British Hockey Team Comes in From the Cold at World Championship

KOSICE, Slovakia — British sports enthusiasts may be anxiously awaiting the all-English Champions League and Europa League finals, but another team from the U.K. is trying to score goals in an even more surprising setting.

Britain’s national men’s ice hockey team is competing at the world championships for the first time in 25 years.

Britain qualified for the 16-team tournament under dramatic circumstances last year in Budapest. Overcoming a 2-0 deficit versus Hungary in the division 1A gold medal game, Robert Farmer scored with 16 seconds left to earn Britain a promotion to the top level of international hockey.

Britain arrived in Slovakia ranked 22nd in the world and is competing in a group that includes the hockey powerhouses Finland, Canada and the United States, teams featuring N.H.L. players.

“No one knows anything about U.K. Hockey and the first couple of days here people were laughing at us,” defenseman Ben O’Connor said. “We go out and lose 3-1 to Germany, and they’re not laughing at us anymore.

“Just because you’re from England doesn’t mean you have to play football, or soccer,” he added. “We can play hockey too.”

The roster consists of players from the 11-team Elite Ice Hockey League, which was founded in 2003 and has squads in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But many players have international experience, including in North American minor leagues. Forward Liam Kirk, 19, was drafted in the seventh round last June by the Arizona Coyotes, and will try to become the first British-raised player in the N.H.L. He played this season in the Ontario Hockey League.

Ben Davies of Great Britain celebrated after he scored against the United States. Interest in hockey has grown in Britain.CreditMartin Rose/Getty Images

Britain has lost all six matches thus far — to Germany, Denmark, Canada, the U.S., Finland and Slovakia — and has been outscored by 38-5. But the team has earned the respect of their opponents. (Italy, playing in the tournament’s other group in Bratislava, has fared worse having been outscored, 45-1.)

After Finland, which leads the Group A standings, defeated Britain, 5-0, on Friday, the Finnish coach Jukka Jalonen said the British team belonged at this level.

“They fought hard, played together and it was very difficult for us to score,” Jalonen said.

Against an American team captained by three-time Stanley Cup champion Patrick Kane on May 15, Britain held on valiantly for 60 minutes. The score was tied, 1-1, nearly halfway through the game, before the U.S. pulled away for a 6-3 win.

“To play like we did and be in that game was special,” said O’Connor, who regularly skates for the E.I.H.L.’s Sheffield Steelers, one of the league’s most popular teams. “You catch yourself thinking — Patrick Kane is coming down on me. It’s surreal.”

Forward Colin Shields, 39, a member of the Belfast Giants of the E.I.H.L., recently announced his retirement and is playing his final tournament for the national team.

“To line up against some of the players on Team USA was definitely a moment I’ll never forget and one of the greatest games I’ve been a part of in my career,” Shields said.

Britain Coach Peter Russell noted that his team earns 500,000 pounds a year combined and the American squad “gets paid $82.5 million.”

Britain goaltender Ben Bowns has stopped 197 of 225 shots, more than any other goalie in Slovakia.

“We’ve proven that we got a lot of heart and character, and we’re not just a bunch of Brits that skate around in circles,” he said.

Bowns said he was often asked why he chose to play hockey. “Football really never appealed to me — it’s slow and boring,” he said. “Hockey is fast-paced, physical and everyone battles every night.”

Britain’s Ben Bowns has more saves than any other goalie at the hockey world championships.CreditDavid W Cerny/Reuters

The British team doesn’t yet have a win, but it may have the most enthusiastic and creative fans at the tournament. At the U.S. game, fans came dressed as Queen Elizabeth II, Mary Poppins, Beefeaters, cricket bats and Olympic ski jumper Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards. At every contest, the British fans have been singing and chanting.

“You’re just in awe of the support,” O’Connor said. “That is another aspect of the British game — we’re not just drunken yobs that go to football matches and start fights.”

Jake and Jojo Underwood, a pair of brothers from Nottingham, England, traveled to the tournament to cheer for their team on international hockey’s biggest stage.

“It’s getting some mainstream media coverage so I think people are paying attention and the sport is growing fairly rapidly now in the country,” Jake Underwood, 32, said.

According to Ice Hockey U.K., there are 13,325 registered players in the country and 68 rinks. Ten years ago, there were 5,627 players and just 44 rinks. The increase in participation over the last decade is mostly attributed to the grass roots growth in northern England and Scotland.

Britain will need a victory in its final preliminary round match against France on Monday to avoid relegation.

“We’ve been a close team for quite awhile now — we like to be underdogs and try to prove people wrong,” said forward Jonathan Phillips, the team captain.

Shields — who played collegiate hockey at the University of Maine and was drafted by the N.H.L.’s Philadelphia Flyers in 2000 — hopes his final game will be a memorable one, paving the way for future British players.

“If it does come down to that as an opportunity for us to stay in the group — I think it will be huge for the program,” he said, “and hopefully get more investment, funding and development for hockey in the U.K.”

Source: NYT

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