FOR somebody who had to be convinced to take on the job, Pete Russell has made a pretty good fist of being head coach of Great Britain’s men’s ice hockey team.
Since being persuaded back in 2014 to take up the reins it has been nothing short of a whirlwind ride for Russell and the national team.
The first two years brought only heartache on the final day at the annual World Championships, both times being denied the gold medal and promotion that goes with it.
The following two years were a total contrast. The gold medal won on home ice in Belfast in 2017 ensured promotion to the second tier where, in Budapest 12 months later, they defied expectations and won gold again, taking them back to the top tier for the first time since 1994.
On that occasion, in Italy, under head coach Alex Dampier, there was no escaping the immediate return to the second tier that everyone had feared.
Last year, in Slovakia, Russell’s team were expected to do the same.
But, yet again, in even more dramatic circumstances than in Budapest when Robert Farmer’s goal 15.8 seconds from time earned the draw required for gold, Russell and his team pulled another rabbit out of the hat.
Survival was secured and, as we enter a new decade, the GB team face an even sterner World Championship trial in Switzerland, as well as attempting to secure Olympic qualification, a campaign which starts next month in Nottingham.
And to think, Russell nearly turned all this down.
“I never wanted to coach the team when they first offered it to me,” says Russell. “I was coaching the Under-20s and working at Okanagan (Hockey Academy) at the time – I was just clicking along, I was enjoying myself.
The players have pulled on past experiences before and they know that they have that within their group. I just think that they have been fantastic, every single one of them – it is amazing what they have done.GB head coach, Pete Russell
“It was Jim Anderson at the time and Andy French and I know they had spoken to a few people and then they came to me and it was Boxing Day and Jim called me and said ‘we want you to coach the senior team’ and I said ‘I’m not even coaching men’s hockey at the moment’ but he replied: ‘the players would like you to coach them, you’ve coached so many of them before and we want you to coach and do you what you’ve done with the Under-20s’.
“I couldn’t say no. So I took it and the first year we missed gold because we couldn’t score, the second year, same thing, we couldn’t score – but those experiences made us stronger, the same as the experiences you get when it goes well.”
That strength shone though both in Budapest and then, last year, in Kosice.
After a week or so of coming off very much second-best in Group A encounters with the likes of Canada, Finland, USA and Denmark, that strength Russell speaks of was a large factor in the final-day survival that followed.
At 3-0 down and with more than half of the game gone, GB – containing 11 players who at one time or another had played under Russell for the Under-20s – were dead and buried. But after Russell called what proved to be the most timely of timeouts, a minor miracle started to unfold.
First, Sheffield Steelers’ Rob Dowd got his team on the board before it became a one-goal game with a Mike Hammond strike before the end of the period.
The momentum was only going one way and, just over five minutes into the third period, GB were level through their hero in Budapest, Farmer.
Some frantic overtime heroics were required by Rotherham-born goaltender Ben Bowns and Steelers’ defenceman Ben O’Connor to keep France out before that most magical of moments arrived.
A face-off in the GB zone saw the puck prodded forward by Ben Davies, asking captain Jonathan Phillips to sprint after it. After winning the race, he was pushed to the ice by his opponent, but quickly scrambled to his feet to place an inch-perfect pass to Davies, who had by now caught up and showed neat, quick hands to back-hand the winning goal past French goaltender Florian Hardy.
It was, as Russell had so often dared his players to do, another dream realised.
This year, in Switzerland, it will be even harder to remain among the elite, placed as they are in the same group as Belarus who, due to being co-hosts in 2021, cannot be relegated.
Essentially, it means GB probably have to win two games to survive in a group containing Canada, Sweden, Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Denmark. But, considering few people gave them a chance over the previous two years, it would not be beyond Russell and his players to defy the odds again.
As 45-year-old Russell says, there really is no pressure.
“We go in knowing we’ve got to win two games and that is a totally different scenario” said Russell. “But there is zero pressure on us. We’re going to go over there, work hard, play our way and we know it’s going to be another wonderful experience.
“I’d love to win two games and of course we’re going to try and it would be absolutely amazing if we did. We’ve got some great coaching around the team in Corey (Neilson) and Keeffer (Adam Keeffe) and this team has done some crazy things this past four years. We’re not scared of anything.
“The players have pulled on past experiences before and they know that they have that within their group. I just think that they have been fantastic, every single one of them – it is amazing what they have done.”
Since last May in Kosice, Ayr-born Russell’s own career has taken a different turn.
Three years overseeing progression at Milton Keynes Lightning led to his appointment in 2018 by Glasgow Clan, who he led to an impressive fourth-place Elite League finish.
That campaign, combined with what he achieved with GB in Slovakia, saw him offered a chance to coach in Europe leading to him swapping Scotland for south-west Germany to become head coach of DEL 2 outfit EHC Freiburg.
“It’s something that I always thought about when I was younger,” says Russell. “For me to become a better coach I had to do it and it has definitely helped me that way.
“You just turn up and you coach. There’s a sports director here, there’s a GM and all other kinds of people that surround you, so all you worry about really is the coaching side of things.”
Russell admits his current job has seen him become a bit of a ‘sponge’ once again, searching out new ideas and adapting them to his own surroundings.
“It’s good to see what other coaches do and the different approaches they have,” he added.
“There are some Canadian coaches over here, Finnish, German and Austrian coaches. I’m always stealing things, and adapting them. I believe you should always strive to get better. I feel I’m doing that.”
And with such a big year ahead, Russell hopes what he has learned can be used to good effect on the international stage.
“I think it will help in terms of our preparation, certainly in terms of what we can do on the bigger ice,” says Russell.
“Last year was a miracle and I’m sure it’s going to have to be a miracle twice in a row, especially with the ruling that Belarus can’t go down. But it’s not just about that. It’s also about letting people see that British hockey has some great players, with great attitude and a fierce desire to work hard for each other and do amazing things.”