HEAD coach Tony Hand says his Great Britain team are capable of causing a surprise despite heading to the World Championships in Slovenia as rank outsiders.
Hand, who came in as head coach following Paul Thompson’s decision to quit the role after five years, has had his squad training in Manchester all week and on Friday slimmed his squad down to 23, following the enforced withdrawals of Coventry duo Russ Cowley (concussion) and Jonathan Weaver (personal commitments).
It leaves the squad short on defensive numbers - only six will travel out - for an unforgiving schedule of five games in seven days and means one of the 14 forwards on the roster would need to switch back to the blue line to provide cover should injury occur, with nobody the obvious candidate.
Hand, a former Sheffield Steelers forward, will not travel out with his players and support staff on Saturday’s initial flight due to his commitments as player-coach with English Premier League outfit Manchester Phoenix, who will be contesting the final four play-off weekend in Coventry.
Hand’s departure to Ljubljana to meet up with the squad will be determined by the result of Phoenix’s semi-final encounter with Sheffield Steeldogs and, subsequently, whether they then have to play in Sunday afternoon’s final against either Guildford Flames or Slough Jets.
It means the 44-year-old could miss his team’s opening Division 1A fixture against hosts Slovenia on Sunday night, leaving assistant Doug Christiansen - who has just led the Belfast Giants to the Elite League title - in command of the team bench.
In addition, both Steeldogs’ much-admired netminder Ben Bowns and veteran forward David Longstaff, of Guildford, are also likely to be late joining up with their team-mates.
It is a situation Hand admits is far from ideal, but one which he says is unavoidable due to an unusual scheduling clash this year.
“I have to see Manchester out until the end of the season, that’s where my job is and where my initial priorities have to be,” said Hand.
“It is unusual the way it has fallen this year, the schedule has all changed but it’s just for the one year.
“In a perfect world, it would not be like this but it does happen sometimes when you’ve got two jobs like this. But I’ve brought in Doug and I’ve obviously got full confidence in him if I’m not out there for the first game.”
Great Britain follow-up Sunday’s opener against Slovenia with another tough encounter on Monday against Austria, who, like the hosts, have dropped down from the top division.
Both countries are favourites to return to the top tier in order to mix it once again with the likes of leading nations such as Canada, Russia and current world champions Finland, who defend their top tier title on home territory next month.
Hand will take his team into the former Yugoslav republic having had only four days practice and no warm-up games, something else affected by scheduling clashes. In contrast, the British coach said Austria and Slovenia are likely to have spent the past few weeks preparing for the event.
Among the GB squad are five Steelers players, with new signing Colin Shields joining up with new team-mates Mark Thomas, Jason Hewitt and Jonathan Phillips, with the South Yorkshire club’s reserve netminder, Geoff Woolhouse, also getting the nod for the first time ahead of Edinburgh’s Nathan Craze.
“It would be nice to have more time with the guys, but you can’t really complain about it,” said Hand.
“In an ideal world you would also have one or two warm-up games but, with most of our lads not finishing until Sunday it was difficult. We tried a few different countries to try and arrange a game but, in the end, it just wasn’t possible.”
With other group opponents in the shape of Ukraine and Hungary, as well as lowest seeds Japan, making up the group, Hand is expecting a tough week in Slovenia.
An adjustment of the world championship lower divisions by the IIHF has meant Britain are - on paper - in the toughest group for a number of years, with last year’s silver medal in Ukraine seeing them ranked as one of the best six teams outside the top tier.
Repeating last year’s second-place finish in Kiev will be extremely difficult. Avoiding finishing bottom and the relegation that goes with it would be seen by some as something of an achievement in itself, although Hand is confident his players are capable of more.
“The initial aim has to be to ensure we stay where we are for next year,” said Hand. “If we can get any kind of medal it would be a big achievement.
“It will be tougher than in recent years because you’ve got two teams coming down from the top division as well as having both silver medallists from last year’s Division One tournaments.
“We’ve probably got the toughest start out of anyone with Slovenia and Austria up first, but those games will also help us get ready for the later matches.
“You have to be realistic - Austria have been training most of the past month for this - but I’m more than confident we can compete with all these teams and we have to make sure we come back with no regrets.”
FINAL GB SQUAD
Netminders: Stephen Murphy (Belfast Giants), Geoff Woolhouse (Sheffield Steelers), Ben Bowns (Sheffield Steeldogs)
Defencemen: Stephen Lee (Nottingham Panthers), Danny Meyers (Panthers), Corey Neilson (Panthers), David Phillips (SønderjyskE), Mark Richardson (Cardiff Devils), Mark Thomas (Sheffield Steelers).
Forwards: David Clarke (Panthers), Robert Dowd (Giants), Robert Farmer (Coventry Blaze), Owen Fussey (Blaze), Mark Garside (Giants), Jason Hewitt (Steelers), Phil Hill (Devils), Jeff Hutchins (Dundee Stars), Robert Lachowicz (Panthers), David Longstaff (Guildford Flames), Matthew Myers (Panthers), Craig Peacock (Giants), Jonathan Phillips (Steelers), Colin Shields (Steelers).
Sunday, April 15: v Slovenia (7pm)
Monday, April 16: v Austria (3.30pm)
Wednesday, April 17: v Ukraine (12noon)
Thursday, April 19: v Japan (12noon)
Saturday, April 21: v Hungary (3.30pm)
PREVIOUS MEETINGS (recent matches against Great Britain’s opponents in Slovenia)
Austria (world ranking: 15)
2008: Lost 10-5.
Slovenia (WR 18)
2010: Lost 4-3 (OT)
2007: Lost 4-0
2001: Drew 3-3
2000: Drew 3-3
Ukraine (WR 19)
2011: Won 5-3
2009: Lost 4-2
Hungary (WR 20)
2010: Lost 2-0
2007: Lost 4-2
2006: Lost 4-3
2005: Won 3-0
2004: Lost 5-3
2002: Lost 4-1
Japan (WR 22)
2007: Won 4-3
2006: Lost 4-2
2005: Lost 5-3