THERE have been unbelievable highs and there have been some crushing lows but, if there is one thing the Great Britain men’s ice hockey team can rely on during their annual pilgrimage to the world championships - at whatever level - it is the fervent, colourful support that follows them.
Pete Russell’s team are currently back in the top tier of the world game for the first time in 25 years, backed by around 500 British fans who have made the trip over to the Slovakian city of Kosice.
Whether Russell’s team confound expectations and avoid relegation or not, one thing is certain, the relentless noise generated by their loyal band of followers will continue, those supporters forming part of a dedicated following that has steadily grown from shortly before the last time GB was at the top level back in 1994.
Most of those travelling all over Europe do so as members of the Great Britain Supporters Club, a group set up initially by Allan and Annette Petrie in 1993 when the men’s team secured a gold-medal promotion triumph in Eindhoven to secure passage to ‘Pool A’ in Bolzano, Italy, the following year.
As is well-known, GB’s time at the ‘top table’ was short-lived, a winless campaign under Alex Dampier resulting in an instant return to the lower levels, an exile only ended by last year’s stunning triumph in Budapest.
Having got the hockey bug through following local club Slough, the Petries began running the supporters club before, in 1991, they found themselves organising a trip to Copenhagen for a small group of friends to follow a couple of their team’s players who had been picked to play for the GB team.
By the time Eindhoven came around two years later, the Petries were responsible for booking flights, accommodation, match tickets and whatever else was required, for around 25 people.
This year has them arranging trips for more than 400 fans and while others will follow the GB team under their own steam, the GBSC is generally the first port of call for fans.
And while there has been many a stressful moment over the last 25 years or so, the rewards - particularly in recent years - have helped make it all worthwhile.
“Various things happened to make us get involved and obviously when we won the tournament in Eindhoven it was a complete shock to go into Pool A,” said Allan.
“And more and more people kept getting referred to us for this that and the other so we decided we may as well try and run a trip for Bolzano.
“So we approached the British Ice Hockey Association (BIHA) and they gave us permission to start a GB supporters club - we’re actually the only national supporters club in the world that is officially affiliated to a federation.
“It was an amazing experience. I remember walking into the centre of Bolzano and there were Russian and German fans chanting ‘GB, GB’ and coming up and shaking our hands which was amazing.
“Then, in that first game against Russia, when Terry Kurtenbach scored … just the fact we’d actually scored a goal against a team like Russia, this team that you watched at the Olympics, was such a vivid memory that stays with you forever.”
Following that memorable year in Bolzano, the GB programme stagnated somewhat, the men’s team knocking around in the lower levels of world hockey but still attracting a regular following of around 100 fans.
When Paul Thompson took over as head coach in 2006, things started to pick up - both on and off the ice - and interest in the team grew again.
Under Thompson and, later on, Russell, there were silver and bronze medal campaigns, as well as a fair share of promotion being cruelly snatched away on the final day.
FInally, that all changed in 2017 in Belfast, when gold and promotion to the second tier was secured. What few people expected was that Russell’s team would repeat the feat 12 months later in Hungary, leading them to where they are now and sharing the ice with NHL superstars playing for the likes of Canada, Finland and the USA in Kosice.
Whether that will last beyond this year is really anybody’s guess but, for the Petries, it has brought so many wonderful memories.
“When you find yourself getting stressed out when you’re organising a trip, and you do, those moments - Budapest last year, Eindhoven in 1993 - are what make it all worthwhile and make you feel so motivated to carry on doing it,” said Allan.
“Last year, in Budapest, because the goal at the end came so late, whether it was an ugly or flukey goal, we weren’t really that emotional.
“We’d seen it that first time in Einhdoven (back in 1993) so, for us, it had already really happened before and I remember that first time in Eindhoven we turned to each other and I remember calling my parents and crying down the phone because I was so emotional about it all.
“But personally, the key moment for us was off the ice last year. I remember walking around from where we were in the arena in Budapest and just looking across and seeing so many fans, GB shirts and people wearing all kinds of merchandise and just realising how much it had grown in those 25 years
“From that first trip that we did with just 10 people and then seeing how it has just grown and grown and the noise that we make. It’s special.”
In Slovakia, for the past week, the 'Barmy Army' has made a name for itself while supporting their team, a vast array of fancy dress costumes being worn with everything ranging from the Spice Girls to Prince Charles masks.
One of the fans who has been there for many of the last 25 years is Sheffield’s Mimi Quarta, a Steelers fan whose first trip following the GB team was to Bolzano.
As with all GB moments, there have been highs and lows but, picking out a favourite moment is not too difficult, as she cites Robert Farmer’s memorable equalising goal with just 15.8 seconds to go in Budapest just over 12 months ago against Hungary which has - like 500 or so others - taken her to Kosice this time around.
“You really struggle to get past the 15.8 seconds from last year in Budapest because you were just left puzzled and thinking ‘did that really happen?’,” she said.
“It’s special following the GB team because it is just that once a year and there is the companionship aspect - over the years I’ve made friends from all over the UK and from all around the Elite League, friends in Nottingham which maybe I shouldn’t say too much about, as well as some good friends from Cardiff.
“It’s nice to get together, people kind of wonder in and out over the years, but a good friend from London went for the first time in a number of years and he hadn’t been for a long time and he’s just come back in the last two years and it is so nice to renew those friendships.”