CORTINA D’AMPEZZO – Hockey in Britain has a long and proud history. But when the puck drops in Pyeongchang, the 1936 Olympic champion could be marking an 70-year absence from the pinnacle of the game.
However, after years in the doldrums, there’s a new optimism around the British game. Crowds in the Elite League are on the up, the national team is attracting a ‘barmy army’ of traveling supporters wherever it goes and the emergence of young talent points to a brighter future for GB.
Ben O’Connor, a defenceman on his third Olympic qualifying cycle, has a first-hand view of how life in the GB camp has changed.
“It kind of started during the last Olympic qualifiers when we got through to play in Latvia,” he said. “The support we got there was fantastic and since then people have really caught the bug. I spoke to a couple of fans who came here with the supporters’ club and they’re thoroughly enjoying it. They enjoy the atmosphere with the fan club, they enjoy the games and the whole atmosphere of the tournament.”
O’Connor, whose father Mike was part of the last GB team to compete at the top level of the IIHF World Championship back in 1994, has since travelled far and wide to develop his own game. As a youngster he crossed the Atlantic and in his adult career he’s spent time in France and Kazakhstan before following in his Dad’s footsteps and pulling on a Sheffield Steelers’ jersey.
During that time he’s matured into a key figure for the national team: a robust and reliable defenceman with a habit of producing good numbers on offence at the same time. And he’s seen a big change in the way Team GB goes about its business since his first stab at Olympic qualifying in Poland ahead of the Vancouver games.
“Things have changed a lot and I think we’re moving in the right direction,” he said. “My role on the team has changed, but more important it’s a younger team now. We’ve got a lot of speed.
“There are things we can learn from any of the countries in the top group [at the World Championship] but I think we are slowly getting there. It’s a slow process but this group is getting there.”
One of the younger players in that group is fellow D-man Josh Batch. The Cardiff Devils blue-liner learned the game at Chelmsford Chieftans before heading across the Atlantic to bridge the gap between junior and senior hockey. Now he’s broken into the GB senior roster, making his debut in Eindhoven last April before getting called into this week’s Olympic squad.
Aside from the excitement of playing in the Olympic qualifiers, he also sees signs of a bright future for the British game.
“The Elite League is really starting to turn the corner, attendances are doing really well and the next step is for the national team to push on and really become a solid Pool A nation,” he said. “I hope that’s what we’re trying to build towards here and in the Worlds in April.
“A lot of it starts at a lower level, developing players, but things are being run really well at the senior level. When we come away everything is really well taken care of and that really helps. It’s a lot of small pieces that are adding up to a bigger picture and moving us in the right direction.”
One challenge that many young hockey players face is making the transition from the junior to senior game. While the youth provision at Chelmsford was strong, as a teenager Batch took the decision to go to the USA to continue his hockey education. Now he’s hoping for changes that will make it easier for kids to develop at home.
“The junior development is there at the moment but I think we maybe need to work more on the transition from junior to senior,” he said. “That seems to be where a lot of players drop out of the system. There’s the National Ice Hockey League which is a kind of step but a lot of teams are small semi-pro clubs. There’s not really a great chance for kids to come through but the proposed u20s league could be a great step towards that.”