Sheffield Steelers' Jon Phillips ready to embrace biggest GB challenge yet

JONATHAN PHILLIPS is eager to test himself against the world's elite after Great Britain yesterday discovered who they will face in their first top-tier World Championship tournament for 25 years.

BRING IT ON: Captain Jonathan Phillips celebrates GB's Division 1A gold medal promotion success in Budapest last month. Picture: Dean Woolley.

Pete Russell’s side stunned the hockey world when, despite being regarded as favourites for relegation, they earned a gold medal promotion from Division 1A in Budapest last month.

Following Sweden’s victory over Switzerland in Sunday’s final of the top division, the IIHF yesterday drew the two groups who will compete in Slovakia in 12 months’ time.

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GB will face Canada, Finland, USA, Germany, Slovakia, Denmark and France in Kosice, while champions Sweden take on Russia, Czech Republic, Switzerland, Norway, Latvia, Austria and Italy in Bratislava.

PLANNING AHEAD: GB head coach Pete Russell oversaw a stunning performance in Budapest last month. Picture: Dean Woolley.

Sheffield Steelers and GB captain Phillips said: “We all said after our promotion that we can’t wait to test ourselves against the world’s best players. As we proved last month, the gap between Division 1A and 1B is manageable – this is going to be an enormous challenge but one we’re all desperate to embrace.

"We are going to be coming up against players on millions of dollars and, when you see what they can do, with good reason."

Given the task ahead of them in 12 months time, it is no surprise to hear Phillips admit that he had been paying more attention than usual to TV coverage of the World Championships' top division in Denmark, which culminated with Sweden's win on penalty shots against Switzerland two days ago, with the USA beating Canada 4-1 to take the bronze medal.

"Knowing we're going to be up against this level of opposition has seen me watching more of this tournament than usual," admitted Phillips. "It certainly makes you more curious about the kind of teams we're going to be facing in 12 months time.

"We know it is going to be extremely tough but we all want to go out there and prove a point and make sure that people realise we are not just there for the adventure."

It remains to be seen what extra preparation GB's players will be allowed given the size of the task that awaits them in a year's time. It can only be hoped that Russell is given at least a couple of mid-season training camps and more than the traditional two warm-up games usually arranged before a world championships event.

Given the traditional later starting date for the top division, Russell will get a longer than normal pre-tournament training camp with his players, but the GB programme's top officials need to ensure much more is done to give their players every possible chance of retaining their top tier status - no matter what the odds may be against them doing that.

As for Russell, he said knowing just who his team will face between May 10 and 26 brought home the magnitude of what had been achieved last month in Hungary.

“To play at this level is the ultimate, said Russell. "It’s a fantastic group that awaits us and it’s going to be an amazing experience. We will be facing some of the best players on the planet and it is something that every one of us will embrace. This group of players has earned that right.

“The hard work will start straight away and we have a lot of planning to do over the next 12 months - we will be going to Slovakia with the aim of continuing to surprise people again.

“We went to Budapest with two goals - one was to stay in the division and the other was to 'Dare to Dream' - we will go to Slovakia with the exact same mindset in what is a fantastic opportunity.”