gretzky and the Kings, but they would eliminate the Canucks in the second round, before falling once more in the Conference Final. Former #1 Pick Joe Murphy would prove key in the Oilers’ surprise run, notching 24 points in 16 games to lead all Western Conference players, while former 70-goal scorer Bernie Nicholls would pick up 19 points to set a new career playoff high. As for Hand, he was once again a fourth-line stalwart, playing all 16 games, and popping up once or twice to pick up a key point.

When assessing the Oilers’ roster for the upcoming expansion draft, Glen Sather felt that Tony Hand was no longer an asset worth protecting. The Scotsman would be left exposed, and would be claimed by the Ottawa Senators with the 25th Pick. With a shot at more ice time, it was a chance for Hand to show that his offensive skills were truly NHL-worthy, even if it was on what was expected to be an extremely poor team.

HAND SEASON TOTALS: 80 GP, 12 GOALS, 16 ASSISTS, 28 POINTS, 102 PIM

HAND PLAYOFF TOTALS: 16 GP, 1 GOAL, 3 ASSISTS, 4 POINTS, 6 PIM


1992-93 (OTTAWA SENATORS, NHL): For Tony Hand, it was certainly tough sailing trying to find his way in Ottawa after a few years on the Oilers, but despite the adjustment, Hand was determined to make sure he was still useful at the NHL level. Rick Bowness certainly had faith in the Edinburgh native to be a useful contributor on the Sens, and would give him every chance to shine on the top six. Tony did what he could to make the most of it, setting career highs with 28 assists and 44 points, and also recording an unexpected 234 penalty minutes; his skill and fighting spirit made him a favourite among both teammates and fans, while also showing the front office he still belonged in the NHL.

Hand’s contributions also ensured that the Senators would not finish last in the 1992-93 season, instead leaving the San Jose Sharks at the bottom of the pack. This left the Sens with the #2 Pick in the 1993 NHL Entry Draft, but not for long; the Hartford Whalers would swing a deal to move up to the Senators’ spot in the Draft, giving up Sergei Makarov and picks in the process. Ottawa would use the picks to select Viktor Kozlov (1st Round, 6th Overall), Vlastimil Kroupa (2nd Round, 45th Overall), and Ville Peltonen (3rd Round, 56th Overall). The Whalers, meanwhile, would use the 2nd selection to take Ontario-based blue-liner Chris Pronger.

HAND SEASON TOTALS: 82 GP, 16 GOALS, 28 ASSISTS, 44 POINTS, 234 PIM


1993-94 (OTTAWA SENATORS, NHL): After an expectedly bad first season, the Sens were gearing up for an unexpectedly good second campaign. They had received a bounty of assets from the Hartford Whalers, with Russian star Sergei Makarov expected to be one of the top players in Ottawa. Joining Makarov on the top line would be 1992 draftee Alexei Yashin, who likely projected to be the team’s #1 centreman in his rookie year. They may not have been playoff-ready just yet, but the Sens at least had enough to start building a “core”.

The “Russian Connection” of Yashin and Makarov immediately established themselves as a dangerous duo, giving the Sens a fighting chance on their best days. Unfortunately, while the Russian duo proved effective, the goaltending didn’t, as Craig Billington and Darrin Madeley combined to give Ottawa the lowest save percentage in the league, by far. Tony Hand, now the captain of the team following the departure of Laurie Boschman, wouldn’t benefit too much from the arrival of other skilled forwards, but still managed a respectable 43 points.

The awful goaltending meant that despite having some scoring available, the Sens were destined to finish last in the league. Because of the arrival of the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and the Florida Panthers, Ottawa would be dropped to 3rd in the 1994 Draft order, selecting Czech forward Radek Bonk.

