It was a historic weekend for British hockey. For the first time in a quarter century, Team GB is in the top group of the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship. On Saturday night, they stayed with Germany almost right till the end, losing 3-1. Sunday night against Canada wasn’t quite as close, but they didn’t get embarrassed either, falling 8-0.
One of the biggest reasons for the team’s respectable showing so far is the same reason they’re in the top group to begin with – goaltender Ben Bowns.
After each team in the tournament has played two games, Bowns is clear and away the tournament’s saves leader with 75. The next highest is Germany’s Mathias Niederberger – his opposite number in the first game – with 53.
However, after having now played 88 games this season between his club team, the Cardiff Devils, and the British national team, it doesn’t seem that the British goalie minds the workload.
“I prefer it that way,” he said. “That might seem a bit strange, but don’t have to think about things. You read, react, anticipate, and I’ve felt pretty good so far. This has been a lot of fun.
“You dream as a kid to play against these kinds of teams, but you don’t necessarily think it will happen,” said Bowns. “The last two years have been amazing.”
Bowns knew as a kid in South Yorkshire what he wanted to be after going to a game when he was six years old.
“I went to watch a game between my local team, the Sheffield Steelers, against the team I play for now, the Cardiff Devils. It’s a bit ironic that's who I ended up playing for.
“Straight away, I wanted to be a goalie. But you know, the cost of the equipment is so much and my parents thought it was just a fad that I’d be over within a few weeks, so they made me play out. A few months later, I went in net and it’s stuck since then.”
Now 28, Bowns has been named the Elite Ice Hockey League’s Netminder of the Year three times and won two national titles in Cardiff.
“Bownsy has been a big piece to our success here in Cardiff the last five years,” said Devils’ Canadian head coach Andrew Lord. “He is a big goalie who is also sound technically and that is a dangerous combination. Ben is a great guy who gets along with his teammates and buys into our team-first approach.”
Internationally, Bowns has been the British national team’s starting goalie for the last six seasons. During that time through Sunday’s game against Canada, he’s played in 25 of Great Britain’s 27 games at the World Championships.
Two years ago on home ice in Belfast, Great Britain won Division I Group B to advance to Group A. It was hoped that they could remain in that group that included Italy, Kazakhstan, Slovenia and Hungary – “elevator teams” that regularly advanced to the top group. No one expected them to win the group and advance themselves.
“I think last year is the biggest win that GB’s ever got,” Bowns said of the team’s Division I Group A win in Budapest. “The standard of hockey around the world is now better than it’s ever been, in my opinion. So last year was the biggest thing ever in British hockey and hopefully we’re able to pick up a result in this tournament and manage to stay up. That would be even bigger.”
“It’s underrated,” Bowns said of the Elite Ice Hockey League. “The level of play is going up and up every year, the fan base is going up and up, and I think the league’s as good as it’s ever been. There are some old-school fans from the old days that like all the fighting and rough play, but the skill level now is higher and people are beginning to take notice, and I think that’s just going to continue.”
Still, it doesn’t have players like Leon Draisaitl or Kyle Turris.
“Not of that calibre, no,” he admitted. “There are guys who have played in the NHL, but not anybody who’s been as impactful as them. But I’ve played against players like that before in the Champions Hockey League and you’ve just got to be aware of them. The thing is, in the Elite League there are a few players on each team you might have to be aware of, but some of the teams in this tournament, it’s every player.”
“It's been fun watching him the last two nights playing against Germany and Canada and I believe everyone in UK hockey is very proud of him and the entire GB team,” said Lord.
“I felt in particular he was on his game against Germany, where he shut them down for the majority of the game. I also think he competed well against Canada and hung in there despite having to play back to back nights while Canada did not play the day before.”
The Germans outshot Britain 35-17, but the score was 1-1 until Yasin Ehliz scored a power-play goal with less than 10 minutes to play, and then Draisaitl added a late insurance goal.
“I don’t think we played a bad game,” the British goalie said the first game. “Just a few moments, a few bad decisions, but otherwise it was pretty good. We showed we can play at this level and I’m confident we can stay up.”
Canada outshot Britain 22-4 in the first period but led only 2-0. Eventually, the world’s No. 1 ranked team got its offence going and, by the time Bowns was lifted halfway through the third period, he had been beaten eight times on 51 shots. Backup goalie Jackson Whistle mopped up the remainder of the game, stopping all five shots he faced.
“That’s a team of 20-plus NHLers there and they’re in the NHL for a reason,” Bowns said about Canada. “It shows on the ice just how high calibre they are. It’s disappointing to concede that many but I still enjoyed it.”
With the Canadian game thought to be unwinnable, some suggested ahead of time that it might be wise for the British to rest their starting netminder and keep him fresh for the big game against Denmark coming up on Tuesday.
But for a guy as competitive as Bowns, sitting out against the team whose name is almost synonymous with the sport was unthinkable.
“I don’t think I would have let them sit me out,” Bowns laughed. “I’ve waited my whole life to play these types of games, so if they’d sat me out, I don’t think I’d have been too happy.”
The Brits have earned a measure of respect with their first two performances at this World Championship, but they will have to win at least once and probably pick up points in multiple games if they hope to avoid relegation. Many are looking ahead to the final game of the group stage next Monday against France as a big game, but Tuesday’s game against Denmark might also seem like one where gaining at least a point is possible.
“Yeah, potentially, but we’ve gotta bring our A-game for 60 minutes,” said Bowns. “That’s something we’ve not quite done yet this tournament. It’s a seven-game building block for us and we’re two games in. I don’t think we’ve necessarily taken a massive step forward but I also don’t think we’ve stepped backwards at all, so we’re still in a good place.
“We’ve got five games left and a few of them are winnable.”