GB gets set
by Andy Potts|10 FEB 2019
Great Britain celebrates its first goal against Dinamo Riga.
photo: Dean Woolley
One of the more unusual games of the current round of internationals took place on Wednesday as Great Britain began its preparations for its upcoming IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship campaign with a clash against Dinamo Riga. In front of a capacity crowd of 3,500 – boosted by around 2,000 Latvian fans – Pete Russell’s team tested itself against a play-off chasing KHL outfit and was rewarded with a 3-1 victory in a hard-fought battle.

‘No exhibition’

It might have been billed as a challenge match, scheduled at a time when players are focussing on club success, but this was far from an exhibition game. The pace and commitment was impressive, with Dinamo giving GB goalie Ben Bowns plenty to do throughout. The Cardiff Devils man finished with 41 saves as the visitor created opportunities but struggled to convert them.

At the other end, the Brits found their scoring form. Luke Ferrera, a Coventry Blaze forward, opened the scoring in the first period; club-mate Ben Lake marked his international debut with a short-handed tally early in the second. Dinamo got one back on the power play in the third, but Ben O’Connor’s empty-netter sealed the home win.

The victory was especially valuable, given that many of the Dinamo players bring extensive World Championship experience with the Latvian national team over the years. The likes of Lauris Darzins, Mikelis Redlihs, Gints Meija and Andris Dzerins have been mainstays of Latvian hockey and provided exactly the kind of test Britain wanted – especially with an opponent that plays together every day, rather than a national team gathering for the first time this season.

“We need games to help us get up to speed and I thought tonight we did very well against a KHL team,” head coach Pete Russell said. “I know they were missing a few guys, but we were as well.

“We’re under no illusions about the challenge we face in Slovakia but we are determined to go there and be the best we can, and we’re getting better all the time.”

With the excitement building towards GB’s first appearance at a top-level World Championship in 25 years, it’s tempting to assume that one of Russell’s biggest tasks right now would be to ensure that the sense of occasion does not become overwhelming. However, the coach himself is confident that his team remains fully focussed on its work. “That’s not an issue right now,” he said. “I think when we get there, that’s when it starts to become really real; right now everybody is doing the right things, buying into our systems and the whole team is doing a great job.”

Winning friends

The choice of opposition in Coventry was no coincidence – and the organizers were rewarded with an enthusiastic crowd and a lively atmosphere. Georgi Kolybyanski, KHL Vice-President of Hockey Operations, said: “We chose Dinamo for this game because we knew there was already a large Latvian diaspora here, and they’ve come out and supported us. Also, Dinamo Riga is a well-known brand in Europe: when I talk to people here in Britain, they already know very well about Dinamo.”

While Kolybyanski was keen to use the opportunity to promote the KHL in England, furthering a trend that has seen the league stage regular-season games in Vienna and Zurich this season, he was also impressed with what he had seen of British hockey.

“I’ve been impressed with the level of hockey that Team GB is playing,” he added. “I saw them in practice earlier and I liked their speed. They have a great level of motivation as well. When it comes to the World Championship, I’ll be cheering for Britain as well as Team Russia.

“We see Britain as a country with great potential – in our long-term strategy it’s somewhere we would like to create a KHL club. We can see how well people respond to the KHL and we’re hearing people say that they would like to see more of these games.”

The Dinamo fans also enjoyed their evening, despite the final score. The GB Supporters Club’ stall did a brisk trade in merchandise to both sets of supporters and, from start to finish, the maroon-clad army of Latvians whipped up a fervent atmosphere in the Skydome Arena and the surrounding streets.

Riga’s Finnish forward, Matias Myttynen, was another who enjoyed a taste of something different. “It was a pretty intense game, definitely not an exhibition,” he said. “And we had such a great atmosphere here. GB was a good opponent for us and I’m sure they can be competitive in Slovakia. Anything is possible if your team comes together at the right time and from what I’ve seen tonight, they’re on the right path.”

With Riga in the thick of a battle to secure a KHL play-off spot, Myttynen also felt that a change of scenery could help his team when championship action resumes next week. “This was a good experience for the guys,” he said. “It was a great opportunity to come here and see something different, play a different type of game.”

The Budapest effect

International hockey has captured the imagination of British fans as the national team has climbed from the third to the top level in just two years’ time. Those back-to-back promotions have put Team GB to the fore, even in the import-dominated Elite League – and the knock-on effect was clear at the GB Supporters’ Club stall. A steady queue of fans – British and Latvian alike – was eager to snap up team merchandise and pose for a photo with the trophy the team won in dramatic fashion in Budapest last April.

That win has sparked a rush for tickets to the big event in May, when GB heads to Kosice in eastern Slovakia for clashes with the likes of Canada, Finland and the USA. Allan Petrie, vice-chairman of the supporters’ club, said: “Ever since Budapest, we’ve had a lot more enquiries about tickets and accommodation for GB games. We had more than 400 fans in Hungary and we’re expecting 450-500 to come with us to Kosice. Plus, of course, there will be others travelling independently.

“And on Wednesday we had a lot of interest at our stall – even the Latvian fans were buying jerseys, scarves and badges. We got lots of support from both sides.”

Team GB has two further warm-up games against KHL opposition in April when Torpedo Nizhni Novgorod plays back-to-back fixtures in Nottingham and Sheffield. There are also two games against national teams, with Italy coming to Coventry on 19 April and Hungary playing in Milton Keynes on 21 April.