HAND SEASON TOTALS: 84 GP, 14 GOALS, 29 ASSISTS, 43 POINTS, 84 PIM


1994-95 (OTTAWA SENATORS, NHL): The last season represented both a step forward and a step back for the Ottawa Senators, as while they did drop to last place in the NHL, they did manage to improve by over 10 points in the standings. There would be no such improvement this time around, as the 94-95 season was shortened by a lockout that would stretch all the way to January. If the Sens were to improve upon last year’s point total, it would represent a massive improvement in the team, which likely wasn’t in the cards; much of the team’s core was either far too young for regular NHL playing time (like 19-year-olds Stan Neckar and Radek Bonk), or a cast-off from another organization who was just happy to get playing time anywhere.

As expected, the three leading scorers on the team were Alexei Yashin, Sergei Makarov, and Tony Hand. While Yashin led the team with 47 points, however, Makarov and Hand lagged far behind – Makarov due to the effects of age (24 points in 40 games at age 36), and Hand due to not quite being as skilled as the likes of his Russian teammates (24 points in 46 games). While the goaltending improved thanks to the addition of Don Beaupre, the Sens were stuck in last place again, earning only 23 points. Needing defensive help, the Senators would draft Bryan Berard with the 1st Overall Pick.

HAND SEASON TOTALS: 46 GP, 7 GOALS, 17 ASSISTS, 24 POINTS, 31 PIM


1995-96 (OTTAWA SENATORS/PITTSBURGH PENGUINS, NHL): Ottawa was still stuck at the bottom of the league, and changes were going to have to be made if the team was going to have any chance at escaping from the cellar. Those changes quickly, as head coach Rick Bowness would be sacked in November, followed by GM Randy Sexton the next month. New GM Pierre Gauthier would waste no time in re-vamping the team, signing contract hold-out Alexei Yashin, and swinging a three-way trade with Toronto to bring in goalie Damian Rhodes and defensive prospect Wade Redden. That trade would see Bryan Berard, just recently selected 1st Overall, go to the Islanders.

As it turned out, not even the team captain was immune from the moving and shaking. At the trade deadline, Tony Hand would be dealt to the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for an 8th-Round Pick in 1996. Gauthier spoke shortly after the deadline, saying that with Hand’s contract about to expire, he wanted Tony to have a chance with a contending team, as a “thank you” for his services since joining the Sens. While Hand jokingly criticized the small return the Sens got for him, he thanked both the GM and the organization for giving him an NHL home for the last four seasons, and vowed to prove he was still worth an NHL roster spot in Pittsburgh.

Tony would once again be relegated to depth duty, slotting in on the third line between Dave Roche and Glen Murray. What time Hand had, however, was well spent, as he would prove an important part of the team’s lengthy playoff run. The Penguins would advance all the way to the Conference Final, where they would fall to the third-year Florida Panthers in seven games. Playing all 18 games for the Pens, Tony would finish 4th on the team in goals with 6, popping up to score at crucial moments. His effort and timely scoring made him well liked by Pens fans, and earned him a contract extension.

HAND SEASON TOTALS: 80 GP, 12 GOALS, 18 ASSISTS, 30 POINTS, 149 PIM

With the Ottawa Senators: 64 GP, 10 GOALS, 14 ASSISTS, 24 POINTS, 115 PIM

With the Pittsburgh Penguins: 16 GP, 2 GOALS, 4 ASSISTS, 6 POINTS, 34 PIM

HAND PLAYOFF TOTALS: 18 GP, 6 GOALS, 1 ASSIST, 7 POINTS, 9 PIM


1996-97 (PITTSBURGH PENGUINS, NHL): After a strong playoff performance with 6 goals, there was hope that Tony Hand could continue to be a valued member of the Pittsburgh Penguins squad, but there were hurdles for Hand to deal with in the line-up. Though still not 100% fit, Mario Lemieux was still the star of the team, and even if he wasn’t always playing centre, there were still Ron Francis and Stu Barnes for Hand to have to leapfrog if he were to get more playing time. Much like Lemieux, Hand would find himself alternating between centre and wing, finding himself with not only a rotating cast of line-mates due to trades, but also a new coach in March following the dismissal of Eddie Johnston. Hand would finish with only 28 points, tied for his lowest total in a full season.

