-Victoria Cougars coach Wayne Naka
Tony Hand is one of the most intriguing players to ever put on a Cougars' uniform. After attending the Edmonton Oilers training camp in 1986, he joined the Cougars and scored eight points in his first three games. Even though he was a perfect fit in Victoria, Hand felt homesick. He left the team and returned to Edinburgh. The Scottish Wayne Gretzky went on to become the most successful player in British hockey history. In this blog, we explore Tony Hand’s brief but memorable Canadian hockey journey.
It was on a trip to Scotland that Cougars owner Fraser McColl first spotted Tony Hand. The Scottish phenom was put on the Cougars’ protected list in 1985 after McColl followed his progress with the Murrayfield Racers. Hand put up jaw-dropping numbers in the British Hockey League (BHL) with 164 points in 32 games. He also led Great Britain with ten goals in five games at the Group C world junior championships.
In 1986, the Edmonton Oilers used their 12th round pick to select Tony Hand, thus becoming the first player from Great Britain drafted by an NHL team. The pick was made on the recommendation of ex-NHLer Garry Unger who played against Hand in the BHL. In September 1986, Hand flew to North America for the first time to attend Oilers training camp. During training, he impressed the coaches with his skill and remained with the team for the full 14 days of camp.
“There was absolutely no question when he came over for that first training camp that he had enough hockey skill. He had never been pushed to any great limit. He was a neat kid. He was a bit overwhelmed by the whole process. To be thrown into that cauldron was almost an impossible task.” - Bill Tuele, former Edmonton Oilers Director of Public Relations
After training camp, the Oilers assigned Hand to the Victoria Cougars. His first game took place on September 27, 1986, against the Seattle Thunderbirds. The Cougars won 4-2, with Hand scoring two goals. He was named the player of the game and found instant chemistry on a line with Adam Morrison and Joel Savage.
Hand made an immediate impact and seemed to be exactly what the Cougars needed. Unfortunately, he was homesick and decided to return to Edinburgh.
“I’ve been treated well here, but back home, I do have more security. Edmonton wanted me to play junior hockey this season for the experience, but I’ve decided against it. It was a tough decision, but I think it is a longshot to make the pros. And Edmonton seems to have a strong team. I just think it would be too much of a gamble to stay here” (1)
Back in Scotland, Hand had a full-time job as an assistant engineer at the Murrayfield Stadium sports complex. He also missed his girlfriend, car, and the laid-back lifestyle of British hockey.
“I’ve been trying to adjust to the fact that most of the teams across here, live, sleep and eat hockey. There’s a lot of pressure on you to win” (2)
Plans changed a few days later. Hand announced that he reversed his decision and signed a new contract with Edmonton. The Oilers convinced him that he had a bright future if he would stay with the Cougars for the rest of the season.
The contract gave him a measure of security. “It’s what I would call a fair arrangement,” said Hand. “We’ve worked it out that I’ll be playing in Victoria, and at some point, during the season, they’ll give me an indication of the progress I’m making.” (3)
After two games, the Scottish star had four goals and one assist. “Time will tell how I do,” Hand stated, “A couple of games isn’t going to give you a true indication, but at least I haven’t felt out of place” (3)
On October 4, 1986, Hand picked up three assists in a 7-5 loss to New Westminster. His point total now stood at eight points in only three games. There was a newfound excitement around Memorial Arena. Fans were starting to take notice of the team’s Scottish superstar.
After the game, Hand took some time off and flew to Scotland to wrap up some personal affairs. He arranged the trip when he signed the contract with Edmonton. Hand was to fly back from Edinburgh in 16 days and return to the Cougars lineup.
Two weeks later, he failed to return. “Tony Hand doesn’t appear to be coming back,” announced Cougars General Manager Al Patterson, “He’s made the decision at the moment to stay in Scotland” (4)
“It was a shame for our club to lose Tony as he quickly earned the respect of his teammates and opponents. I believed the talk was that he was ultimately homesick. I can say that I recall the team being deflated losing this foreign prodigy.” – Greg Batters, Victoria Cougars forward
Ensuing attempts to persuade Hand to return failed. A disappointed Patterson said McColl would be going to Scotland and hoped to convince him to return. Hand rejoined Murrayfield and played alongside his brother Paul Hand. In 35 games with the Racers, Hand had his best year to date, with 216 points - an average of over six points a game.
