As of 2016, there are currently no British born ice hockey players plying their trade in the world’s most prestigious ice hockey league, the NHL. However, take a look through the league’s illustrious record books, and they will indeed show you that a grand total of 51 British born players have played in the history of the league, each with varying degrees of success.
Of these players, 21 were indeed born in Scotland, with three hailing from Wales, five from Northern Ireland, and 22 from England respectively.
Two of these 51 players have managed to appear in over 1,000 NHL games, while others were Stanley Cup winners and All-Stars. One of them is even in the Hockey Hall of Fame, and two have played in more than 100 postseason contests.
In this post, I will be narrowing 51 down to 10, as I list the 10 greatest ever British ice hockey players to play in the NHL:
10. Jim Conacher
Motherwell born, Jim Conacher played centre ice in the NHL from 1945 to 1953 with the Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks, and New York Rangers. He recorded 202 points in 328 regular-season games, scoring 85 goals and adding a further 117 assists. Conacher was an accomplished scorer during the first several seasons of his career, with campaigns of 16, 17, 26, and 25 goals. His best season consisted of 49 points in 59 games in 1948-49, which he split between Detroit and Chicago after being traded to the Windy City four games into the season. Conacher added seven points in 19 playoff games.
9. Adam Brown
Forward Adam Brown hailed from Johnstone, Scotland, and played on the left wing for the Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks, and Boston Bruins between 1941 and 1952. Brown appeared in 391 regular-season contests and contributed 217 points with 104 goals and 113 assists, while also serving 378 minutes in penalties. He also chipped in with six points in 26 postseason outings. Brown, who was known as ‘The Flying Scotsman,’ helped the Red Wings capture the Stanley Cup in 1942-43 and also assisted Gordie Howe’s first NHL goal. Brown was just 5-feet-9-inches tall, but was as tough as they got. His son, Andy Brown, later played in 62 NHL games as a goaltender. Brown had seasons of 24, 20, and 19 goals, but passed away in 1960 at the age of 40.
8. Peter Lee
Right-winger Peter Lee of Ellesmere, England, was drafted 12th overall by the Montreal Canadiens in 1976 after scoring more than 400 points with the Ottawa 67’s, including a 161-point campaign in his final year as a junior. He scored at about a point-per-game average in the AHL for a year and a half, and then made his NHL debut with Pittsburgh in 1977-78. He scored just 18 points in 60 games as a 22-year-old rookie, but made a breakthrough the next season with 32 goals and 26 assists in 80 appearances. His best season brought 30 goals and 34 assists two years later. Lee played 431 regular-season games with the Penguins, and chipped in with 245 points on 114 goals and 131 assists, as well as adding eight points in 19 playoff contests. After six years in the NHL, Lee left for Germany where he scored at over a point-per-game for 12 more seasons.
7. Byron Dafoe
Byron Dafoe of Worthing, England, was an NHL goaltender with the Washington Capitals, Los Angeles Kings, Boston Bruins, and the Atlanta Thrashers between 1992 and 2004. He was taken 35th overall by Washington in the 1989 NHL Entry Draft, after playing out west as a junior with Portland and Prince Albert. Dafoe appeared in 415 regular-season NHL games, and posted a record of 171-170-56 with a goals-against average of 2.69 and a save percentage of .904 along with 26 shutouts. He posted a 1.99 GAA in 1998-99 with Boston and led the league with 10 shutouts, making it to the Second All Star Team. Dafoe earned votes for several trophies during his career including the Calder, Hart, and Vezina.
6. Steve Smith
Steady defenceman Steve Smith was born in Glasgow, Scotland, and played 804 regular-season games with the Edmonton Oilers, Chicago Blackhawks and Calgary Flames between 1984 and 2001. Smith may have scored in his own net as an Oilers rookie in the seventh game of their 1985-86 playoff loss to the Calgary Flames, but he was rock solid on the blue line from that moment on. Smith was taken 111th overall in the 1981 draft by Edmonton, and contributed 72 goals and 303 assists for 375 points during his career with another 52 points in 134 playoff outings. He also helped the Oilers win three Stanley Cups. Smith represented his adopted homeland of Canada in the 1991 Canada Cup and served 2,139 minutes in penalties during his career.