The Penguins would be pitted against their state rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers, in the first round, as the star-studded top lines prepared for battle. The Pens had the likes of Lemieux, Francis, and Jaromir Jagr on their side, while the Flyers countered with the “Legion of Doom”: Eric Lindros, John LeClair, and Mikael Renberg. Despite Jagr and Lemieux both grabbing over a point a game, it was Lindros’ side that prevailed in five games. Back in a third-line role once again, Hand was unable to do much of anything to help the cause, going pointless in the series.

HAND SEASON TOTALS: 76 GP, 8 GOALS, 20 ASSISTS, 28 POINTS, 48 PIM

HAND PLAYOFF TOTALS: 5 GP, 0 GOALS, 0 ASSISTS, 0 POINTS, 4 PIM


1997-98 (PITTSBURGH PENGUINS, NHL): Time seemed to be running out for Tony Hand as an NHL player, as he had dipped below the 30-point mark once more, but if there was going to be a season for him to show he still had it, 97-98 would be it. The Penguins now had a massive gap to fill following the retirement of Mario Lemieux, and Hand now had a shot at a top-six spot under new coach Kevin Constantine. The former San Jose bench boss clearly showed faith in the Scotsman, putting him on the second unit alongside Martin Straka and Rob Brown, and Hand would repay his faith with a slight return to form, putting up 41 points in a full slate of 82 games.

The coaching change, as well as the return to form of Tom Barrasso (2.07 GAA and .922 SV% in 63 games) meant that the Penguins were back on top in the Northeast. They would be given a series against the Montreal Canadiens, who were still trying to find a true #1 goalie following the departure of Patrick Roy. It was Andy Moog who got the starting job for the series against Pittsburgh, and he would prove effective in helping the Habs win the series in six games. Tony Hand’s unit would struggle throughout the series, with Hand himself managing only two assists.

The Pens would get the 24th Overall Pick in the 1998 NHL Entry Draft, selecting Swedish defenseman Christian Backman.

HAND SEASON TOTALS: 82 GP, 10 GOALS, 31 ASSISTS, 41 POINTS, 34 PIM

HAND PLAYOFF TOTALS: 6 GP, 0 GOALS, 2 ASSISTS, 2 POINTS, 2 PIM


1998-99 (PITTSBURGH PENGUINS, NHL): Tony Hand was now going into his 11th season of NHL hockey. Selected with the very last pick in 1986 thanks to the advice of a former NHL player, Hand had carved out a pretty nice career for himself, and managed to secure a place with three teams over the course of his career. Now headed into his third full year with Pittsburgh, however, he needed to show he was still capable of being relied upon in key situations; players like Martin Straka and Stu Barnes had leapfrogged him in the depth chart, and more forwards were on the way, including former Ranger Alexei Kovalev, who would be traded to the Pens early on in the 98-99 season.

Hand, unfortunately, was not able to hold his spot with the influx of new forward talent, as players like Kovalev, Jan Hrdina, and Robert Lang all moved into more prominent roles on the team. For much of the first half of the season, Hand would find himself a healthy scratch, but would be inserted back into the line-up following the trade of Stu Barnes to Buffalo. Hand’s total of 24 points would match his career low, but this time, he doesn’t have the excuse of being in a lockout-shortened season. As the playoffs arrive, Hand is once again a depth player, this time bouncing between the third and fourth lines.

The Penguins finish the regular season with 92 points, enough to put them in 6th in the Eastern Conference, setting up a first-round clash with the Carolina Hurricanes – one that the Pens win in six. In the second round, Pittsburgh is pitted against the Boston Bruins, in a series that turns out to be one for the ages. The two sides do a double-split in the first two home sets, followed by a 7-2 win at home for the Pens in Game Five. Boston, however, would win both Game Six and Seven to advance to the Conference Final, with a short-handed goal by Dave Ellett being the decider in the final fixture. Hand would do very little on even strength during the post-season, but did perform well when called upon to join the power play, recording four of his five playoff points on the man advantage.

Pittsburgh would get the 21st Pick in the 1999 Entry Draft, selecting defenseman Nick Boynton from the Ottawa 67’s of the OHL.

