From NY Times: Britannia Rules the … Rink?

By Brian Pinelli – May 19, 2019

Original web article appears on New York Times website.
A version of this article appears in print on May 20, 2019, on Page D3 of the New York edition with the headline: Britannia Rules the … Rink? Maybe One Day.

KOSICE, Slovakia — British sports enthusiasts may be anxiously awaiting the all-English Champions League and Europa League finals, but another team from Britain is trying to score goals in an even more surprising setting.

The national men’s ice hockey team is competing at the world championship for the first time in 25 years.

Britain qualified for the 16-team tournament under stirring circumstances last year in Budapest. Overcoming a 2-0 deficit against Hungary in the Division 1A gold medal game, Robert Farmer scored with 16 seconds left to earn Britain a promotion to the top level of international hockey.

Britain arrived in Slovakia ranked 22nd in the world and is competing in a group that includes the hockey powerhouses Finland, Canada and the United States, teams featuring N.H.L. players.

“No one knows anything about U.K. hockey, and the first couple of days here people were laughing at us,” defenseman Ben O’Connor said. “We go out and lose, 3-1, to Germany, and they’re not laughing at us anymore.

“Just because you’re from England doesn’t mean you have to play football, or soccer,” he added. “We can play hockey too.”

The roster consists of players from the 11-team Elite Ice Hockey League, which was founded in 2003 and has squads in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But many players have international experience, some of them in North American minor leagues. Forward Liam Kirk, 19, was drafted in the seventh round last June by the Arizona Coyotes and will try to become the first British-raised player in the N.H.L. He played this season in the Ontario Hockey League.

Britain has lost all six matches thus far — to Germany, Denmark, Canada, the United States, Finland and Slovakia — and has been outscored by 38-5. But the team has earned the respect of its opponents. (Italy, playing in the tournament’s other group in Bratislava, has fared worse, having been outscored, 45-1.)

After the Group A leader Finland defeated Britain, 5-0, on Friday, the Finnish coach, Jukka Jalonen, said the British team belonged at this level.

“They fought hard, played together, and it was very difficult for us to score,” Jalonen said.

Against an American team captained by the three-time Stanley Cup champion Patrick Kane on May 15, Britain held on valiantly for 60 minutes. The score was tied, 1-1, nearly halfway through the game, before the United States pulled away for a 6-3 win.

“To play like we did and be in that game was special,” said O’Connor, who regularly skates for the Sheffield Steelers, one of the Elite league’s most popular teams. “You catch yourself thinking, ‘Patrick Kane is coming down on me.’ It’s surreal.”

Forward Colin Shields, 39, a member of the Belfast Giants of the Elite league, recently announced his retirement and is playing his final tournament for the national team.

“To line up against some of the players on Team U.S.A. was definitely a moment I’ll never forget and one of the greatest games I’ve been a part of in my career,” Shields said.

Britain Coach Peter Russell noted that his team earns a combined 500,000 pounds a year (about $637,000) and that the American squad “gets paid $82.5 million.”

Britain goaltender Ben Bowns has stopped 197 of 225 shots, more than any other goalie in Slovakia.

“We’ve proven that we got a lot of heart and character, and we’re not just a bunch of Brits that skate around in circles,” Bowns said.

He added that he was often asked why he had chosen to play hockey.

Soccer “really never appealed to me — it’s slow and boring,” he said. “Hockey is fast-paced, physical, and everyone battles every night.”

The British team does not yet have a win, but it may have the most enthusiastic and creative fans at the tournament. At the game against the United States, fans came dressed as Queen Elizabeth II, Mary Poppins, Beefeaters, cricket bats and the Olympic ski jumper Eddie Edwards, known as Eddie the Eagle. At every contest, the British fans have sung and chanted.

“You’re just in awe of the support,” O’Connor said. “That is another aspect of the British game — we’re not just drunken yobs that go to football matches and start fights.”

Jake and Jojo Underwood, brothers from Nottingham, England, traveled to the tournament to cheer for their team on international hockey’s biggest stage.

“It’s getting some mainstream media coverage, so I think people are paying attention, and the sport is growing fairly rapidly now in the country,” Jake Underwood, 32, said.

According to Ice Hockey U.K., there are 13,325 registered players in the country and 68 rinks. Ten years ago, there were 5,627 players and 44 rinks. The increase in participation over the past decade is mostly attributed to grass-roots growth in northern England and Scotland.

Britain will need a victory on Monday in its final preliminary-round match against France to avoid relegation.

“We’ve been a close team for quite awhile now — we like to be underdogs and try to prove people wrong,” said forward Jonathan Phillips, the team captain.

Shields, who played collegiate hockey at the University of Maine and was drafted by the N.H.L.’s Philadelphia Flyers in 2000, hopes his final game will be a memorable one, paving the way for future British players.

“If it does come down to that as an opportunity for us to stay in the group, I think it will be huge for the program,” he said, “and hopefully get more investment, funding and development for hockey in the U.K.”