If you've followed international hockey in any meaningful fashion over the past decade, you've definitely seen Ben Bowns steal a game or two for Great Britain.
Year after year, every time Britain is involved internationally, Bowns is there. He has represented the team at the men's level since 2012-13, but played his first games with the U-18 team back in 2008. He's won the top goaltender award at the Division IA World Junior tournament, has been named the British or EIHL netminder of the year five times and whenever GB needs a big win, Bowns is involved.
"I think Bowns would now be regarded as the best GB goalie we’ve ever had," longtime British sports journalist and commentator Bob Ballard said. "Bowns is the glue that holds the team together."
Fifty-two saves against Sweden. Forty-one against Slovakia. Outscored 6-2. If it wasn't for Bowns' netminding heroics, both could have been much, much worse. If it wasn't for Liam Kirk being one of the tournament's top goal-scorers, Bowns would be the clear team MVP right now. Great Britain will not be advancing to the quarter-finals, nor did they ever expect to. But for the No. 19 ranked team in IIHF play, Bowns has been instrumental in the team's long-term success. And at 30, he's nowhere near done yet.
Hungary's Ádám Vay was named the top goaltender at the Division IA World Championship in 2018, and for good reason. But if it wasn't for some outstanding performances from Bowns that year, Great Britain wouldn't have advanced to the top division for 2019 - and he wouldn't have been able to backstop his team to demote France and keep GB up for 2020 and 2021.
"(Goaltending) was the Achilles heel over the last 30 years or so I’ve watched and covered the national team," Ballard said. "Our goaltending generally was average. He commands his goal and you can see the defencemen have faith in him."
Bowns has played in 36 career World Championship games over eight tournaments. His next game played will tie him with Stevie Lyle for the all-time team record after just passing Stephen Murphy's total of 35 over the weekend. Both of those goalies were great in their own right, but what Bowns has done - even over the past two tournaments - and the countless other big moments he has been a part of makes him the best to ever dress in GB's goal crease.
"(Bowns is) a fierce competitor, but also works tirelessly from what I’ve seen," Free Sports broadcaster Aaron Murphy said. "I think he also loves playing against fast team, loves the challenge of stopping pucks from NHL guys.
"He’s also different in mindset than other goalies you find at the international level. We’ve interviewed him live on air during an intermission segment. Not a lot of goalies want to talk on game day, et alone live during a game. He’s a guy that can focus on what it takes to win huge games, yet still enjoy it all and the experiences of being at the top level."
Domestically, Bowns has spent his best years as a goaltender with the Cardiff Devils. He typically would play nearly every game in a season – he's one of just two goaltenders (Shane Owen did so the same year as Bowns) to play in all 60 games in a campaign when he did so in 2018-19 with Cardiff. There's a reason why he has led the EIHL in wins multiple times in his career, including the past three complete seasons.
Bowns made the move to Austria to start the 2020-21 season, joining the ICEHL's Graz 99ers. Bowns had a respectable 13-game stretch with Graz after fighting off a leg injury, sharing the net with Edmonton Oilers prospect Olivier Rodrigue and 21-year-old Felix Nussbacher. Bowns returned to the United Kingdom to play for the Nottingham Panthers in the EIHL for its mini-tournament series to end the year and Bowns, with fellow Team GB goalie Jackson Whistle, were able to secure the title. While it wasn't a full season, it did add to his two previous EIHL full-season league titles, and his trophy case that continues to grow on an annual basis.
Every time he plays internationally, there are calls for Bowns to get an NHL contract, or at least a training camp visit. The NHL was never in the cards for Bowns, and likely never will be, but big performances for your country can be a major source of pride - and people notice.
Bowns has many years left to go internationally. Unlike with teams like Canada or the United States, where the competition for goalie spots changes often, Bowns should still be the team's starter for most of the next decade. Bowns will need to have some more outstanding performances if Great Britain is going to stay in the top division, but his continued success will be important in showing young kids that you can be a star at this level and not be an NHL-quality player.
When you're a team like Britain – small, trying to punch above its weight class – the focus is on inspiring the youth to taking part in the sport in the future to help further improve the nation's standing in international play. If there was an award for the player most important to its team's play in this tournament, Bowns would be that guy almost year after year. Hopefully, by the time he retires, Great Britain has a plethora of good, young talent to take his place, and that his work was more than just helping his team in the present – also setting the standard of the quality goaltending Britain can develop locally.