HAND SEASON TOTALS: 70 GP, 7 GOALS, 17 ASSISTS, 24 POINTS, 12 PIM

HAND PLAYOFF TOTALS: 13 GP, 2 GOALS, 3 ASSISTS, 5 POINTS, 0 PIM


1999-2000 (VANCOUVER CANUCKS, NHL): Having been released by the Penguins after the 98-99 season, Hand was now a man looking for an NHL job, and eventually, he would sign a one-year contract with the Vancouver Canucks. This would re-unite Hand with former Edmonton teammate Mark Messier, who seemed to struggle to fit in with the Canucks, and had made himself a proverbial punching bag for fans at GM Place; Hand, unfortunately, was caught in the crossfire, and found himself booed on a couple of occasions in Vancouver, seen as one of Messier’s old friends rather than someone who was just looking for an NHL roster spot. He would play 78 games, putting up 28 points with the Canucks that season.

The Canucks, for the third time in three years since signing Messier, would miss the playoffs, finishing 9th in the West with 84 points. Vancouver management had a transition plan in mind, and knew that with players like Markus Naslund, Todd Bertuzzi, the Sedin twins, and newly-acquired Brendan Morrison on the books, their forward future was set. This meant that Messier would be expendable, and “Moose” would be let go in free agency. Hand, too, would not return, but to the front office, he wasn’t considered a headache, but a stop-gap who had at least done a decent job in the minutes he was given; instead, he would be left available in the Expansion Draft, and eventually claimed by the Minnesota Wild with the 48th Pick.

HAND SEASON TOTALS: 78 GP, 5 GOALS, 23 ASSISTS, 28 POINTS, 101 PIM


2000-01 (MINNESOTA WILD, NHL): For Tony Hand, it was his third team in as many years, and the constant travel was getting to be a source of stress. Nonetheless, here he was with the Minnesota Wild, hoping to earn a spot on the expansion team in their inaugural season. Being on a first-year club was nothing new for Hand, who had made himself a fan favourite in Ottawa thanks to his efforts during their first year of play, but now he would have to adjust to the coaching style of Jacques Lemaire, known for being one of the most defense-oriented bench bosses in all of hockey.

Hand showed enough effort in pre-season to earn a one-year contract with the Wild, and found himself on the top line very quickly, centring Scott Pellerin and rookie Marian Gaborik; Tony would even get an assist on the first goal in Minnesota history, scored by Gaborik in a 3-1 loss to Anaheim on opening night. The Scotsman would go on to be one of the key forwards throughout the year, even being selected to wear the “C” in the month of December as part of a rotating group. Hand would finish the year on top of the team in points scored, with a total of 42. For the second time in his career, Tony had become a cult favourite on an expansion team, and the Wild would re-pay him with a contract extension.

Tony’s efforts, as well as the fantastic goaltending of Manny Fernandez (2.24 GAA and .920 SV% in 42 games) helped make the Wild look respectable in their first season, as they finished with 72 points, good for 12th in the West. They would get the 10th Overall Pick in the 2001 Entry Draft, selecting goalie Dan Blackburn from the WHL’s Kootenay Ice.

HAND SEASON TOTALS: 82 GP, 15 GOALS, 27 ASSISTS, 42 POINTS, 74 PIM


2001-02 (MINNESOTA WILD, NHL): It seemed like just when everyone thought Tony Hand was on his way out, he found a way to bring himself back in. His route was unconventional, but it seemed like showing his stuff on expansion teams suited the Edinburgh native quite well. He had shown, if nothing else, he was not going to give anything less than a full effort as long as he was around, and it made him a popular player among Minnesota fans. While he was not considered for full captaincy, Hand would at least earn an “A” on his jersey on a permanent basis for the 2001-02 season.

Hand may have shown some good stuff in his first year in Minnesota, but as always seemed to be the case for him in the NHL, when younger, better forwards came along, Tony was one of the first to be cast aside. A slow start on the first line led to a demotion for the alternate captain, and by the mid-point of the campaign, Hand was once again a third-liner, centring players like Pascal Dupuis and Richard Park. Once again relegated to depth duty, Hand would play out the season in Minnesota, but rather than look for a new NHL club in free agency, he would pack up this things and sign with the Dundee Stars of the British National League, in order to be closer to home in the twilight of his playing career.

