After four seasons in his native, Great Britain-based Elite Ice Hockey League, where he proved a point-per-game player the last two seasons, Robert Farmer wanted to discover if he could make the grade in North America.
He's about to find out.
When the Aces open the season Friday night by entertaining the San Francisco Bulls, Farmer will likely patrol left wing on the third line in his ECHL debut.
Half of the Aces' 18-man lineup will consist of newcomers, none of whom is making a step quite as big as Farmer. He's in a new country, he's playing for a new team, and he's playing in a league on a higher rung on hockey's ladder than any he's reached before.
At 22, Farmer is the rare Brit hockey player to cross the pond to ply his trade.
"It's something I wanted to do for a couple of years and I had a good opportunity here, and I didn't hesitate,'' Farmer said. "I always like a challenge and this is a challenge for me, to leave home and see if I can play here.''
Farmer last season earned 20-31--51 totals in 52 league games for the Braehead Clan. Two seasons ago, he bagged 28-27--55 totals in 61 games for the Coventry Blaze and was voted the Young British Player of the Year. He has represented Great Britain in 36 international games.
A call last summer to Aces coach Rob Murray from Farmer's agent prompted Murray to check around about Farmer. Murray said he talked to Farmer's Braehead teammate Ash Goldie, younger brother of former Aces sniper Wes Goldie, and to former Aces defenseman Tyson Marsh, who plays in the EIHL. Both issued favorable reports, Murray said.
That was enough for Murray to sign Farmer, a 6-foot-3, 200-pounder.
"It was intriguing,'' Murray said. "I don't think you're taking a flyer, because he's not playing senior men's league in Northern Alberta, you know?''
Besides, the EIHL carries a North American flavor. Teams can play as many as 11 imports in a game, and many of those are Canadian or American. Farmer's teammates in Braehead last season included former UAA skaters Matt Hanson and Jade Galbraith and former UAF forward Ryan Campbell. A few seasons ago, he was teammates with former Aces standout Joey Talbot in Sheffield. And several former Aces and Seawolves currently play in EIHL.
Farmer's aim upon arriving in Anchorage was simply to survive training-camp cuts. The Aces have won three consecutive Brabham Cup titles as ECHL regular-season champions, so their roster can be difficult to crack.
"I hoped I'd make it, but you're trying out,'' Farmer said. "Nothing is given. There's a lot of good hockey players here. I just worked hard and did my best.
"I just come here every day until they tell me not to.''
This isn't Farmer's first time abroad. He spent the 2010 training camp with the Ottawa 67's of the Ontario Hockey League and played one game for them before he was released.
Still, there have been adjustments for Farmer here, beyond hockey. He began driving in Anchorage after first watching from the passenger seat while teammates drove --"I finally got somewhat used to driving on the opposite side of the road,'' he said. And he hasn't had many opportunities to call his family in Nottingham, England -- the nine-hour time difference makes that tough.
But he's hoping to stick with the Aces, and stick in a league that he said appears to feature greater depth than EIHL clubs.
Only two players from Great Britain have ever been drafted in the NHL -- former University of Maine forward Colin Shields of Scotland, who moved to Canada when he was 14, and fellow Scot Tony Hand, who is the coach of the British national team and still, at 46, a player-coach in the English Premier Ice Hockey League, one rung below the EIHL.
Great Britain-trained players who have played even somewhat regularly in North America's pro ranks are rare. Shields played 119 ECHL games and now plays in the EIHL. England defenseman David Phillips, who now plays in the EIHL, played 64 games in the American Hockey League and 50 in the ECHL. And current EIHL forward Matthew Myers of Wales logged 28 games in the ECHL a few seasons ago.
Now, it's Farmer's time to try his hand.
From the Rosetta Stone rink file
At least Farmer's professional transition isn't complicated by a language barrier.
Aces first-line winger Peter Sivak of Slovakia speaks little English. When equipment manager Mike Burkhead recently wrote information in English on a locker room white board concerning which color laundry bags players are to use for their gear after a game, a practice or a workout, he supplemented the info. Using Google Translate, he also wrote on the board the Slovak words for certain colors and for game, practice or workout.
"I wondered, should I translate 'game,' or 'competition,' or 'fixture?' '' Burkhead said.
Spivak did some editing, changing the Slovak word for "practice'' to the word for "training.''
"We can learn too,'' Burkhead said.
Murray said rookie goaltender Joni Ortio will get the start Friday night.
Rookie center Eli Zuck of Anchorage is unlikely to make his pro debut this weekend -- he's out with a lower-body injury.
Of the 24 players the Aces still have, 13 are returners and 11 are newcomers. Their opening-night lineup of 18 players is likely to be evenly split, with nine returners and nine newcomers.
Find Doyle Woody's blog adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
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