Originally Posted by Andy Potts on IIHF.COM
When Great Britain takes to the ice against Austria on Monday, it’s set to be a special moment for defenceman Mark Richardson.
The assistant captain is on course to win his 100th cap for his country, joining David Longstaff, Ashley Tait and 2022 team-mates Matthew Myers and Jonathan Phillips in the elite band of British centurions. Team captain Phillips is set for a landmark of his own, making his 111th international appearance to overtake Tait’s record.
Richardson was due to complete his century against Latvia on Sunday, only to be ruled out by a minor injury. However, with top flight survival on the line, he’s rated “99% certain” to play in Britain’s final game in Tampere.
And the 35-year-old Cardiff Devil insists his first focus is on GB’s battle against relegation in Group B.
“I’m trying not to think about the 100th cap,” he said. “There’s still a lot of hockey to be played here and I’m trying to take it one game at a time. I’ll deal with 100 games if and when it comes.”
Much has changed since Richardson made his senior international debut back in 2005. The Division I tournament for GB was in Debrecen, Hungary – and it’s fair to say it was a little different from the impressive surroundings of the Nokia Arena in Tampere. Typical crowds at Britain’s games were around 500; the team secured survival in the second tier on the final day by virtue of a 10-0 victory over a heavily overmatched Chinese roster. World Championship hockey against the best on the planet was a distant dream.
“When I started playing, I could never have imaged that I’d be stood telling reporters that I was a bit disappointed with a 3-0 loss against the USA,” he smiled. “It’s been a long time and a lot of ups and downs, but that’s why it’s so good to be here now, for this team to be where we are.
“We’re so proud of that but we don’t want to accept this is our lot – we want to stay here and there’s a lot of work to come to make sure that happens.”
Much of that work has been evident in GB’s games in Tampere. Although the Brits are still seeking their first victory in this year’s tournament, there are promising signs. Even when stretched to the limit against the strongest nations here, this team is showing more resilience than in previous top-flight campaigns. That USA loss was a case in point: in Slovakia in 2019, Britain allowed 65 shots against the Americans; here it was down to 38.
That’s all part of the learning curve at the highest level.
We’ve evolved over the last few years in the way that we play against these teams. Going into Slovakia in our first year up at this level [in 2019], we didn’t know what to expect.Mark Richardson – Great Britain Player
“It’s been a great job by the coaching staff, the way they have us playing now. We’re giving up less shots and a lot less dangerous shots for our goalkeepers to see,” he added.
In conversation, Richardson often uses the word ‘we’. And it’s that team spirit that has commended him to coaches far and wide. In 2020/21, with the British season disrupted by Covid restrictions, he travelled to Germany to play for Bad Nauheim in DEL2. His head coach there, Hannu Jarvenpaa, said at the time: “What really impressed us is his work ethic and attitude on and off the ice. In his playbook, the team always comes first.”
His GM in Cardiff, Todd Kelman, was also full of praise. “Mark is one of the hardest-working individuals I’ve ever worked with,” he told the Devils website. “He continues to get better every season because he is dedicated to his craft. He works to improve every year, all summer long, all season long.”
Strikingly, these were not words about a young prospect but a player who was, at the time, a 33-year-old veteran for club and country.
Now 35, Richardson is a recognised leader on and off the ice – and he relishes the chance to help bring through a new generation of British talent. His blue line partner Josh Tetlow is one of those rising stars, and the powerful 24-year-old is poised to take another step forward next season after signing for RoKi in the Finnish Mestis.
Opportunities like that were hard to come by for British players in the past. Apart from that year in Germany, Richardson’s only other overseas experience came in a short spell in Kazakhstan with Arlan Kokshetau. Now he hopes that the next generation might enjoy more options, both in international and club hockey.
“These young kids have got so much talent if they can keep learning the ins and outs of what it takes, especially at this level,” he said. “They’re very lucky to get the chance to play against teams like this at such a young age and I hope they’ve got really bright futures ahead of them.”
As assistant captain for GB, his own contribution is clear: “For me, it’s just trying to lead by example in the things I do every day.”
Those good habits have been reinforced throughout Britain’s rise from hockey obscurity. While languishing in Division IB for four seasons, GB twice missed out on promotion in the final period of its final game. Lessons were learned, back-to-back promotions followed and a true team spirit was forged.
“It’s been professionalism from the top down,” Richardson said. “The coaching staff believe in the players, the players believe in each other and we’re literally just giving everything we’ve got.
“We have skills, but our biggest strength is our heart and the way we stick together and battle for each other.”
Will that be enough to get the necessary victory over an impressive Austrian team and secure another season at the top?
“We want to stay up, we believe we can,” Richardson insists. “That’s a big thing for us, that belief. We still have two very tough games. We have to find a way to score and to grind out some points.”
Do that, and there’s every chance Richardson can make his 101st appearance as a top division player once again.