HAND SEASON TOTALS: 82 GP, 6 GOALS, 21 ASSISTS, 27 POINTS, 34 PIM


Tony’s time in North American hockey was done, but he couldn’t help but look back at what turned out to be a very respectable career – especially by the standards of a player picked at the very end of the draft. He had turned a hunch by former Edmonton player Garry Unger into a lengthy spell in the NHL, playing over 1,000 games with the Oilers, Senators, Penguins, Canucks, and Wild. He’d had the chance to play alongside the likes of Mark Messier and Mario Lemieux, and been an important part of some successful playoff teams. Most of all, Tony would be lucky enough to see his name on the Stanley Cup, having won it with the Oilers in 1990.

HAND CAREER TOTALS

Victoria Cougars, WHL (1986-87): 70 GP, 67 GOALS, 73 ASSISTS, 140 POINTS, 172 PIM

Nova Scotia Oilers, AHL (1987-88): 80 GP, 47 GOALS, 67 ASSISTS, 114 POINTS, 120 PIM

Edmonton Oilers, NHL (1988-1992): 314 GP, 53 GOALS, 81 ASSISTS, 134 POINTS, 397 PIM

Ottawa Senators, NHL (1992-1996): 276 GP, 47 GOALS, 88 ASSISTS, 135 POINTS, 464 PIM

Pittsburgh Penguins, NHL (1996-1999): 244 GP, 27 GOALS, 72 ASSISTS, 99 POINTS, 128 PIM

Vancouver Canucks, NHL (1999-2000): 78 GP, 5 GOALS, 23 ASSISTS, 28 POINTS, 101 PIM

Minnesota Wild, NHL (2000-2002): 164 GP, 21 GOALS, 48 ASSISTS, 69 POINTS, 108 PIM

FULL NHL TOTALS: 1,076 GP, 153 GOALS, 312 ASSISTS, 465 POINTS, 1,198 PIM


ON THE HOCKEY WORLD AS A WHOLE

WHY WOULD HAND SUCCEED? Well, it probably should be obvious. I’ve only mentioned it multiple times since the beginning of the article, but Hand went to Oilers’ training camp as a teenager, and had to borrow a stick from Marty McSorley after the first day. Still, he not only survived the two weeks without being cut, but got comparisons to Wayne Fucking Gretzky. If you can survive a training camp on the ‘80s Oilers, you could play pretty much anywhere in the NHL with that kind of talent. Even in his short stint with the Victoria Cougars in the OTL, he managed 8 points in 3 games, only heading back home because he found it difficult to adjust to playing hockey in Canada. Had he been able to deal with the pressure, it’s not hard to imagine that he would keep up that rate with the Cougars, and possibly even find a permanent place in the NHL one day.

It is also worth considering the dominant style of the game at the time that Hand was putting up such crazy numbers in Britain in the OTL. His smarts and skill would have fit perfectly in the NHL of the time, which was built on offensive talent. It was an era defined by those Oilers, with Gretzky at the forefront, and later by Mario Lemieux’s Pittsburgh Penguins. Size and strength were always looked favourably upon, but wouldn’t be the be-all and end-all for a few years yet, and at 5’10”, Hand wouldn’t have been discounted, especially by a team that was the gold standard of the time.

Even if size was a factor, however, spirit wasn’t. In our timeline, Hand has shown a willingness to drop the gloves, even with opponents larger than him. If he would do that in the OTL, it’s almost a guarantee he would still be willing to fight in the NHL, which would go a long way to making him a popular figure among both teammates and fans.

