RIGA – By next week, the world will know which countries will join hockey’s elite at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. For national team head coach Tony Hand, Great Britain’s return to international ice hockey’s grandest stage, for the first time since 1948, would be a dream come true.
Going into the Final Olympic Qualification tournament, Great Britain (21st in the World Ranking) will have the underdog tag in Group E, going up against the likes of hosts Latvia (11), France (14), and Kazakhstan (17). All three opposing teams competed at the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship last year, while the British last competed in the top division in 1994.
However, Great Britain’s head coach is happy with the group he has assembled.
“It’s the strongest team we can put out, and barring injuries we will ice a strong experienced team,” said Hand. “It’s essentially an A-pool tournament for us and we’re a mid-B-pool country. So it’s going to be tough and we know that. But we’re certainly up for the challenge.”
Hand’s squad made it to the final tournament by going to Japan last November and winning the Olympic Pre-Qualification tournament. Emphasizing puck possession and strong play in the defensive zone, Great Britain overcame an opening game loss to Korea with wins over Romania and hosts Japan to win the tournament.
The team’s victory sparked renewed interest in British ice hockey back home. The British Olympic Association succeeded in securing a $100,000 (U.S.) grant from the International Olympic Committee’s Olympic Solidarity World Programme to support the British men’s team’s campaign. ESPN UK will also broadcast the team’s three tournament matches in Latvia to fans back home, and more than 250 British ice hockey fans are expected to travel to Latvia for the games.
“The trip to Japan opened up a lot of peoples’ eyes about ice hockey in Britain,” said Hand. “We’ve had tremendous exposure from the media and from fans. We weren’t expecting this though we knew we had a good team it wasn’t easy to go into Japan and beat that team on their home turf.
“Ice Hockey UK is overwhelmed with the support of the British Olympic Association and delighted with the International Olympic Committee in reviewing and approving the grant requested for ice hockey to support our efforts to qualify the Great Britain Men’s Team for the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi and, if we are successful in doing so, create some modern-day history for our sport in the UK,” said Ice Hockey UK General Secretary Andy French.
But it won’t be easy. Great Britain will have to go into the tournament without the services of starting goaltender Stephen Murphy and defenceman Jon Weaver. However, Hand is confident Basingstoke netminder Stevie Lyle and defenceman Steve Lee will be able to plug the gaps for his team.
"Stevie is in terrific form this season with Basingstoke and he is an experienced performer in major international tournaments,” he said. "We have also had to make a change in defence and we will miss the talents of Jon Weaver. But going in his place is a very capable replacement in Steve Lee. Steve is a great talent and already has experience at this level.”
"It speaks volumes of how good our British talent is at the moment in that we lose two players so close to the tournament, but are able to bring in two quality players to replace them."
One advantage that could play into the Brits’ hands is that, unlike in Japan when they came in as the top-ranked team, there are no heavy expectations for the team to pull off what amounts to three consecutive upsets.
“We know we’re the underdogs going in but the guys play hard and with a lot of passion. If we can play to the level I think the team is capable of, we’re very capable of causing an upset,” said Hand. “Another thing is that going into this tournament as the lowest ranked team there is no expectations or pressure that some of the other teams might be feeling.”
While hockey fans outside of the British Isles might not know his name, Hand’s own involvement in British ice hockey cannot be understated. Until Great Britain forward Colin Shields was chosen by the Philadelphia Flyers in 2000, Hand was the first and only British-raised player to be drafted by an NHL team. In 1986 the Edmonton Oilers chose him in the 12th round of the draft, and he joined the team at training camp, practising alongside the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, and Jarri Kurri.
Although he impressed Oilers head coach Glenn Sather and came back the next year and scored four goals and eight points in just 3 games in the Western Hockey League, Hand turned down a junior contract offer and chose to return to Britain.
“In hindsight I probably should have stayed there and I appreciate the opportunity they gave me, because at the time they were the best team in the world. But I thoroughly enjoyed it but at the same time I was also able to come here and help the game at home.”
Returning home, all Hand did was simply rewrite the record books in British hockey. Through his time in the British Hockey League, the British Ice Hockey Superleague, the British National League, and the British Elite Ice Hockey League, Hand amassed 3,057 points in 1,034 games.
While he still plays (and coaches) at age 45 for the Manchester Phoenix, Hand’s main focus this week will be to try and pull off a spectacular upset in Riga. While qualifying for Sochi would rank amongst the greatest achievement that Great Britain has had in the sport, he is happy to know that domestically ice hockey is in good hands.
“The sport is healthy right now, there are a lot of good juniors coming through and the senior team is doing well,” he said. "But obviously you need to maintain this and plan what you’re going to do in the next ten to fifteen years in order to keep it going.”
“As a coach of the national team I would like to get the players together more, not just the seniors but the under-20 and under-18 players as well. Also more ice rinks and thus more ice time would be really helpful, so that we can encourage new talented youngsters to step up since that is the only way to keep the momentum going, for any sport to flourish.”
Should Great Britain miss out on a trip to the Winter Olympics, the team will come together again in April to compete at the World Championship Division I Group A for the right travel to Minsk for the 2014 Worlds.
And with a hockey legend like Tony Hand to guide them, the sky’s the limit.