The following season, Hand returned to Canada for another training camp with Edmonton. He first attended the 1987 Cougars camp and, after a few weeks, joined the Oilers. The Cougars were hoping if Hand failed to make the Oilers, Edmonton would send him to Victoria.
Jackson Penney, who was a rookie in 1987, describes the experience of playing with Tony Hand at Cougars training camp:
He can get the puck away quickly. He’s a quiet and modest guy though. He doesn’t like being singled out by the media. He tells the guys that he’s just another player but, being from Scotland, he gets the attention (5)
On September 5, 1987, Hand had a goal and four assists in a 7-4 victory during a Cougars intersquad game at Pearkes Arena. A few days later, he flew to Edmonton to attend his second Oilers training camp.
"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," - Glen Sather, Edmonton Oilers Head Coach/General Manager (6)
Hand was one of Edmonton’s finals cuts in training camp. Instead of going to Victoria, the Oilers assigned him to their top farm team in Nova Scotia. Al Patterson said that Hand told him he hadn’t been offered a contract by the Oilers. They sent him to Nova Scotia where, according to Hand, five other centres were also on the roster. Hand felt he would eventually be bound for the International Hockey League (IHL). He told Patterson that after two training camps, going to the IHL did not look promising for his future in North American hockey. (7) Hand never reported to Nova Scotia and instead flew home to Edinburgh.
“I have many memories of Tony Hand in his short stay in Victoria. It is too bad he did not stay and play in the WHL for the season, he was an exceptional talent. My owner at the time, Fraser McColl was an idiot for not paying him whatever he wanted when Tony came back to Victoria after the Oilers camp and he was Scottish also. Tony did not look that good at first glance, but could he ever play the game, and I have never seen a guy who could flat out score like him. Too bad, he could have scored a hundred plus goals for us had he stayed” (8)
Hand returned to the Murrayfied Racers for the 1987/88 season and scored a team-leading 192 points in 36 games. He would never play outside of Great Britain for the remainder of his career but went on to set numerous scoring records. In 2001, Hand became a player/coach with Dundee. At the age of 47, he retired from playing in 2015, with over 4,000 career points. He currently coaches the Murrayfield Racers, the team he began his career with in 1981.
Subsequently, when Hand left Victoria in 1986, the Cougars finished the year with a 30-41-1 record. In the playoffs, they were swept in the first round by Kamloops. He only played three games, but Tony Hand left a big impression in Canada. What would have happened if he remained with the Cougars in 1986? Would he have made the National Hockey League? Could he have scored 100 goals with the Cougars as Wayne Naka predicted?
“I went and met the queen and had a chat, which was quite nice,” Hand, 50, said in a phone interview from Edinburgh, Scotland. “Even if you look at the career, over here I’ve been fortunate enough to have helped the sport any way I can. I have had a decent career and I’ve got a good family here and a lot of friends. So, I’m not sitting back sulking. But it would have been nice to see what could have happened.”
(1) “Cougars win but Scottish player leaving” Dave Senick, September 28, 1986 (Page 11 of 44). Times Colonist (1980-2010); 28 Sep 1986:11.
(2) “Scottish Player Goes Home” Mike Beamish, September 30, 1986 (Page 29 of 92). The Vancouver Sun (1986-2016) 1986 Sep 30(128):29.
(3)“Cougars get helping Hand from Oilers” Dave Senick, October 4, 1986 (Page 24 of 73). Times Colonist (1980-2010) 1986 Oct 04(289):24.
(4) “The Scottish link severed again, Cougars learn” October 23, 1986 (Page 10 of 40). Times Colonist (1980-2010) 1986 Oct 23(307):10.
(5) “Diary of a rookie hoping to catch on with the Cougars” Jackson Penney September 5, 1987 (Page 41 of 70). Times Colonist (1980-2010) 1987 Sep 05(264):41.
(7) “Hand hears the pipes of home” September 29, 1987 (Page 10 of 40). Times Colonist (1980-2010) 1987 Sep 29(287):10.