WHY WOULDN’T HAND SUCCEED? In the OTL, Hand was a pretty frequent presence in the Top 10 in scoring in the British Hockey League, but when one actually looks at the competition he was facing, there were very few players who would likely to have any shot at the NHL. As an example, Tony’s linemate in the early ‘90s was Chris Palmer, who was previously playing in the German 2.Bundesliga, and frequently came close to matching Hand in points. Another example of the kind of talent in the British system at the time was Dave Stoyanovich; Dave put up only 12 points in 73 games with the AHL’s Nova Scotia Voyageurs in 1983-84, only to head to the Fife Flyers the next year and manage 175 points in 38 games.

In short, Hand’s foreign-born competition was a mix of players who were European journeymen (Palmer), players who couldn’t cut it even in the AHL (Stoyanovich), players who were previously in Canadian Junior B Leagues, and maybe the occasional talented player (such as Patrice Lefebvre, who put up 200 points in his final QMJHL season). Given a much higher level of competition, Hand likely wouldn’t have had much chance to play the same way he did in Britain.

HAND’S EFFECT ON HIS TEAMS: The arrival of Tony Hand to the National Hockey League leads to some resulting changes, but those changes likely don’t happen immediately. The team he changes the least, however, is the Edmonton Oilers; already a powerhouse in the NHL, Hand does little to change their fortunes, as they are still able to win a Stanley Cup in 1990 with or without him. Also, Hand’s presence has no effect on the infamous Wayne Gretzky deal, which still happens. Gretzky was going to be dealt, and there is nothing that changes in this timeline regarding the original trade.

When Tony gets to Ottawa, however, the changes pick up. Though they are still dismal in their debut year, the Senators are no longer in dead last in the NHL, and pull ahead of San Jose. This results in the Sharks getting Alexandre Daigle, and the Sens trading with Hartford in order for the Whalers to draft Chris Pronger. While Pronger’s career is thus unchanged, the switch of positions has major effects for both the Sens and Sharks. Without Sergei Makarov (or, to a lesser extent, Vlastimil Kroupa), San Jose may find themselves unable to stage their upset over the Detroit Red Wings in 1994, and even if they did, they likely wouldn’t take the Maple Leafs to seven games in the next round.

As for Ottawa, the selection of Viktor Kozlov with the 6th Pick comes with major knock-on effects down the road. While they still struggle in their first few years, the Senators are able to make a key trade as a result of taking Kozlov instead of Daigle. In 1997 in the OTL, Kozlov was traded from San Jose to Florida in a deal that saw the Panthers’ 1st-Round Pick in the next Draft go to the Sharks; that pick would end up being the 1st Overall Selection, which the Sharks would trade to Tampa Bay. Without the same assets the Sharks had in the deal, Ottawa holds on to the pick, and gets Vincent Lecavalier. The tandem of Lecavalier and Jason Spezza (who would be drafted 2nd Overall in 2001) would eventually become a dynamic duo, and could very well help the Sens win at least one Stanley Cup in the mid-2000s.

Hand would eventually get to Pittsburgh, and while he doesn’t alter the Pens’ fortunes right off the bat, he does help their drafting in a roundabout way. Because of his contributions, Pittsburgh moves back in a couple of drafts – taking Christian Backman instead of Milan Kraft in 1998, then taking Nick Boynton instead of Konstantin Koltsov the next year. These two additions help the Pens’ blue line over the next few years, which makes them slightly less embarrassing by the middle part of the decade, but also means the Penguins miss out on Evgeni Malkin in 2004, instead taking Andrew Ladd that year. (They still get Crosby, and while they may or may not win a Stanley Cup, they are still constant contenders.)

The latter part of Hand’s career sees him travel first to Vancouver, then to Minnesota. Hand changes very little in Vancouver, as they are still well below expectations; if anything, however, Tony’s status as a former teammate of Mark Messier might make “Moose” even more hated in the city, if such a thing was possible. In Minnesota, Hand is able to change the Wild’s position in the 2001 Draft; instead of Mikko Koivu, the Wild get Dan Blackburn, who shows promise early in his career, only to have to retire early due to injuries. Missing out on Koivu deprives the Wild of a fan favourite centreman, who is still with the team in the OTL.

