THE toughest test is still yet to come but Great Britain are one step closer to ending their long wait to return to the Winter Olympics stage.
Head coach Tony Hand’s team overcame hosts Japan 2-1 in Nikko on Sunday to ensure they will line up in the final qualifying stage in Latvia in February, with the chance to qualify for Sochi 2014.
The last time Great Britain participated at a Winter Olympics was in 1948, when they finished fifth. That came 12 years after they caused a massive shock in Germany by defeating overwhelming favourites Canada on the way to the gold medal. They were also bronze medallists in 1924.
Between 1952 and 2002, they failed to qualify and, as recently as six years ago, they didn’t even participate in the qualification process. In 2008, with Vancouver 2010 in their sights, they fell at the first hurdle in a group eventually won by Japan.
This time around they gave themselves a smazll mountain to climb following Friday’s surprise 5-4 defeat on a shoot-out to South Korea. They bounced back with a comfortable 3-0 victory against Group J minnows Romania on Saturday, before a 3-2 overtime win for Japan over South Korea later that day meant a win in regulation for Britain over the hosts – who they lost 5-0 to in April’s World Championships – would ensure they topped the group.
The game was effectively won in the first period when two goals in the space of 30 seconds put Great Britain ahead.
Belfast Giants’ Craig Peacock was first to get on the scoresheet, benefitting from good work by Rob Dowd and Sheffield Steelers’ Colin Shields to put his team ahead on the powerplay at 9.59.
Ben O’Connor then took advantage of a disorganised Japanese defence on a pass by Steelers’ veteran Ashley Tait, seeing his slapshot tipped in on its way past Yukata Fukufuji.
A goalless second period followed, but the visitors remained comfortable. And although alarm bells rang briefly four minutes into the third period when the hosts halved the deficit through Shuhei Kuji, that was as close as GB would let them get, holding on for a deserved win.
Captain Jonathan Phillips – also skipper for Steelers – said the win was no more than his side deserved.
“It’s a great feeling to win out here,” said Phillips. “We just had to make sure that we kept to our strengths throughout. Japan are a very good skating team, but we felt we were bigger and stronger, so we just had to get the puck deep and work the boards hard.
“We did that very well in the first period and that, I think, proved to be the deciding factor.”
Great Britain will now head to Latvia in February where, as the lowest seed, they will take on the hosts, currently seeded 11th, as well as France (14th) and Kazakhstan (17th).
Hand was full of praise for his players last night and believes they can go on and prove they can compete at the next level.
“This is a huge moment in the history of British ice hockey,” said Hand. “I am so proud of every one of these guys and so should everyone back home. Every single guy played their heart out and we did this with talent and determination.
“We have proved we can compete at this level and now we want to prove we can compete at a higher level. No one should underestimate how much this means to British ice hockey.
“It is massive.”