Phil Harrison: Helping Hand needed to give GB team fighting chance

Former Sheffield Steelers star Tony Hand is doing well with Great Britain.
Former Sheffield Steelers star Tony Hand is doing well with Great Britain.
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SOME of you may have noticed recently that Great Britain’s ice hockey team made more headlines than usual by reaching the final qualification stage for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Most of you, no doubt, will have remained blissfully unaware.

It must have been an important moment in the history of British ice hockey for the simple reason that it attracted more headlines in the national media than normal, there was even a player being interviewed on BBC 5Live!

The last time the national media took such an interest in the national team was two years ago when the ash clouds created by an Icelandic volcano meant the team had to abandon plans to fly to Slovenia for the world championships and embark on a lengthy coach journey instead. After a good start, they finished just outside the medals.

Now, after winning last month’s pre-qualifier tournament in Japan, the GB squad, seen as rank outsiders, face the difficult task of progressing through to what would be a first Winter Olympics appearance since 1948.

Back then, GB finished fifth, a notable achievement but not altogether too surprising given they had actually won gold 12 years earlier in Germany – a second Olympic medal for the national side after they took bronze in 1924.

Years of decline followed, with only a brief interlude in 1994 which was the last time Britain played with the ‘big boys’ of Russia, Sweden and Canada on the world championship stage. It didn’t go well and, for the following decade, GB flirted with relegation to the third tier, only very occasionally finishing among the medals. Back in 2004 there was not even an attempt – due to funding issues – to take part in qualification for the Winter Olympics being held in Turin two years later.

The appointment of Paul Thompson as head coach seemed to bring about a significant improvement. Still operating on the same limited resources, the Coventry Blaze coach and his support staff were able to build a team capable of competing for second-tier medals at the annual world championships as opposed to constantly looking over their shoulders and flirting with relegation.

A bronze was secured in Poland in 2009, but the high point came in Kiev in 2011 when the British team beat more highly-fancied opponents into second place, only missing out on gold and promotion to the top tier because of a very impressive Kazakhstan team, who beat them 2-1.

Thompson, partly due to the then growing financial concerns at his beloved Coventry, resigned towards the end of last year, but had been unhappy with the way the national team programme was being operated by those above him.

Tony Hand, a legend of the UK game, stepped in and, again with minimal preparation, was able to guide his team to safety in Llubljana earlier this year in what was an exceptionally tough group comprising ‘serious’ ice hockey nations such as Austria and Slovenia.

The GB squad further built on those disciplined performances in Slovenia when they went to Japan last month and now stand just one step away from Sochi. It is a very big step indeed, particularly as they will come up against Latvian hosts ranked 11th in the world, and two more higher-rated teams in France (14th) and Kazakhstan (17th).

The British may be four places below Kazakhstan but, with only the scantest backing and preparation they have proved in recent years that there is serious potential for the nation to have an ice hockey team that could, just possibly, become a regular fixture in the all-important group of 
top-16 nations.

It’s believed that hosts Japan prepared for last month’s pre-qualification tournament over the course of the previous three months. By contrast, GB met up on the Monday morning, flew out the following day and, after overcoming a spot of jetlag, managed a couple of practice sessions before playing their first match on the Friday. And they still won the group.

If the powers-that-be that run the various disjointed strands of the British game are serious about the national side having success – something that would surely do so much for the profile of the game in this country – then much more needs to be done.

Elite League clubs, at least those with several players expected to feature in the GB squad, have cancelled fixtures on the weekend of the tournament in Riga which begins on Thursday, February 7, and sees teams play three games in four days.

But, it’s not just about cancelling the odd fixture here and there.

Andy French, general secretary of Ice Hockey UK, who run the national team, said last week that there was the possibility of some funding being made available from the British Olympic Association to help with the team’s trip, although that is dependent on an application which will be submitted soon.

There also needs to be at least one warm-up game for Hand‘s team, preferably against another national team. The Netherlands would be an obvious choice as they are competing on the same weekend in another qualification group.

But, if not, maybe the cream of GB talent could be given a good workout – or two – against a team comprising the best imports currently playing in the UK, similar to the initiative in rugby league which has seen the England national side play against a team of ‘Exiles’ playing for various Super League clubs.

And it’s unlikely that head coach Hand would turn down the opportunity to have more time with the national squad before heading to Riga, so it would be helpful if clubs were to allow their players the occasional days ‘off’ from their club’s practice sessions to attend national team training camps, possibly on a weekly basis.

The fact Great Britain are now one step away from the main event is down to an unyielding determination and professionalism from the players and coaching staff over the last six years or so. And while it is highly unlikely we will ever see a GB team lift gold at the Winter Olympics again, the current generation of players – backed by only minimal resources –have proved they are capable of competing on the international stage.

Just think what could be achieved given the proper backing they have so clearly earned.

And another thing...

ON one of the few occasions when my sportsdesk seniors have let me loose on these pages – let’s face it, they only call on me when there really is nobody else – I concocted some monologue about how I found it staggering that squash was not an Olympic sport.

If I remember correctly, it came only a few weeks after the sport had been denied Olympic status after losing out in the bidding process for Rio 2016 to rugby sevens and golf.

This week, IOC officials have been at the Hong Kong Open to witness the great strides squash has made since then to try and secure inclusion for the 2020 Games.

It is hoped that this time around the sport gets it deserved elevation into the Olympics.

It makes a final presentation of its case later this month and will have to wait to find out if it has been successful next September.

The sad part is that, even if successful, several British players – including Yorkshire’s high-flying trio of James Willstrop, Nick Matthew and Jenny Duncalf – will never have had chance to grace what is considered to be the greatest stage of them all.

In Willstrop and Matthew, here is the world’s top two men, yet they have no chance of Olympic glory.