Tony Hand - the maestro on ice

Ice Hockey player Tony Hand - Picture  Christopher Furlong                                         'Furlong'HAND1CFJ.JPG
Ice Hockey player Tony Hand - Picture Christopher Furlong 'Furlong'HAND1CFJ.JPG
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The remarkable career of Tony Hand is about to end. At the age of 47, the greatest ice hockey player this country has ever produced is finally retiring.

His longevity is as astonishing as his skill levels - he is simply in a different class to everyone else.

FOR SPORT.'TONY HAND THE NEW SIGNING FOR THE SCOTTISH CAPITALS ICE HOCKEY TEAM.'PIC PAUL PARKE

FOR SPORT.'TONY HAND THE NEW SIGNING FOR THE SCOTTISH CAPITALS ICE HOCKEY TEAM.'PIC PAUL PARKE

It’s incredible to look back and realise it’s almost 20 years since he left Murrayfield Racers for pastures new down south. Two full decades have passed since the days he teased and tormented - and, let’s be honest, crushed Fife Flyers.

The player they loved to hate but, deep down, wanted to see in the gold, white and blue.

Hand nearly crossed the great divide of the Forth.

It was the early 1990s and, from memory, it was Jim Lynch who came tantalisingly close to landing his signature - a move that would have shifted the balance of power between the two giants of hockey just a season or so before Doug Smail walked into the rink. Imagine the potency of those two on the same line with a swashbuckling Mark Morrison ... alas, we can only but dream.

Racers' Tony Hand in action during the Murrayfield Racers v Durham Wasps ice hockey match in Kirkcaldy, December 1987. Final score 5-11 to Wasps.

Racers' Tony Hand in action during the Murrayfield Racers v Durham Wasps ice hockey match in Kirkcaldy, December 1987. Final score 5-11 to Wasps.

His Murrayfield buddies Moray Hanson and Paul Hand both moved to Fife, but Hand remained resolutely loyal to his home town club; the place which was a second home to him, one of the Murrayfield rink rats who, along with his brother Paul, plus Moray, Paul Pentland and Scott Neil picked up a stick, donned a set of skates and discovered a natural ability to play hockey, turning the capital side into a phenomenal force across the Heineken era.

He made his debut at the age of just 14 - not unusual in the those days. I remember Les Millie swapping the classroom for the dressing-room when he first burst on to the scene in equally electrifying style in Fife ‘back in the day’ and Stephen Murphy looked like a wee laddie when Mark Morrison threw him into a Grand Slam team where he played with unbelievable composure beyond his years.

But Hand outlasted them all. He also took this sport and elevated it to an entirely different level.

Thirty three years on ice during which he won every single honour, all-star merit and piece of silverware going - so many that if he ever wanted to display them at home he’d need to build an extension.

But that was never his style.

Hand was the quietest guy you’d ever meet - a man who simply did his talking on the ice.

In games against Flyers, he was a match-winner par excellence.

He broke Fife’s hearts time and again.

Amid the frantic hurly burly of derby games with 3000 fans creating a cauldron of noise, Hand remained calm and focussed as he hovered on the red line; but a player with the predatory instincts of a shark.

I remember Gordon Latto explaining how it was nearly impossible to nail him.

The fans would yell to hit him on the boards, but one step too close and he was gone. It was like trying to check a ghost.

But stand back and leave the smallest of spaces and he’d be gone in the blink of an eye - a sudden acceleration towards goal and the puck was in the net or thrown to a line-mate who was suddenly wide open. Game over in a matter of seconds.

His on-ice vision was genuinely 360 degrees and he read games better than anyone else. The mantle of ‘‘the British Gretzky’’ was entirely fitting for a player who defined more than one era of the British game and set records that will simply never be matched, let alone equalled.

A role model? For sure.

He gave a masterclass in outstanding hockey almost every single night. It’s impossible to say how many kids in rinks and arenas up and down the country saw him and said ‘‘I want to play like him’’ - I suspect many from Edinburgh to Sheffield to Belfast and on to Manchester were moved to lace up and try to emulate what he did with a puck and a stick. Hockey needs those towering figures - guys who inspire off the ice as well as excite and entertain on it.

And, like Gretzky across the pond, they’ll be talking about his great game-winning goals and match-changing performances for decades to come; genuine ‘‘I was there’’ moments to savour and recall, even if they came at the expense of your own club.

When even the fans of your fiercest rivals can nod approval and recognise and applaud the talent, you know you have someone rather special.

British hockey will continue to produce great players, but there will never be another Tony Hand MBE.

No-one will ever hit the ice as a scrawny 14-year old, bag 100 points within a few seasons and skate across the years and decades with such age-defying ability.

The sport should certainly rise as one as he leaves the ice for the very last time.