Preview: GB lives the dream
Dare to dream: Great Britain returns to top-level hockey for the first time since the mid-‘90s
Photo: LASZLO MUDRA
‘Dare to dream’ was the British mantra during last year’s Division IA campaign – and Pete Russell’s team saw all its dreams come true in a dramatic finish to a nail-biting tournament. With just 15 seconds left in the final game in Budapest, Robert Farmer’s tying goal secured the Brits the point they needed to complete a shock win in the tournament and book a return to the top division for the first time in 25 years.
One year on, there’s a discernible sense of excitement around the British camp as it arrives in Slovakia looking to find a way to survive in a group that includes Canada, Finland and the USA. Russell insists his team is under no illusions about the task ahead of it in Kosice but can point to some encouraging results in warm-up play – most notably a 3-1 win over a Dinamo Riga roster boasting plenty of World Championship experience – as the nation ranked 22nd in the world looks to spring another major surprise.
Ben Bowns is the first-choice goalie and the 28-year-old Cardiff Devil is expecting a busy time of it in Slovakia. Bowns cemented his position as GB #1 back in 2014 and has reinforced his credentials with two Elite League title campaigns in the last three years in Cardiff. Standing 188 cm tall and weighing in at 95kg, Bowns has shown an ability to ‘steal’ games for club and country. He’s likely to need all that strength in adversity in the coming weeks with Britain likely to allow plenty of shots on its net at this level.
Back-up comes from Jackson Whistle, a Canadian dual-nation whose father David was on the GB coaching staff at the turn of the century, and Tom Murdy, who is also Bowns’ understudy at Cardiff.
Ben O’Connor, whose father Mike was a lynchpin of the 1994 GB World Championship roster, is possibly the highest-profile of Britain’s players. Last summer he was close to securing a move to the KHL but a proposed switch to Barys was cancelled when the Kazakh club changed ownership. His much-travelled career has seen several seasons as a youngster in Canadian junior leagues, a year in France and more than three seasons in the Kazakh league, mostly with Arlan Kokshetau. Last season he had a short spell in Sweden with Leksand, but he is still most strongly associated with Sheffield Steelers, where he has won two Elite League titles.
O’Connor’s fellow Steeler Dave Phillips is another player with vast experience. He made his World Championship debut way back in 2006 and has 64 AHL appearances under his belt, mostly with Rockford IceHogs. Evan Mosey, who can play forward or defence, is another former IceHog: the Illinois-born 30-year-old had 41 games there in 2016/17 and has also played in Denmark and Belgium. He’s currently with Cardiff.
GB’s record goal scorer Colin Shields leads the way in his final competitive action. The 39-year-old announced his retirement at the end of the season and has already signed off from club action by helping Belfast Giants to win the Elite League title. Shields, drafted in the sixth round by the Flyers back in 2000, has 40 goals in World Championship and Olympic qualifying action and has been a prolific scorer since he potted 44 points in 44 games to help the University of Maine win the NCAA’s Hockey East section in 2003/04.
If Shields represents the old guard for British hockey, his team-mate on this roster, Liam Kirk, is widely tipped to be its future. The 19-year-old from Yorkshire was drafted by the Coyotes last year – a rare achievement for a player whose entire career up to that point had been spent in Britain – and has gone to Peterborough Petes to continue his development. With 47 (26+21) points in his rookie OHL campaign, he’s adapting well to life across the Atlantic and he returns to the GB roster for his second World Championship campaign after featuring in Budapest last year.
Other men to watch might include Robert Dowd, a long-serving member of the national team. The 30-year-old from Billingham had a brief spell playing Midget hockey in Chicago and also made 42 appearances in the Allsvenskan, picking up 24 points for Troja-Ljungby in 2012/13. Dowd has also won five UK championships with Sheffield and Belfast. Captain Jonathan Phillips bring vast experience to the roster. He’s played 774 Elite League games and represented his country in World Championship and Olympic qualifying play on 87 occasions in a career split between his native Cardiff and current club Sheffield.
Pete Russell’s appointment as GB head coach proved to be a masterstroke on behalf of Ice Hockey UK. The 44-year-old Scot had a modest playing career as a goalie in Britain’s lower leagues but steadily built his coaching reputation during his time with the country’s U18 and U20 rosters. He was invited to take charge of the men’s roster for the 2015 Worlds, with Britain languishing in Division IB, and started with the first of two painful last-day losses as GB narrowly missed out on promotion after allowing late goals. IHUK kept faith with their man, though, and were richly rewarded. On home ice in Belfast in 2017, Britain powered through the opposition and clinched that long-awaited promotion with a comprehensive 4-0 thumping of Japan in the decisive game. One year on, and the heroics of Budapest took Britain back to the top table for the first time in quarter of a century. Then, as now, Britain made it thanks to back-to-back promotions; Russell has already secured his status alongside Alex Dampier as one of the great coaches in British hockey; the coming championship is a new test that the Glasgow Clan chief is relishing.
Like any promoted nation, Britain faces a struggle to survive at this level. Mike O’Connor, a veteran of the 1994 roster, was blunt: “If you say you’re going to beat the likes of Canada or Finland, people will laugh at you.” But he offered some hope: in 1994, Britain was tied at 2-2 midway through the third period of its relegation play-off against Norway and if Russell’s team can catch one of the Group B outsiders on an off day, it could snatch that victory that might pave the way to survival. Games against the giants of the hockey world will provide the memories that these players will cherish for a lifetime, but the battles against Denmark (14 May) and France (20 May) will be the key targets for Russell and his men.