Sheffield Steelers Brendan Connolly hopes third time lucky will produce magical GB moments

WHEN it comes to his international career with Great Britain, Brendan Connolly has already experienced one particularly significant ‘magical’ moment.

BIG DAY: GB and Sheffield Steelers' forward Brendan Connolly during practice in Riga this week. Picture: Dean Woolley.

Over the course of the next 10 days he hopes to experience a few more, this time on the ice.

Growing up in Alberta, Canada, the Sheffield Steelers’ forward always tuned in to watch the World Championships, hoping one day he might emulate the stars he saw on his TV screen.

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But, given the infinite number of hockey players produced by the country of his birth, he soon realised it was always going to be tough to achieve his dream.

But, late on in a career which after stints in the AHL and ECHL took him to Austria, Germany and Denmark, Connolly landed at Belfast Giants, where his father was born and lived until emigrating to Canada aged 16. Two years later, armed with a British passport and the requisite amount of playing time in the UK, it became clear the 35-year-old could possibly realise his World Championship ambition after all.

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That should have arrived two years ago in the first year that GB were competing back in ‘Pool A’ since 1994 but, just weeks away from a group encounter against his native Canada, injury forced him to withdraw from the squad.

He finally got to make his GB debut at the Olympic Pre-Qualifiers staged in Nottingham in February last year but, again, his attempts to play at the worlds three months later were foiled when they fell victim to the pandemic.

GAME FACE: Brendan Connolly, in action for Sheffield Steelers during the recent Elite Series. Picture: Karl Denham/EIHL.

So today will, hopefully, be a case of third time lucky when Connolly takes to the ice – as he hopes to – against world No 2 Russia in Riga.

“Being Canadian it was obviously always going to be pretty hard to make the team unless I was playing in the NHL,” said Connolly. “So I never really thought that I would get to be able to do it.

“Then, having got my GB passport and having played over here for two years, I found out I was eligible to play for GB.

“It was almost like a magical moment when I realised I might actually be able to go and play against all these quality players. To be able to say that you’ve played against the best countries in the world and the best players in the world, it is an amazing thing.”

READY FOR ACTION: Brendan Connolly, left, shares a joke with GB and former Steelers' team-mate, Ben O'Connor, during Thursday's practice session in Riga. Picture: Dean Woolley.

Competition for places in Pete Russell’s 28-man squad is understandably fierce, but Connolly goes into the tournament having proved one of the topo players in the recent behind-closed-doors Elite Series in Nottingham for the Steelers, with who he enjoyed a stellar campaign in 2019-20, helping them win the Challenge Cup before coronavirus struck and brought about an abrupt end to the season.

But, while the championships scheduled to take place in Switzerland in May became another sporting event lost to Covid-19, Connolly had already been bitten by the international hockey bug, even though GB ultimately lost out on home ice in Nottingham, ending their Olympic hopes.

“If you’re any type of player, you want to play against the best and see where your game stacks up and see how you do as a team too,” he added. “It is a big thing for GB to be in these tournaments and be able to play against the best players in the world, it will only make us better and the country better.

“You could see in the Olympic qualifiers in Nottingham, each country has their own nuances, how they want to play the game. You can definitely see that there’s a bit more chemistry, a lot of them have played together for quite long periods of time in these tournaments, coming through the age groups together in some case.

“The passing is crisp, their skating, the systems they employ, everything seems to be on point, making them so effective.”

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