What does it mean when your country is preparing for its first top-division appearance in quarter of a century? For Team GB defenceman Ben O’Connor, it’s the catalyst for a season of new challenges for club and country.
O’Connor, 29, has been a mainstay of the British blue line since he made his senior international debut in 2010 Winter Olympic Qualification action. It’s been a journey of ups and downs: minutes away from clinching promotion to the highest level in Kyiv in 2011, then enduring a string of near-misses following relegation to Division IB. The last two seasons, though, have been triumphant. Blistering in Belfast to return to the second tier, then brilliant in Budapest last April to stun the pre-tournament favourites and take gold ahead of Italy and Kazakhstan.
That means a trip to Slovakia in May and the Brits back at the top of the game for the first time since 1994. This time, O’Connor insists, it can be a foundation for the game’s long-term future.
“I think it’s fair to say we have more of a home-grown team than in 1994,” said the D-man. “We’ve got the odd import but the majority of the team is British born. Those additions have come where Pete [Russell, head coach] feels that they will help the team, but if you look over the last couple of tournaments it’s been mostly British-born players.
“That’s something to be proud of. It’s definitely very promising for the British game, the British system. We’ve got to build on that and try to go forward. It’s exciting. Just talking about it now puts a smile on my face, thinking back to Budapest!”
Exciting, but also challenging. The summer saw O’Connor reluctantly move away from Sheffield Steelers, the club where he won back-to-back British championships and a play-off title, and where his father Mike is commercial manager. A planned move to Barys Astana of the KHL fell through when the Kazakh team changed owners, but O’Connor was in demand and got a move to ambitious Leksands IF, a traditional club in Sweden that battles for promotion to the top league.
O’Connor is no stranger to playing his hockey abroad. In his teens he played Midget, OPJHL and OHL hockey in his dad’s native Ontario. As an adult, he’s had seasons in France and Kazakhstan, winning silver and bronze medals with Saryarka Karaganda and Arlan Koshektau. And there are all those trips away with GB. Even so, moving to Sweden has been a new experience with the Leksand club enjoying a place at the heart of its community in a way that teams in Britain’s Elite League struggle to match.
“It’s a bit different,” O’Connor admitted. “Sheffield’s a big club, but the city has two football teams, the rugby, everything else that’s going on with sport there. Leksand is a smaller town so it’s really just the hockey. That’s great to be a part of.
“We had 500 people come to our first practice, which was a bit nerve-wracking! But in the end that was great, it was really good fun and I’m really enjoying playing with that level of support.”
Ironically, O’Connor made his Leksand debut back in Sheffield, where his former Steelers colleagues welcomed the Swedes for two friendly games. A 2-3 loss was followed by a 7-0 drubbing, with O’Connor among the goals.
“It was my first game for a new team, so I was nervous about that. And my family was there, it was like a home game so there was a lot of emotion in the build-up,” he said. “But I got a great reception from the fans [in Sheffield] and in the second game especially I felt more at ease. I wanted to play well, get a win against my old club and I ended up with two goals so I can’t complain!”
Is Swedish hockey very different from the British game? “Big time!” smiled O’Connor. “It’s a lot different, a new mentality, a different style of play. It’s taking a little bit to get used to, but I’m coming on leaps and bounds.
“With the World Championship coming up I wanted to put myself in the best league that I could. I’m going to be playing against quick teams and skilled players every week and that can only stand me in good stead.”
O’Connor’s appetite and enthusiasm grow with each passing season – and he’s an evangelist for British players willing to take the challenge of honing their skills overseas.
“I think we have shown that British players are good enough. It’s time for people to take that leap, maybe go outside their comfort zone. I’ve always been willing to do that, I’ve got the support of my family which is massive, but at the same times some guys might not want to move for their own reasons.
“UK hockey has come on so much and we’ve proved that with the national team. Now I hope that more people will be able to take the chance of going abroad and taking their skills to a new level. It’s challenging, but that’s something to embrace and enjoy. I spent three-and-a-half years in Kazakhstan, I picked up the language there. The whole experience is something to tell the grandkids about. Right now my daughter is 10 months old so it’s great time to be able to do this with her.”
O’Connor is not alone in trying to change Britain’s insular reputation. Prospects like Sam Duggan, 20, played four seasons in the Orebro system before heading to the NAHL with the Jamestown Rebels this summer. Liam Kirk, a team-mate at Sheffield, hit the headlines when he was drafted by Arizona and is now preparing for a season in the OHL with Peterborough Petes. It’s forming a new wave of young British talent looking to mix it with the best.
“Things are starting to change,” O’Connor said. “The young guys are taking those chances. It’s often easier to do it when you’re young, before you have a wife and a family. Liam’s doing great in Peterborough right now, Sam’s been picking up experience here in Sweden.
“We want more people to go away. We’ve shown that we’re good enough and now we’re at the Worlds, the biggest shop window. We know it’s going to be very difficult, but hopefully the guys can play well and then you never know who is watching and taking notes. Training with the guys from GB this summer, that’s definitely something that’s in front of us. It’s making everyone work harder.”
Some of that motivation is very close to home. Dad Mike was a stalwart defenceman in the British league in the 1980s and 1990s. A Canadian-born dual-national, he was part of the last GB team to reach the top table in international hockey. Now Ben has the chance to follow in those footsteps.
“Dad’s had plenty to say about it,” he smiled. “There’s a lot of banter going back and forth and he never misses a chance to talk about how he played against Canada in the Elite Pool. He did it back then but hopefully everything will work out this season and I’ll get to do it myself in May.”