At the start of November, the Great Britain senior men’s side went to Sanok in Poland for an Olympic pre-qualifying tournament. Qualification for the Olympics is a long process with several stages.
Firstly there is a pre-pre-qualifying tournament, where one group of four teams play and the winner progresses. Following that there is the pre-qualifying stage where GB entered into, with 12 teams in three groups and winners of each group again progress.
The final qualifying round is then played where again 12 teams play in three groups, with the final winners in that stage progressing to the Olympics along with the top nine ranked nations who qualify automatically. Confused? It’s a little tricky to say the least.
GB were entered into the pre-qualifying stage because of their low world ranking (29th) where they faced the hosts Poland, Japan, and Romania, all of which were ranked higher than Team GB.
Coventry had a strong representation on the side with Jonathan Weaver, Ben O’Connor, Leigh Jamieson and Russ Cowley all travelling, not to mention head coach Paul Thompson and many of the support staff.
An agonising 2-1 defeat to Poland after penalty shots in the first game followed by 2-1 regulation time defeat by Japan killed off GB’s chances of progressing from the tournament. The final game was a somewhat one-sided 11-1 victory over Romania in a game with nothing on the line.
Russ Cowley had mixed feelings about the trip to Poland, “They were some good teams. We were unfortunate against Poland losing on penalty shots. Japan were good but it was only a one goal game. We needed to beat Japan to make it through, and we had our chances.
"It was frustrating as well against Poland. We could have won both games. Romania, they weren’t very good, but they were missing a few key players in that game.”
With both key games ending in one-goal defeats, what can be done to put GB ahead of the nations who are around them? “We only had one training session before we flew out, so we could’ve done with more time together. But it was a good group of guys, the squad was similar to the World Championships, so we don’t really have any excuses.”
Preparation time was something that coach Paul Thompson highlighted as well, “It’s hugely frustrating. We trained for an hour and a half before we flew out, that was enough just to walkthrough our plays on the ice.
"The fact was that we were the better team in every game, we just didn’t execute like a club team would. We just weren’t as comfortable with the system and the playbook as we could be, in particular on the powerplay."
"Poland trained together for two weeks before the tournament and I think Japan had three weeks together. We’re looking at getting more time but it’s difficult. The clubs gave their blessing and released their players, but they had to because it’s a IIHF break. Our league doesn’t stop like many others do.”
The low world ranking belies where GB compared to the rest of the nations. Japan, who went on the win the group beat GB 2-1 in this tournament, but back in 2007 when the sides last met, GB won 4-3. “No one particularly stood out”, said Cowley, “They were just solid teams. We’re ranked lower than we are because we haven’t taken part in previous Olympic tournaments.”
The rankings system is based around tournaments entered and results and since the decision was made not to attempt to qualify for the 2006 Winter Olympics, the GB world ranking has been hurt accordingly. There is a gap between some of the nations and GB, but in a positive way and that was shown in the result against Romania.
Thompson also commented on the opposition from the tournament, “They were well disciplined, slick organisations. The difference between us, Poland and Japan was just preparation. That’s what sets the teams apart.
"Japan are very similar to us, they have a great skating team. Poland were full of experience this time round. But in the last period of the Japan game we outshot them 15-4. Their netminder had a good game, but we only have ourselves to blame. Player for player we are just as good as either of those teams.”
“Japan take part in a tournament every year against some of the best teams, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Canada (although the Canadian side is a select side of European-based players). Their coach paid us a huge compliment after the Olympic tournament when he said that we broke them down better than any of those other teams.”
This is an improvement on previous years, where GB have been competitive but generally beaten comfortably. Now they are competing and nearly winning, perhaps lacking the cutting edge to take them on to a victorious tournament.
Progression takes time. GB head back to Poland in April for the Division One World Championships. Thompson said, “We need to be looking for a medal in April. It’s small steps but it has to be. But look at the average of our squad, a lot of the lads are young, between 18 and 22.
"They all have their best years of hockey ahead of them. The Under 18’s and Under 20’s are bringing players forward as well, and that step up is happening.”
When Paul Thompson took over the GB squad, the teams at all levels had bounced between Divisions One and Two in the World Championships. Now they are nearly progressing in Olympic tournaments and can genuinely believe that medals are within their grasp at future tournaments.
Improvements are happening, perhaps slower than some observers would like, but Team GB is heading in the right direction across the board.