Often in hockey, as in any sport, success is down to wins and losses and the bottom line. This can sometimes overshadow the work and effort that is really going on for a team.
At an Olympic Qualification tournament, wins and losses are all that matters right? Well in the case of Team GB’s hockey team I’d say my answer would be no. Certainly every member of the team, coaching staff, and support group wanted to win. The travelling supporters definitely were in that boat too. Even the media, so regularly charged with impartiality, wanted Team GB to do well.
The reality for this team in Riga, Latvia for the Final Sochi 2014 Olympic Qualifiers, is the fact that they did so much by getting to this point. To being on the verge of an Olympic dream, to be competing with some of the elite teams in the world.
“Things have come so far in recent years and we are still building, and this is a step in the right direction,” Team GB Coach Tony Hand said, “It has given us a foundation for this year’s World Championship in Hungary and we should be proud of what we have done.”
Team GB had a tough 6-2 loss in their opener at Arena Riga to the host Latvian squad. Latvia are ranked 11th in the world, and boast former NHL Coach of the Year Ted Nolan as their boss. They also have the likes of Sandis Ozolinsh (875 NHL games with 564 points under his belt), and a myriad of 6’3 behemoths who can play any brand of hockey necessary. This game was more like a 4-2 game to be honest. Latvia had a 5-on-3 late in the third period and started to increase the scoreline. I’n fairness to Team GB, with the game 4-2 they were very much competitive. Nobody’s head dropped, nobody stopped skating hard and forechecking. And, let’s be honest, Latvia could probably bury a goal or two against Canada or Russia if they had a 5-on-3. This was a competitive affair – and despite being the smaller, less experienced side, GB were never really outclassed. Certainly they weren’t lacking in heart and compete level.
Next up was France. This is a team ranked 14th globally, and a team that on any given night can be a handful. They have former NHL’er Cristobal Huet (a Stanley Cup Champion), and a system that could easily see them in the main draw of Sochi. This was a game that I though GB could win. A game that they knew they must win, and of course GB never likes to lose to France in any sport! So plenty of motivation in this tilt. Penalty trouble and some early mistakes were the issue in this one. And, with France up 3-0 in the third period, this one looked over. Cue the Craig Peacock heroics, and a huge power-play goal made it 3-1. Robert Lachowicz’s birthday fell on this date – and he added some huge drama – as any birthday boy should! Lachowicz put a beauty top-shelf – and the GB travelling supporters went bananas. The young sniper had brought the team back to 3-2 and even I nearly fell out of the commentary box! France, for their part were on the back-foot and reeling. They were in a dog fight, and were scared at this point. This was the moment where the tournament could have been turned on an ear for GB. The moment we would all remember where we were. But fate can be a fickle companion. Such a high after those two goals – such possibility. Sadly it was not to be, a slight hesitation behind the GB net, and France would get their fourth and final marker of the match, with Stevie Lyle caught out of the crease. The Sochi 2014 Olympic dream was over.
This could have been a sour dressing room. This could have been a team that started to unravel after this close, but devastating defeat. What I found when I arrived downstairs after my duties concluded on TV was a group of true teammates. A group of guys that understood the magnitude of the situation. A group of professional athletes that love to play for their country and wanted this more than the critics and fans combined. This was a proud group even in defeat.
“We really wanted that one, we could feel it coming, the momentum changed and we really thought we could beat them,” said Team GB’s Ben O’Connor, “we all thought after the second goal that we were in control, and we all wanted that one for the fans.”
A group that gave their all and should be applauded.
The final game of the tournament was academic. Kazakhstan needed to run up the score to stay alive. GB nursing so many bumps and bruises after their first two battles, were in trouble from the get-go. Kazakhstan, ranked 17th in the world, went on to win 6-0, but for GB the story was young Ben Bowns. He made his first international start in goal for his country. He was beaten by a laser beam on the first shot he faced from Roman Starchenko. A shot that many NHL goalies would not have stopped – a shot so world class that Bowns could have folded and quit right there. He did not. He stood tall and was impressive despite the scoreboard. He faced 42 shots on the night, stopping 36. That’s all you can ask from your keeper – especially from a keeper making his debut at a tournament as skilled as this one.
So Team GB end up 0-3 at Arena Riga. How to feel about the Olympic dream ending this way?
Well, the feeling I came away from Riga with, was one of optimism. This team was ranked 21st in the hockey world coming into a pool in Riga that included world class teams, players and coaches. They gained valuable experience of where they need to go from here to compete against someone like Sandis Ozolinsh. They learned how discipline is paramount. They saw first hand what clean power-plays and efficient penalty-killing can do at this level. They learned that chances need to be buried – as a second chance might not come.
Most importantly though – they learned that with a little more preparation, some more time together, they can compete at this high level.
Intelligence is learning from past deficiencies. Heart is taking away the bad taste from an opportunity lost, and doing better when the next chance comes calling. This Team GB roster has intelligence and heart aplenty – be patient – support and funding is what’s needed now. Hopefully the exposure of the TV, radio, print and on-line media in Riga will help get the word out about this team, this group, these supporters.
I have covered the NHL, KHL and plenty of leagues in between. But, I have to say that being around this team and their fans was a highlight. It was an assignment I’ll never forget, and a group that I admire.
Thanks to Team GB and all involved, for making me a part of a special time in your history – you were all first class.
You can follow Murph on Twitter @MurphOnIce