International Ice Hockey Federation

The fun of the underdog

The fun of the underdog

Ben O’Connor all smile after second GB win

Published 15.08.2018 07:31 GMT+2 | Author Martin Merk
The fun of the underdog
A puck and an opponent’s stick left their marks in Ben O’Connor’s face but he says you have to take it if you can win games. Photo: Laszlo Mudra
When Great Britain came back to the Division I Group A, nobody expected much from them. After three days they are in a position to battle for promotion.

Long after the game the “Barmy Army”, Team GB’s supporters who follow the team around the world, sang and partied in the corridor of the Laszlo Papp Sportarena so that even the players two floors down in the locker room area could here it. Great Britain had just earned its second win in three games at the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A in the Hungarian capital of Budapest to keep dreams of promotion alive.

In the loss against Kazakhstan they may have been shown some limitations in terms of skill level but apart from that Great Britain competed well, showed committed, physical hockey and used their strengths to beat Slovenia and Poland for third place in the standings after three games.

Promotion by finishing in the top-two of the standings would mean a spot in next year’s top-level 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship not far from here in Slovakia and a 17th or 18th overall placing in the program. The last time the British were at a similar ranking position was between 1999 and 2001 when they reached 18th and 19th place. 2013 they dropped down to the Division I Group B where they had to play four years before earning promotion last year on home ice in Belfast.

What makes the British strong here in Budapest?

“For us it’s to control the controllables and get as much we can get. People can be dreamers. Why not dream? We’re working hard for each other and want to show people that we can play decent hockey and have decent players,” head coach Peter Russell said after yesterday’s win.

The team selected Ben O’Connor as player of the game in the win against Poland. His story of sacrifice was symbolic for the whole team. A puck that hit him earlier had already left marks on the left of his face. Against Poland Krystian Dziubinski hit him with the end of stick on the right side of his chin. Some years ago that may have ended in frustration and fighting. Yesterday Great Britain punished the Poles by converting the penalty to a power-play goal that turned out to be the game-winning goal. It was O’Connor himself who scored just 14 seconds after being hit to his face.

“I’ll take it any day. You have to do it to win and everybody did it, blocking shots, doing the little things, you got to take a stick to the face if this gets us the game-winning goal and we hung on from there. Coming back from 3-2 down is a good character win in a tournament like this,” O’Connor said. It was an eventful 50th national team game for him that he enjoyed celebrating with his best friends as he said.

He and his teammates visibly enjoy their time here and to prove doubters wrong.

“Everything can happen. Before the tournament if you’ve said Great Britain is gonna beat Slovenia and beat Poland, no one would believe you but we enjoy being the underdog. It’s fun. Everyone looking on our team has a smile on their face. We’re having a blast and it’s good to play hockey like this,” O’Connor said.

Great Britain in top-level hockey is something few remember despite the long history. Great Britain was among the founding members of the IIHF in 1908 and consistently played with the top nations until 1951. During its best days in World Championship and Olympic play, Great Britain won four medals in four years between 1935 and 1938 including Olympic gold in 1936. After relegation GB has been competing in the second or third tier of ice hockey with two exceptions, the World Championships in 1962 and more recently in 1994.

Back in the golden days the roster was heavily influenced by Canadians and also nowadays North Americans have a big influence both in the style of play but also with the many imports in domestic play in the Elite Ice Hockey League. O’Connor is one of just eight British-trained players on his Sheffield Steelers team. The rest are import players from North America or elsewhere in Europe.

In the early ‘90s Great Britain achieved something today’s players may be dreaming of. They won the C-Pool, then the B-Pool and within two years made it from the third tier to the elite nations. At the 1994 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship they played in Bolzano, Italy. The British had a rough start though, losing the five games in the preliminary round with a 7-44 goal difference before losing the relegation game 5-2 to Norway.

One of the players was Mike O’Connor, Ben O’Connor’s father. His career was typical for many national team players of that time. He was born in Canada in Clinton, Ontario, played his junior hockey there. After college hockey and a pro season in the United States he moved to Great Britain where he spent most of his professional career with the Durham Wasps. Eight years later he was a British citizen and won the C-Pool with the country making it all the way up to the top level. 16 out of 22 skaters on the 1994 roster learned their hockey in Canada.

His son sounds distinctively British. Apart from four years of junior hockey in Canada and some pro seasons abroad in France and Kazakhstan he spent his entire youth hockey and pro career in Great Britain, most recently with the Sheffield Steelers where his father was a player and GM. His father’s years with Team GB is something that comes up again now.

“My father was playing in the top division. I spoke to him here and we were laughing. He said: ‘I had three gold medals and I had three MVPs of the tournament.’ I said: ‘But that was back in the ‘90s, anyone could do that.’ We got some good bragging rights. Hopefully we can do the same they did. I wasn’t at the arena [when they played in the top division] but I watched the videos back on highlights,” Ben O’Connor said.

Nowadays roster looks a bit different. There are still Canadian-born players but now it’s four on the 22-man roster, the most famous name being 39-year-old Brendan Brooks, who spent several years in the AHL and in the top leagues of Germany and Switzerland.

O’Connor feels it’s the level raise back home in the league that contributed to the national team. Often not on the radar in continental Europe, ice hockey has always had its loyal fan base in several cities on the British islands and clubs may generate higher income than in a few leagues of better-ranked European countries. Good results and upset wins in the Champions Hockey League by the British club teams have shown that also outside of their borders.

“Our domestic league is getting a lot better and we all play in the domestic league and got some good players in the league now and that gets our standard higher and it brings the national team standard higher,” O’Connor said. “In the last three years we’ve been developing. We missed out from the lower pool to get promotion three years in a bounce so it was frustrating. We got there in the end. And now we’re showing our product. We worked on it in the last few years and now it’s coming to show.”

On Friday the next team to see Team GB’s product will be Italy. The two teams are tied with Kazakhstan at six points. Winning in regulation time would mean a big step toward promotion for either team in a tournament where everything seems possible.


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