Original article appears on the IIHF Website
by Andy Potts|22 MAY 2019
Two years ago, Great Britain was lining up against the likes of Croatia and the Netherlands in Division IB. Yesterday, the Brits secured their place at the 2020 World Championship in Switzerland after a thrilling fightback to defeat France in overtime after trailing 0-3 midway through the second period.
It was GB’s first victory at this level of world hockey since 1962 on the country’s first appearance in the Elite Pool in 25 years. So what was behind the success – and what’s next for British hockey?
Pete Russell’s reputation has steadily grown in his four seasons as GB head coach. The likable Scot has instilled a winning mentality into his team, helping to banish the ghosts of two near misses in Division IB to lift Britain to its best performance in more than half a century. Along the way, he’s got the team playing some impressively composed hockey with a fluent passing game. In the France game, his decision to call a time-out after the third French goal proved to be pivotal, allowing Britain to reassert itself and impose its game on the French once again.
Mike Hammond, who got his fourth goal of the tournament to make it a one-goal game late in the second stanza, picked out another moment when Russell made the right call.
Pete’s a bit crazy at times, maybe we don’t always know what he’s doing but he seems to know what he’s doing.Mike Hammond
“I think it was our third goal, we were supposed to be third up in the rotation and he just had a feeling and put us back out there and then Farmer got a big one. It just goes to show, I don’t know what it is but he has a crazy knack for the game. He just does the right things at the right moments. He was calm tonight and never stopped believing and it paid off,” Hammond said.
Russell’s progress has not gone unnoticed elsewhere. Next season he will take on the role of head coach at EHC Freiburg in the DEL2 – a rare chance for a British coach to take on a challenge outside the Elite League.
Any team looking to win a relegation battle needs a goalie who can keep it alive when the pressure piles up. Britain had Ben Bowns. The busiest man in Slovakia this week, he’s faced a veritable fusillade of shots – and kept finding the answers. That grab to deny Jack Hughes late in the game against the USA might be the pick of the highlight reel, but for doing it when it counted, those big, big saves in overtime against France were the moments that kept GB at the top table. Sprawled across his crease as the French forwards buzzed around the net, Bowns managed to get something behind efforts from Sacha Treille and Valentin Claireux.
Not surprisingly, Ben Davies, scorer of that overtime winner, sought to deflect the suggestion that he was the man who saved GB.
“I don’t think I could say that,” the Guildford Flames forward smiled.
“Bownsy’s had a hell of a tournament. He’s stood on his head for us day in, day out, and obviously the defence, the penalty kill, everyone has played a part.”
‘Dare to Dream’ was the British mantra in Budapest, where promotion was secured with a goal 15 seconds from the hooter in the final game against Hungary. And the team hasn’t woken up yet – staying in the top division keeps that dream alive for another season.
But that belief has some serious substance behind it: this team had the guts to shrug off some heavy beatings, including a painful 0-9 loss to Denmark, and get over the line when it really counted.
Ben O’Connor, a stalwart blue liner for the Brits talked about the spirit that kept the players going when few outside the room gave the team a chance.
“It’s the same thing as last year,” he said. “We were the underdogs there and it was the same when we got here on that first day.”
People were joking about us, we were just the guys from GB, people assumed we’d be up and down, it was a nice little holiday for us. But we didn’t believe that. We believed that we were here and we could stay.Ben O’Connor
“That performance against Germany, and against Finland, showed that we can play against some of these teams.
“We kinda felt against Denmark we could be more of a challenger and I think we were too confident. We came out and we got absolutely taken to the cleaners. At this level if you don’t play, that’s what’s going to happen. To compose ourselves, to come back and to regroup the way we did was very special and that just shows the character in our team.”
After staying up this season, where can GB go next? O’Connor was refreshingly honest – “the bar!” he smiled. But, joking aside, this represents a huge opportunity to promote a sport that has a sizeable underground following across Britain despite a lack of mainstream media attention in a market saturated with football.
“It’s great for kids at home who are seeing us play against the biggest and the best in the world,” O’Connor added. “That should push them on. It should push our association to do more for the kids, more for the grassroots to get GB to stay at this level where we deserve to be.”
To be honest, nobody remembers how it started. Everyone remembers that we stayed up.Pete Russell – GB Head Coach
For Russell, having locked horns with the best, the experience gained in Kosice is going to be crucial if Britain is to establish a place at this level in the long term.
“Next time, our management and our players know what’s expected here,” he said. “Compared with Division I, it’s a different thing altogether. When you look at the best teams we played last year, countries like Kazakhstan, very good teams – this level is through the roof compared to them. It’s a different planet.
“I was quite shocked at times by how far away we were, but we definitely improved as the games went on. And to be honest, nobody remembers how it started. Everyone remembers that we stayed up.”