It’s been 25 years since Great Britain last appeared at the World Championship, but a recent focus on homegrown talent has led to back-to-back promotions and a spot against the world’s best again this spring.
Britain isn’t a “hockey nation,” with just more than 10,000 registered players among a population of 66 million and no household name within the wider hockey community. The U.K. does not yet have its equivalent to Slovenia’s Anze Kopitar.
The fan base is passionate, however, and participation numbers continue to slowly increase – up around 3,500 over the past five years – while 19-year-old winger Liam Kirk gained attention on both sides of the Atlantic last summer when he became just the third player born-and-trained in Great Britain to be drafted, selected in the seventh round (189th overall) by Arizona.
British hockey’s gains have been small, but the 2019 World Championship, which begins May 10 in Slovakia, is seen as an opportunity to show its worth on the big stage. “We want to show the world that Team GB deserves to be there, that we can play hockey, and that we’ve got a good team here.” said defenseman Ben O’Connor.
Goalie Ben Bowns, who will be leaned on heavily in May, echoed that sentiment: “We’ve got to go in to the tournament with the attitude that we’re not just there to ‘have fun’ or ‘for the experience.’ We’ve earned the right to be there, and we’ve got to show that we belong.”
Having fallen short in 2015 and 2016 – losing its final game at each tournament to finish runner-up – Great Britain secured promotion from Div. I-B on home ice in 2017, returning to Div. I-A for the first time in five years.
Expectations were moderate entering the 2018 tournament, but an unexpected victory over Slovenia in Great Britian’s opener got the team off to a strong start. A loss to Kazakhstan in Game 2 followed by wins over Poland and Italy left Team GB needing just one point from its final game, against host Hungary, to guarantee an unlikely promotion. But the British found themselves trailing 2-1 entering the final minute of regulation.
Just as it looked as if they would fall agonisingly short, Robert Farmer’s speculative shot from wide with just 15 seconds left beat Hungarian goalie Adam Vay to trigger wild celebrations. “It was unbelievable, sticks were flying everywhere,” O’Connor laughed. “I’m still not sure how it went in. The last few seconds of that game were probably the most nervous of my life. It was surreal.”
Farmer went on to score again in the shootout, as would O’Connor, whilst Bowns made the decisive stop on Janos Hari to secure the win and trigger a second round of celebrations.
The “feel-good factor” continued into the summer thanks to Kirk, who signed with the OHL Peterborough Petes shortly after being drafted.
The 19-year-old was one of eight players to make their senior debuts at the 2018 World Championship, with Zach Sullivan, Ollie Betteridge and Luke Ferrara also earning their first senior caps at the tournament after previously representing Great Britain at the junior level.
Goaltender Jackson Whistle and winger Brett Perlini, a 2010 draft pick of the Anaheim Ducks (192nd overall) and the elder brother of Chicago Blackhawks’ winger Brendan, also made their debuts, both qualifying for Team GB by virtue of having played part of their junior career in the U.K.
The other two debutantes – D-man Dallas Ehrhardt and center Mike Hammond – represent a different aspect of selection: the use of dual-nationals, players who hold citizenship for more than one country.
Use of dual-nationality players is not an uncommon practice, with IIHF rules allowing a player to change which national side he is eligible to play for based on his citizenship. South Korea used seven dual-nationals at the 2018 Olympics, while Italy had four players who also held Canadian or American citizenship at the 2018 World Championship.
Britain has utilized dual-nationality players throughout its history. Don Dailley and Gerry Davey were born in Canada but later emigrated to the U.K. and helped Team GB win gold at the 1936 Olympics.
At times, the policy has gone to extremes – 15 of the 26 players to represent Team GB at the 1994 worlds were dual-nationals – but a more measured approach has developed over time, complementing homegrown talent with a small number of dual-nationality players.
Depending on the final roster, Great Britain could use up to five dual-nationals for the 2019 worlds. Hammond, U.K.-born but Canadian-trained, and Ehrhardt could be joined by rearguard Tim Billingsley and center Ben Lake, along with American-born Evan Mosey, who played for Team GB in 2016 and 2017 and will be available after missing last year’s tournament with an injury.
While dual-nationals have helped bolster Team GB’s lineup, it is a dependable core of homegrown players that has formed the backbone of the national side for the better part of a decade now, something O’Connor believes has been key to its success. “We have such a great bond.” he said. “That brotherhood we have has helped us go a long way. We fight for each other, put our bodies on the line, and do whatever it takes.
Drawn in Group A with Canada, the U.S., Finland, Germany, Slovakia, Denmark and France for the 2019 tournament, there is no illusion over how Team GB will be viewed among such company – nor the proverbial mountain it has to climb to stay. “We’re the underdogs, and we’ve got to embrace that,” O’Connor said. “I think (coach) Pete Russell and (assistants) Adam Keefe and Corey Neilson will have us ready. We’ll do exactly what we’ve done over the past two years. It’s working, so we’re not going to stray away from that now.”
Team GB’s preparations for this year’s World Championship included a game against KHL side Dinamo Riga Feb. 6, which the Brits won 3-1. They will welcome Hungary and Italy, who were also promoted from Div. I-A, for a three-team mini-tournament in the U.K. in mid-April, followed by two games at home against KHL Nizhny Novgorod then one against the Slovaks in Poprad. “We just have to prepare like we would for any other tournament,” O’Connor said. “It doesn’t matter which team we’re playing. You just have to treat it like any other game – as cliche as that is.”
What are Team GB hoping to achieve in Slovakia? “Stay up,” Bowns said without hesitation. “First and foremost, that’s the aim. We went into Div. I-A with that aim – that we had to stay up – but we knew that if we played well we were good enough to win it, and we did.
“It’s the same this year. You never say never. Hopefully we’re going to surprise people again.”