British Hockey Team Hoping Big Win Sparks Further Growth

When Great Britain beat Belarus on Wednesday, it marked the team's first regulation victory since 1962. Their hope is the win will ignite the flame that helps the team continue to rack up wins and, potentially, become a bigger threat down the line.
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The British are coming. And they want you to damn right know that.

At first glance, Great Britain beating a team like Belarus - ranked 13th in the IIHF's men's hockey rankings - isn't much to look at. Neither team is expected to compete for a medal and there aren't a whole lot of big names to get excited about.

But Great Britain's win was truly something special. Team GB had to wait 59 years since its last regulation victory at the top level when they beat Finland 7-5 back in 1962. Britain was relegated that year and only made it back for 1994, where the team was sent back down again. A shocking win at the 2018 Division IA tournament helped Britain move back up for 2019, and that's where it got interesting. With everything on the line heading into the team's final game, Britain pulled off an unlikely overtime victory by beating France 4-3 - good enough to send France down a level and give Britain the 13th spot.

And now, they've created another legendary moment in the team's proud hockey history.

"It was a massive win for us to beat Belarus tonight," forward Matthew Myers said. "The world ranking shows they are a number of places ahead of us and we knew it was going to be a big night for us. Through the tournament, we've improved every night and tonight, we were one step better."

The win, plus the point for the overtime loss to Denmark on Tuesday, give Team GB four points and the fifth-place spot in Group A. That's already better than the two points they had in 2019 and zero in 1994. But the Brits aren't keen with just one win, especially in a year with so many chaotic upsets. They want this to be the springboard for more.

"It's not one and done for us," Myers said. "We are trying to win these next three hockey games and move on to the next round. We're gonna enjoy (tonight) a little bit but not get too far ahead of ourselves."

The players on the roster know the struggles they had to overcome just to get to this point. The players don't make much money in hockey. They work other jobs to make ends meet and they're giving up work to represent their country. Playing internationally is truly about pride, and in a year where the domestic league was shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the challenge of getting up to speed in order to play some of the top hockey countries in the world was an incredible hurdle to overcome.

"I was just a local kid from Coventry in the UK," defenseman David Clements said. "I grew up playing one practice a week in a small rink and one game a month, and that's all I really had. You fall in love with the sport and you believe and dream that you can play at this level.

"I get to say that I'm on the biggest stage because I've fought for what I've believed in."

That's why a win, even against a smaller team like Belarus, is so important. The tournament is aired live on Free Sports in the United Kingdom and many high-profile British publications have been following the progress of the team. Winning a game like this will give the sport mass attention, which players hope will trickle down into the younger age groups and ignite interest in players wanting to take up the sport.

A championship for Canada or Russia might do more to bring a bigger global audience. But any success to a smaller hockey country, no matter how minor, can go a long way in helping a program grow. Countries like Germany, Switzerland, France and Denmark have seen significant growth in recent years with more and more high level athletes taking up the sport following prior success by those nations. That's all Great Britain can hope for. 

"My hope is that now people will start to take note that actually, the British guys can play hockey and that the younger guys have an opportunity to move on to better leagues," Myers said.

One of those young players that is hoping to change the course of the team's long-term trajectory is Arizona Coyotes prospect Liam Kirk. Kirk became the first player born and trained in England to get drafted to the NHL when the Coyotes selected him back in 2018 and his two goals on Wednesday were a saving grace for a team that struggles for offense. Kirk's NHL future is uncertain, but with four goals in as many games, it's hard to deny his impact.

"(Liam has) been excellent," Myers said. "His game has improved massively over maybe the last three years. He has not played a lot of hockey over the last 18 months going into the Elite Series, but he played great and he has carried that over into the World Championship at a higher level."

Unlike many other smaller hockey nations, Great Britain hasn't gotten to this level by just poaching players from Canada or the United States and making them citizens in order to participate in the tournament. Just five players on the team were born outside of the country, and while coach Adam Keefe may have been born in Brampton, Ont., this is still a team that mainly was born and trained locally. Belarus' starting goalie, Danny Taylor, was actually born in Plymouth, GBR.

So while the win was nice, the next steps are to continue building upon the team's structure - not only this year, but beyond. Regardless of what happens the rest of the way, Great Britain can't be sent down to no relegation this year. That means this is a real transition year for the British as they hope to force their way into the 2023 tournament with a strong outing next year. Very few teams every decade find themselves staying in the top division after earning promotion the year before, but Great Britain defied the odds and kept their chances alive for a little bit longer.

The message the team has for young kids who want to represent their country on the world stage?

"If you got the passion and you got the talent, make sure you work hard, and, and you'll get your rewards for it," Myers said. "We're a hard-working hockey team. We're not the most skilled but we work hard every night and as a youngster coming through now, you need to be working hard.

"You see all these guys stick hands in off the ice. I thought that was a load of rubbish, but they do it for a reason. So they can transfer those skills to the ice. Those younger guys should be doing the little things like that, working hard off the ice, and then obviously working hard on the ice."

You never know, kids. When you work hard, you can make your dreams come true. And for 25 men on Wednesday night, that dream did come true: the one where they believed in themselves and did something no team has done from the country in six decades. 

That's a memory none of the players will soon forget.

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