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VIDEO: Ben O’Connor targets higher level while trying to blaze trail for other British players to follow

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BEN O’CONNOR landed in Sweden earlier this week no doubt with several aims in mind over the course of the next few months.

Chief among those will be to help his new club Leksands IF return to the top-flight elite of the SHL - considered one of the best leagues, if not the best, in Europe.

The former Sheffield Steelers’ defenceman is also keen to develop his game further, something he believes he can do more by playing in a hockey environment which will put him alongside and against some of the most talented players outside North America.

One of the reasons the 29-year-old wishes to up his game is because of next year’s World Championships in Slovakia which will pit him and his Great Britain team-mates against the likes of Canada, USA and Finland.

Those two weeks in Kosice are likely to prove a daunting task for GB head coach Pete Russell and his players, but one that O’Connor and his fellow minternationals are happy to embrace full on.

“Being in Sweden will make me a better player, playing at that standard, that level - you’re a product of your environment,” said O’Connor. “As a player you want to see your game improve every season. With GB going into the top pool of the World Championship next year and playing against the likes of Canada and the USA, this is the right time for me to go elsewhere leading into that and to be playing at the highest level I possibly can be.”

NEW BEGINNINGS: Ben O'Connor, seen above in action for Great Britain at this year's World Championships, has headed out to Sweden to begin the next phase of his career with Leksands IF. Picture: Dean Woolley.

NEW BEGINNINGS: Ben O'Connor, seen above in action for Great Britain at this year's World Championships, has headed out to Sweden to begin the next phase of his career with Leksands IF. Picture: Dean Woolley.

As an offensively-minded D-man - he finished last season as the Steelers’ top points-scorer in all EIHL games with 19 goals and 46 assists - life in the Swedish second tier Allsvenskan should suit O’Connor’s game.

A six-week training camp awaits O’Connor at Leksands, with exhibition games coming thick and fast - including two back in Sheffield against the Steelers on August 11 and 12. After a couple of pre-season tournaments, Leksand’s promotion campaign will launch against Tingsryds on September 21.

Prior to going, O’Connor was heartened after chats with close friend and former Steelers’ team-mate Rob Dowd, who spent a year in the Allsvenskan with Troja-Llungby, as well as Steelers’ head coach Paul Thompson, who coached in the Swedish second tier. Both back him to be a success out there.

“Dowdy thinks I’ll do well there and that my game will be suited there - every game will be a challenge, but that’s what I want,” added O’Connor.

With GB going into the top pool of the World Championship next year and playing against the likes of Canada and the USA, this is the right time for me to go elsewhere leading into that and to be playing at the highest level I possibly can be.

Ben O’Connor

“I’m a powerplay guy and I’m being brought in to be an offensive defenceman, so Thommo thinks that I will flourish out there. I hope that both him and Dowdy are right!”

Thompson, who has just completed a major summer overhaul of the Steelers’ roster for the 2018-19 campaign, is confident O’Connor, a player he first worked with when head coach at Coventry Blaze back in 2008, has the game to succeed in Sweden.

“Ben has matured into a fine, fine defenceman – he must have for teams like Leksands to have picked up on him,” said Thompson.

“His game is far more rounded than it was two years ago. Offensively, he’s a fantastic powerplay guy with a great shot and he moves the puck really well, he’s a great passer too.

HAPPY DAYS: Ben O'Connor, in action for Sheffield Steelers. Picture: Dean Woolley.

HAPPY DAYS: Ben O'Connor, in action for Sheffield Steelers. Picture: Dean Woolley.

“You’ve got to play a smart, two-way game in Sweden, you can’t be one-dimensional in any way but with the way his game has matured he will a great addition to their line-up.

“We didn’t want to lose him, of course we didn’t, but he wanted to go and test himself and you have to understand that.”

As well as developing his own game and hopefully helping bring back top-tier hockey to Leksands, O’Connor also hopes his move and subsequent progress can create a pathway for other British players to make similar moves further down the line, much like his former Steelers’ team-mate Liam Kirk wishes to do after being selected in this summer’s NHL Draft by Arizona Coyotes.

“There is added pressure with me going over to Sweden because you want to go away and do well, not only for yourself but to show that British hockey players can play,” added O’Connor. “We’ve shown that as a team by getting to the top tier, but it would be good to show that individuals can play at a higher club level.

“What Liam has done is unbelievable. Seeing how far he has come in just the last couple of years since he started training with us has been amazing.

“And with myself, I’m a bit older but maybe people are starting to notice now that GB can play hockey and we’re starting to get these opportunities now.

BEEN THERE: Robert Dowd played a season in the Swedish Allsvenskan for Troja-Llungby in 2012-13. Picture: Dean Woolley.

BEEN THERE: Robert Dowd played a season in the Swedish Allsvenskan for Troja-Llungby in 2012-13. Picture: Dean Woolley.

“Hopefully, these chances can become a lot more frequent for British players. This might lead to more scouts coming over in the future to look at young British kids that are coming through and they then get similar opportunities.”

Sheffield Steelers' head coach Paul Thompson. Picture: Dean Woolley.

Sheffield Steelers' head coach Paul Thompson. Picture: Dean Woolley.