I should probably start by saying that this blog post is partly driven by me wanting to include the images I took of the event I’m going to talk about because I’m proud of them and want to shove them in your face for no reason other than, because I can.
Now that’s out of the way, Great Britain played Norway in Ice Hockey twice this week, they didn’t win but that’s cool. It’s Norway, they’ve qualified for the last two Olympic games and have qualified for the 2018 games in Pyeongchang, Korea.
FUN FACT: Great Britain have one more Olympic gold medal in Ice Hockey than Norway (1936 Winter Games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen)
Olympics are all well and good talking about when comparing teams, Norway have made the last two (and the next one) and GB haven’t made one since 1948, so make of that what you will.
What this two-game series represents though is something bigger and shows the desire for GB to grow as a hockey nation.
There has been a lot of growth at club level, the Cardiff Devils for example (who I may discuss more than any other team because I live in…Cardiff) have seen their attendance grow from around 1,200 a night to selling out a brand new 3,000 seat arena in just a matter of years.
Hockey is becoming cool in the UK, it’s growing in popularity and this is as good for the national side as it is for the club level.
In the two-game series against the Norwegians, GB didn’t win either. They lost 2 – 1 on Tuesday night in Nottingham and then 4 – 2 the next night in Cardiff. Nobody expected a win, if I’m honest I didn’t expect them to look so competitive against the Norwegians.
Now admittedly, Norway were missing some big name players like Mats Zuccarello (you try telling the New York Rangers to let him leave for a week to go play a hockey game in the UK) so you could argue this isn’t a fair sample of talent to compare nations by.
Great Britain could ice a full squad of players, but this is where I like what the staff of GB did.
Instead of throwing out the nation’s best players two nights in a row GB Head Coach Pete Russell and the rest of his coaching staff mixed things up.
For example, the best goaltender in the GB set up is Ben Bowns, you can’t even argue that. So Bowns gets the start on Tuesday and does pretty good. Tuesday night they bring in Bowns’ back up in Cardiff Tom Murdy who played the latter stages of the game, but they started 21-year old Jackson Whistle instead.
This two-game series had a lot of emphasis on the future, and that’s completely the right attitude to have.
You could argue that this is technically cheating a little, Whistle was born in Kelowna, B.C and is in his first year of pro hockey with the Belfast Giants after a solid four-years with his hometown WHL team the Kelowna Rockets.
If you think you recognise him, it’s because his dad is Dave Whistle, former player and coach in the UK.
But whilst there are some guys in the team who weren’t born in Great Britain, we should be embracing this as a step forward while we can.
Personally, I’d love to see a competitive GB team full of players born and raised here. But I’m also pretty stoked to see a guy like Cale Tanaka (Stouffville, Ontario) in the team. Tanaka is no stranger to the UK, he’s been here since coming over to play for the Hull Stingrays in 2012. While we can get players of his calibre in a GB shirt, we should be making every arrangement to do so.
Now, this is my point (I’m finally getting to it).
Obviously, to grow the British game we need to grow our homegrown players. In order to do that we need to have a good quality and exciting team to get people to watch and get kids involved.
We need to rely on guys like Cale Tanaka to help improve the current standard, after all, the end result should be to get Team GB to the Olympics, and up the World Championships ladder. More exposure to better competition and more exposure to media coverage and suddenly kids watching are exposed to the sport and suddenly we have a better generation of players on the way up.
The other positive, for me personally I was excited to see 18-year old Sam Duggan play. I’ve been aware of him for a couple of years and if you’ve never heard the name it’s more or less because he was too good to play junior hockey in the UK so in 2014 he went to Sweden to play for Örebro. Last year he was the captain of the Under 18 team, this year he’s got 10 points in 18 games (including 7 goals) for the under 20s team.
He was eligible for last years NHL draft and it would be interesting to see if any teams considered him with a late round pick. But basically Sam Duggan is more or less the lead act in the next generation of Team GB’s future players.
I didn’t see the game on Tuesday so I wasn’t able to see the likes of Oliver Betteridge (good strong first name) and Liam Kirk (who’s just 16-years old). Kirk (depressingly enough) was born in the year 2000 and last year was playing at the World Under 18 Division 2A tournament. Now he’s scored his first professional goal in the EIHL for the Sheffield Steelers and made his Team GB debut in the same week.Kirk is just one of the younger players who are getting a look from the right people now.
So the start of building a stronger future generation of GB players is already underway. But heres the thing, the GB team is not exactly old.
Some of the mainstays are younger than 26. Ben Bowns is 25, some of the best defensemen in the GB setup are Steve Lee (26) Josh Batch (25) and Paul Swindlehurst (23).
Up front, Rob Lachowicz (26) Ross Venus (22) and Rob Farmer (25). These guys are surrounded by guys who have been around the GB circuit for a while like Jonathan Phillips, Mark Richardson and Jonathan Weaver (who somehow is still going).
Overall, the team has a good mix of young and old right now, and the right people are looking to the young players in the GB system. It won’t be long until the game of Ice Hockey grows to a point that we can have a more realistic chance of making Olympic Games, moving up divisions in the World Championships.
Or you know, this is as good as we get, I’m not an expert.