VILNIUS – Great Britain's goal for a quick return back to Division IA derailed after just three matches. Defeats to both Croatia and Lithuania was hardly what the British players and coaching staff had in mind as they set out to stay in contention for the top spot until the final day at the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B.
Ben O'Connor has been the standout in a British team full of hard-working and honest pros during the tournament, not only for his calm and assuredness on the puck and fine positional play, but also for being the only name on the British teamsheet with a foreign club attached next to his.
Having just completed his third season in Kazakhstan, the Arlan Kokshetau defenceman who returned to the national team fold after missing last year's relegation from Division IA, which begs the question, if being the team's most accomplished performer and the only one on the British roster playing abroad does go hand in hand?
"Obviously playing in a different league in different systems and styles of hockey helps my game and brings a different aspect to it," said 25-year old O'Connor who notched up 56 points in 51 games this season. "In Kazakhstan it is the Russian style of hockey they adapt and we play for ten months instead of regulation eight months in Europe, a lot more practise that you would see in Europe, on and off the ice and for a young player it is beneficial."
A celebrated British footballer, Ian Rush, who represented Wales at international level, once notoriously described a brief spell in Italy during the mid-1980's as "like living in a foreign country," when making his return to the British Isles after just one season. A similar bout of homesickness also seem to be applicable to many of Britain's ice hockey players. While the British domestic game has seen a great influx of foreign players arriving from both east and west over the years and often settling in for the long haul, making the opposite journey for British players and sticking it out appears to be much harder.
Tony Hand, arguably the finest British-trained players of all time, and also the first British player to be picked in the NHL -entry draft in 1986, famously turned down an offer by Glen Sather and the Edmonton Oilers' organisation quoting homesickness a one contributing factor. He appears to be is in good company with the current crop of players representing Great Britain during the Division 1 Group B World Championships, where a number of the players have plied their trade abroad at some point of their careers but more often than not cut their tenures short.
"The players are trying, but I think most of them are coming back because they are not getting the ice time they want," said Andy French, general secretary of Ice Hockey UK using two recent examples of players on the current British roster, Craig Peacock and Robert Dowd, who both had spells in Scandinavia during the 2013-14 season before opting to head back home. "I just think Ben O'Connor is in a category of his own. The first year in Kazakhstan was very tough for him, the second he liked it a bit more, and he's been there three years now and signed for another two years," said French.
Born in Durham in the north-east of England, 25-year-old O´Connor might be made of sterner stuff thanks to his father, Mike O'Connor, who arrived to Great Britain from Canada as a hockey player in the mid-1980's. Eager to follow in his dad's footsteps, he crossed the Atlantic at the age of 14 to push his development further and later rubbed shoulders against the likes of Bobby Ryan and Patrick Kane in the Ontario Hockey League, (OHL). Following a short spell in French hockey, O´Connor had put in a stellar performance as Great Britain pushed for promotion to the top division at the 2011 World Championship Division IB in Kiev, which saw him received an offer by email from representatives from Kazakh team Sary-Arka Karaganda. After spending the 2010-11 season there, he has now just ended his second year at Arlan Kokshetau, living his dream in Kazakhstan.
"As I have no kids, no wife and no ties, it's also a lot easier for a guy like me to pick up a move and get up and go," said O'Connor. "I love to travel, learn new languages and live in different environments, so I see it as a life learning lesson as well as playing hockey,” said O'Connor, who also briefly was joined at Arlan Kokshetau by another British player, Mark Richardson, who played 13 matches before opting to return home during the 2012-13 season.
But while O'Connor might be the sole foreign based player on the national team roster in Vilnius, the situation is very different going down the age groups.
"Right now there is a big mass exodus of a lot of young players from the age of 16 who are heading out to Canada and mainly going there for scholarships," said French. "Some of them are coming back very well focused, well-prepared for the national team, while some have gone the other way, thinking that they are better than what they are," said French.
As Great Britain celebrate 20 years since their last appearance at the top division of the World Championship, languishing at Division 1B level and missing out on promotion might appear like a downturn in fortunes, but according to French, the development is heading in the right direction since those heady days in 1994 when the national team was full North American born players.
"We have more ice rinks and more people playing now and last year there were no dual nationals in our team when we played in Division 1A in Budapest," said French.
"The English Premier Ice Hockey League (EPIHL) level below the Elite League is where the U18 and U20 players are coming from, and although there is a very slow drip-feed there are more guys coming through from this league, such as Matthew Davies and Paul Swindlehurst who made their debuts for the British national team here in Vilnius, so yes, our game are in a better state now than 20 years ago," he said.
Great Britain play Lithuania and Poland during the final two days of the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B in Vilnius.