The groups for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics ice hockey tournament have been set after the final qualification rounds came to a close. Where the pre-qualification tournaments may not make big headlines in the main hockey media, there was one storyline that I followed quite closely (well through social media and radio). The story being the one of Team GB.
British ice hockey may not be that highly regarded in the grand scheme of things, or the international hockey pecking order, but what surprised me was that Team GB made it to the final Olympic qualification tournament. Currently GB is ranked 21st by the IIHF and went on to play against teams like Latvia, France and Kazakhstan, all of which have experience from the highest tiers of international hockey within the IIHF. In fact, all of the nations in Team GB’s group featured in last year’s World Championships in Helsinki and Stockholm.
I think this is a good juncture to make a confession: I didn’t think that Team GB would make it. However, the achievement of the team should not be disregarded or mocked. Given the infrastructure for the game in the UK, where rinks seem to be closing quicker than they are built (specially in the South), or are in dire need of renovation, Team GB pulled of a minor miracle by making it to the final qualification round.
What the team who went to Latvia have achieved, is a foundation that the powers that be should start building upon. Team GB may not feature in the highest tier of the World Championship stage, nor will we see them in the 2014 winter Olympics. However, what the success of the team shows is that the fan base is there and now it is time to build. What the UK should focus on in an ideal world right now is to invest more into the sport and adapt a junior system that is being used by some of the top countries in the world. I’m a big believer that the future of the game of hockey is in junior development and now if ever, it’s time to strike while the iron is hot.
The process won’t be easy, but done right, I can see that Team GB has a legitimate chance for the 2018 Winter Olympics. However, having been around the game here for a couple of years, I sadly doubt that it will happen due to the way things are ran and the fact that hockey is a sport that hardly receives any funding. Sure there recently was a funding of £100k, but more is needed. £100,000 will not build a programme that would nurture the game here.
I know this opens up a debate that hockey is a minority sport and that the £100,000 is a good enough investment and why should ice hockey be invested in. Well, even though a minority sport, it was good to hear the game being called on the radio and actually hear fans chanting “Let’s go GB”. The fan support is there and my Twitter stream was filled with tweets from the games. Team GB’s games were picked up by ESPN here in the UK, a great feat for the sport. I’ve thought this for the longest time, but the local leagues (Elite League and Premier League) should be shown on free-view TV. Having them shown and (what I find) often buried on Sky sports 2 is doing the sport no favours here. But as with many other things, money talks. I would be as bold as to hazard a guess that apart from the people who follow ice hockey actually know that the sport is shown on Sky Sports 2, or that the NHL is on Premier Sport.
EDIT: This was something that Graham Goodman said on Facebook and I totally agree with him. British players should cast their eyes to European leagues as well and seek contracts outside of the confines of GB. There were a couple of players who did not ply their trade in the British leagues and ultimately the international experience from different leagues (and potentially better leagues) will make the standard of the national team better. Many of the teams GB played against had A LOT of players on the roster that played in countries other than their own.
While Team GB may have lost all of its games in the tournament, it is nothing to be laughed at. Though any self-respecting hockey player will tell you that the losses sting and they suck, but in the grand scheme of things, this team that went so far, have the potential to be regarded as pioneers for the game here. They have laid a foundation on which to build the sport on and the powers that be now need to strike while the iron is hot or the achievement by these guys will have been for nothing.
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