Two years ago in Kosice, a dramatic comeback overtime win against France saw them silence the many doubters who had tipped them for instant relegation back from the top tier. At this year’s tournament in Riga, head coach Russell’s team performed even better.
Returning home with four points from their seven Group A games may not present itself as the most impressive statistic but, for a team still adapting to life among the world’s elite, it was the latest in a long line of significant achievements.
A point from an overtime defeat to Denmark was followed by a first regulation win at the worlds for GB since 1963 when they defeated Belarus 4-3.
Given the lack of ice time available to the majority of the GB players during the 2020-21 season because of the coronavirus pandemic, it was a remarkable achievement.
As a result, Russell – who did not make the trip to Riga due to family commitments but still oversaw the operation from his UK home – has seen his team rewarded with a move up the IIHF rankings, rising three places to 16th.
Next year, in Finland, GB will find themselves based in Group B in Tampere, up against the hosts, the USA, Czech Republic, Sweden, Latvia, Norway and Belarus. It will be no easier than the last two events, but Russell knows he will take a team into the competition with an enhanced reputation.
“I do think we have gained more respect for the way we performed this year,” said the 46-year-old. “People thought when we came up two years ago that we’d get absolutely demolished in every single game but it wasn’t like that.
“This time, we handled it a lot better and we knew what to expect. That was a big thing, they had that belief because they knew what was coming.
“As coaches we knew what to expect and that helped the players. And I genuinely think people are happy that we are there because we play a certain way, it is a bit more aggressive and they like that. I don’t think for one minute that people have a problem with GB being there.”
Russell admits it was strange not being with his players this time around having guided them to two successive promotions and then their memorable survival mission in Slovakia two years ago.
But he paid tribute to the qualities of his two assistants ADam Keefe and Corey Neilson, who while in constant contact with himself back in the UK, ran things on the ground in Latvia.
“Once it was known, after that it became about good communication and being surrounded by good people,” said Russell. “Being back in the UK, I saw things in a different way, learned more about managing and coaching a team and working as part of a coaching team, it was really good in that respect.
“I know the two coaches I work with, they are my friends and we walked through how I wanted to play and they backed me.
“Between periods I was talking to them and then pre-game I was running the video and players would sometimes call me and it taught me that I was probably a better head coach as in using my coaches better.
“Adam is really good with video and has a lot of knowledge, he sees the game well, while Corey is a great at practice in putting things together and so between the three of us we all bring something different. The biggest thing is we trust each other.”
Not surprisingly, Russell was again amazed by how his players dealt with everything thrown at them.
“There was always that worry that players hadn’t played all year and that we’d had no exhibition games going in, but they handled it really well,” added Russell.
“And the competitive games, the games that people thought we’d be in, they came at the right time for us, not at the end.
“The end is a killer because the games come thick and fast and the Slovakia game, we may have lost 2-1 but that gave them a huge confidence boost, the fact they were able to stay in that game.
“Two years ago, we lost heavily to them twice, once in a warm-up game and again in the group.
“But after the game against them this time, the players grew in confidence and felt like they could get something from any game. It was great to see.”