From the NHL to Altrincham
It is the jewel in ice hockey's crown: the fastest league in the world, watched by hundreds of thousands of fans, three times a week for half a year.
North America's National Hockey League - the NHL - is as good as the sport gets.
Televised, analysed and monetised to within an inch of its life, it is the sport's beating heart. It is a world away from ice hockey in the UK.
To my knowledge, only one man in England's Premier League (EPL) has stepped onto the ice as an NHL star. Now, he's talking to me in a dimly-lit Bracknell car park.
"To these players," says Ed Courtenay, gesturing towards his team coach, "this is the NHL."
If Courtenay is disappointed that he is being interviewed by me and not Don Cherry, he's hiding it well.
He scored six more times and amassed 20 points in 39 games that season - his only full NHL campaign.
A season later he was back in the IHL, a feeder league for NHL teams, and by 1997 he had reached British shores with the Sheffield Steelers.
Travelling via Ayr, Belfast and Newcastle, Courtenay is now an assistant coach at the Premier League's Manchester Phoenix, playing home games in the 2,000-capacity Altrincham Ice Dome alongside up-and-coming locals and British old-timers.
Courtenay, above, began his professional career in 1989. Photo: Richard Murry
"This is the highest level they can get to," adds the imposing 41-year-old Canadian. "You can't compare the skill level here to the NHL - it's like football's Premier League against the... I don't know, the 10th division. There is no comparison.
"But just because you're in the NHL and not the EPL, it doesn't mean you're working any harder. You may be more talented but the work ethic is still the same."
Courtenay has been making hay in the Premier League. For financial reasons - and, as much as anything, a desire to win more games - the Phoenix switched from the Elite League to the Premier League in time for the new season.
The team's fans seem delighted with the move and Courtenay, a star at any level in the UK, is enjoying himself. He has 28 points from 12 games, the second-highest tally in the league.
Of the team-mates and opponents he faces at this level, only a handful ever threatened to join him in the NHL.
Phoenix player-coach Tony Hand came within a hair's breadth when he was drafted by the Edmonton Oilers in 1986. No Briton has had a more successful career than Hand, but he never took to the ice for real in an Oilers jersey.
Claude Dumas, Hand's opposite number at the team Manchester have just beaten 6-0, the Bracknell Bees, was drafted by the Washington Capitals in 1985. But, again, drafting is one thing and playing is another. Dumas never played for the Caps.
They didn't make it, but Courtenay did. How does he reconcile a blustery October night in Bracknell with those heady heights in California?
"It's funny you ask me that," he says. "Two months ago one of my friends, a goalkeeper back home who never got to the highest level, asked me how it felt to reach the top level in the world.
"I'm Canadian and, in the way British kids dream of playing in the Premier League, Canadian boys dream of the NHL. It was fantastic, it really was. I look back and although it didn't last long, I reached the pinnacle.
"I told him that because I was a 'bubble player' - up and down, never sure whether I was going to get sent down to the minors or stay with the big team - I never had the chance to sit back and realise what I had achieved.
"But now when I look back, all these years on, it was a fantastic time. The rinks were fantastic. When I scored my first goal at the Montreal Forum, being from Montreal, that was an amazing thrill. It's a long time ago but the memories will last forever."
Now, instead of the roar of thousands of NHL fans, Courtenay hears the individual voices of British supporters.
"No disrespect meant to the British fans, but the difference with hockey fans here is they really aren't that knowledgeable about the game. They've come a long way, mind you.
"And if the fans here aren't happy with you, they'll let you know. Back home as soon as the game's over, the game's over, but here there's a lot of heckling from the stands. And since the rinks are smaller, the players hear it more."
San Jose's HP Pavilion, top, and the Altrincham Ice Dome. Photos: Getty Images/Nick Ogden
In recent weeks, the rumour mill has been at work suggesting Courtenay wants out - that either the money, or the level of hockey at which he's now playing, isn't enough. Given his NHL pedigree, I can see how he might get frustrated. But to the 6ft 4in forward, it's a perfect fit.
"I'm happy at Manchester. I just got back today from seeing my wife and kids in the States. The Phoenix have given me the freedom to travel away on a Monday and come back on a Saturday morning, like this, when I feel the need. That was one of the biggest reasons why I chose to continue playing, and to play at this level.
"My first year as a pro was 1989. This is my 20th year, and getting to 20 years was something I wanted to do. With the assistant coach title, it's my way to give something back to British ice hockey and help some of these younger kids out. I've played half my career over here and I've got a lot to be thankful for."
However, if you want to see a former NHL star on the ice in Altrincham, you may still have to hurry. The way he talks about it, 20 years sounds like the right time for Courtenay to end his playing career.
"It does." He nods. "As much as I wanted to get to 20 years, I was ready in year 17. But the job market out there is not the easiest, is it? Out there in the real world. And if you do have a job, you're not giving it up to get on the dole. So it worked out for both of us: the team and myself.
"It's nice to say I've played 20 years. Not too many people can say it, and what's gratifying is I'm still able to play. I'm not making a fool out of myself out there."