HAND’S EFFECT ON BRITISH HOCKEY: Tony Hand moving over to North America has several effects on British hockey, and all of those effects need to be tackled separately. So, the first question to ask is…

Does Great Britain become a hockey hotbed of any sort? The answer to this one is… highly unlikely. While it is true that having a well-known player in the NHL could benefit the talent pool to some extent (as more young people discover the sport, and dedicate more time to it), there is actually a pretty similar example to look at in Poland.

In the early ‘90s, GKS Tychy developed two players who would go on to be drafted into the NHL in Mariusz Czerkawski and Krzysztof Oliwa; Czerkawski, for a brief period of time, was a valuable player in the NHL, putting up 30+ goals and 60+ points twice with the Islanders. Despite the two players suiting up for over 1,100 combined games, there has yet to be another Polish-trained player to be drafted by an NHL team. Their national team has not benefitted much, either, as while the team finished 14th in the world at the time of Oliwa’s drafting in 1993 (according to World Championship results), they have since dropped down to finishing 24th as of 2019. They have not made it to the top-flight World Championship since 2002, and look unlikely to make it back any time soon.

Looking at Britain in this comparison, it is unlikely that even with Tony Hand carving out a successful career in North America, there would be any sort of ice hockey boom on the Isles. Yes, there may be more attention devoted to British scouting, but it is unlikely that there would be a deeper pool of talent as a result. Though two British-trained players have since been drafted (Colin Shields in 2000, then Liam Kirk in 2018), they probably wouldn’t get more attention than they already have. Of course, in Kirk’s case, having only been drafted a year ago, there is still time for him to potentially make a mark in the NHL, but as a 7th-Round selection, his chances are slim.

Does Great Britain make the World Championship in 1994, or at all? The answer here for 1994 is a definitive no. Without the skill of Hand on hand (I’m so sorry), Team GB is unable to rise to the elite group at the Championships in ’94, instead stuck in the B or C Pools. Having retired by this point in the OTL, Hand has no on-ice effect on the Brits’ recent success, and they still make it to what is now their very first World Championship in 2019. And of course, they still finish well enough to stay up for next year.

Is Hand still a British hockey legend? Absolutely, but in a different way. Though he doesn’t have the prestige of putting up over 4,000 points in his career, Tony is instead remembered as a trailblazer for his country’s hockey program, having been the first trained on the Isles to make it to the NHL. It doesn’t hurt that he racks up over 1,000 games, either; his longevity in North America shows in theory that if a player from the U.K. is sufficiently good, they can last at the top level of hockey. He would still help out with the national team program any way he could, and his expertise would certainly help out younger players who are chasing an NHL dream.

Finally, would he still have that long career that stretched over 30 years? Probably not.

In the OTL, Tony Hand played a total of 1,656 games (counting league games, domestic Cups, playoffs, and World Championship events) from 1986 to 2015. By 2002 (the point at which he retires in this timeline), he had played 945 of those games. Now, as he moves over to North America, my projections have him playing a total of 1351 games – counting WHL, AHL, and NHL totals in both the regular season and playoffs. Assuming he commits to around the same amount of games that he played in the OTL, and assuming a similar amount of wear and tear per game, this could bring him to the 2007-08 season, by which point, he would have played a total of 1,692 games. This would mean hanging up the skates at the age of 40, by no means unreasonable for a professional player.

Of course, this is assuming that the wear and tear of professional hockey would be enough to keep Tony off of the ice in his later years. If he loved the game enough to still be playing at 47 years of age in our timeline, what’s to say he wouldn’t do the same this time around?


Again, having not been able to see Tony Hand play in his heyday, I can’t be 100% confident in these predictions being too accurate. I felt the need to give Hand a few advantages that I didn’t give Kharlamov, in part because of the praise that Tony has gotten from pretty reliable sources, including “Slats” himself.

Anyway, next month, I’ll be going back to The Drafting Table, and taking a look at the 2006 Boston Bruins.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Hand was the best passer of the puck I’ve seen not in the NHL. Amazing longevity, shame he can’t really translate that into a coaching career, and shame he didn’t stick it out or even try Europe.

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