5. Ken Hodge
Ken Hodge was known as one of the toughest wingers in the NHL from 1964 to 1978 when he played with the Chicago Blackhawks, Boston Bruins, and New York Rangers. Hodge hailed from Birmingham, England, and starred as a junior with the Saint Catharines Blackhawks, scoring a league-leading 63 goals and 60 assists in his final season. Hodge’s NHL career lasted 881 regular-season games, which saw him score 328 goals and 472 assists for 800 points, along with 779 minutes in penalties. He scored 87 power play markers and was a + 241 for his career. Hodge also scored 81 points in 97 playoff contests and helped the Big Bad Bruins win two Stanley Cups in 1969-70 and 1971-72. The bruising winger was also a part of the famous 1968 trade which saw himself, Phil Esposito, and Fred Stanfield leave Chicago for Boston.
4. Owen Nolan
Hard-nosed and high-scoring Owen Nolan was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and patrolled the right wing from 1990 to 2010 with the likes of the Quebec Nordiques, Colorado Avalanche, San Jose Sharks, Toronto Maple Leafs, Phoenix Coyotes, Calgary Flames, and Minnesota Wild. Nolan was a first-overall draft pick by Quebec in 1990 from the Cornwall Royals. Nolan scored 423 goals and notched 463 assists for 885 points in his career. Nolan also chipped in with 40 points in 65 postseason contests. He was also a rough and tumble guy who served 1,793 minutes in penalties and was a feared fighter. The power forward represented his adopted Canada at several tournaments and won an Olympic gold medal in 2002.
3. Tom Anderson
Edinburgh, Scotland, was the birthplace of left-winger/defencemen Tom Anderson,, who skated in the NHL between 1934 and 1942. Anderson played 319 regular-season contests with the Detroit Red Wings, the New York Americans, and the Brooklyn Americans. He racked up 62 goals and 127 assists for 189 points, while adding seven points in 16 playoff encounters. Anderson’s best NHL season was his last in 1937-38 with Brooklyn, when he recorded 12 goals and 29 assists for 41 points in 48 games. His 41 points set a record at the time for an NHL defencemen. Anderson also hit double digits in goals on three other occasions, and won the Hart Trophy for his record-setting season as the NHL’s most valuable player. Anderson was the first player on a non-playoff team to capture the Hart, but he’s just one of three winners of the trophy not to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. The other two are Eric Lindros and Al Rollins.
2. Charlie Gardiner
Charlie Gardiner was one of the NHL’s top goaltenders between 1927 and 1934. The native of Edinburgh, Scotland, spent his entire career with the Chicago Blackhawks and won the Vezina Trophy in 1931-32 and again in 1933-34. In addition, he was named in the First All-Star Team three times and the Second Team once. Gardiner appeared in 316 regular-season outings while posting a record of 112-152-52. However, his goals-against average was a stellar 2.02, and he posted 42 shutouts. He went 12-6 in the playoffs with a 1.43 goals-against average and had another five shutouts, helping Chicago win the Stanley Cup in his final season in 1933-34. Gardiner is the only goalie to captain a Stanley Cup-winning squad and he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1945.
1. Steve Thomas
Winger Steve Thomas of Stockport, England, was the most successful British NHL player when it comes to games played and points. Thomas ended up being one of the league’s best-ever undrafted players after breaking into the NHL with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1984-85. He was a 50-goal scorer as a junior with the Toronto Marlboros, and then racked up a 42-goal, 48-assist season in his first pro year in the AHL. Thomas ended up playing 1,235 regular-season NHL games with the Leafs, Chicago Blackhawks, New York Islanders, New Jersey Devils, Might Ducks of Anaheim, and Detroit Red Wings, scoring 421 goals and 512 assists for 933 points. He had 106 power play goals and 78 game winners, and added 107 points in 174 playoff games. Thomas was small, but could more than take care of himself, and possessed one of the best shots and fastest sets of wheels in the league until retiring in 2004.
In recent years, the popularity of ice hockey in Britain has soared. The game has grown and developed at a rapid rate, drawing in fans new and old with its family friendly atmosphere and blistering, non-stop action. By doing so, more and more young people getting involved in the sport, and at this rate, it may not be long until British players are gracing NHL ice rinks once again.