Pete Russell’s reputation has steadily grown in his four seasons as GB head coach. The likable Scot has instilled a winning mentality into his team, helping to banish the ghosts of two near misses in Division IB to lift Britain to its best performance in more than half a century. Along the way, he's got the team playing some impressively composed hockey with a fluent passing game. In the France game, his decision to call a time-out after the third French goal proved to be pivotal, allowing Britain to reassert itself and impose its game on the French once again.
Mike Hammond, who got his fourth goal of the tournament to make it a one-goal game late in the second stanza, picked out another moment when Russell made the right call.
Russell’s progress has not gone unnoticed elsewhere. Next season he will take on the role of head coach at EHC Freiburg in the DEL2 – a rare chance for a British coach to take on a challenge outside the Elite League.
Any team looking to win a relegation battle needs a goalie who can keep it alive when the pressure piles up. Britain had Ben Bowns. The busiest man in Slovakia this week, he’s faced a veritable fusillade of shots – and kept finding the answers. That grab to deny Jack Hughes late in the game against the USA might be the pick of the highlight reel, but for doing it when it counted, those big, big saves in overtime against France were the moments that kept GB at the top table. Sprawled across his crease as the French forwards buzzed around the net, Bowns managed to get something behind efforts from Sacha Treille and Valentin Claireux.
Not surprisingly, Ben Davies, scorer of that overtime winner, sought to deflect the suggestion that he was the man who saved GB.
“I don’t think I could say that,” the Guildford Flames forward smiled. “Bownsy’s had a hell of a tournament. He’s stood on his head for us day in, day out, and obviously the defence, the penalty kill, everyone has played a part.”
‘Dare to Dream’ was the British mantra in Budapest, where promotion was secured with a goal 15 seconds from the hooter in the final game against Hungary. And the team hasn’t woken up yet – staying in the top division keeps that dream alive for another season.
But that belief has some serious substance behind it: this team had the guts to shrug off some heavy beatings, including a painful 0-9 loss to Denmark, and get over the line when it really counted.
Ben O’Connor, a stalwart blue liner for the Brits talked about the spirit that kept the players going when few outside the room gave the team a chance.
“It’s the same thing as last year,” he said. “We were the underdogs there and it was the same when we got here on that first day.”
“We kinda felt against Denmark we could be more of a challenger and I think we were too confident. We came out and we got absolutely taken to the cleaners. At this level if you don’t play, that’s what’s going to happen. To compose ourselves, to come back and to regroup the way we did was very special and that just shows the character in our team.”
After staying up this season, where can GB go next? O’Connor was refreshingly honest – “the bar!” he smiled. But, joking aside, this represents a huge opportunity to promote a sport that has a sizeable underground following across Britain despite a lack of mainstream media attention in a market saturated with football.
“It’s great for kids at home who are seeing us play against the biggest and the best in the world,” O’Connor added. “That should push them on. It should push our association to do more for the kids, more for the grassroots to get GB to stay at this level where we deserve to be.”
“Next time, our management and our players know what’s expected here,” he said. “Compared with Division I, it’s a different thing altogether. When you look at the best teams we played last year, countries like Kazakhstan, very good teams – this level is through the roof compared to them. It’s a different planet.
“I was quite shocked at times by how far away we were, but we definitely improved as the games went on. And to be honest, nobody remembers how it started. Everyone remembers that we stayed up.”