Sometimes, miracles happen. Down 0-3 midway through the second period of a life-and-death relegation showdown against France, Britain’s ice hockey players called a time out. Thirty seconds to try to inject some calm, to remind the team of how they had got to this point, to plot a course to an improbable victory.
A win in this game meant remaining in the Elite Pool of the Ice Hockey World Championship for another season. GB had arrived following back-to-back promotions, a whirlwind change of fortune that, in the space of 10 competitive games, saw the team go from facing the likes of Croatia and the Netherlands to lining up against Canada and the USA. A year ago, with just 15 seconds left, Britain snatched promotion in Budapest thanks to a late, late goal. In that time-out, head coach Pete Russell had to remind his team that they were capable of overcoming adversity.
And it came off. Slowly but surely. A turnover in the French end went to Ben O’Connor. His pass fed Robert Dowd who went one-on-one with Florian Hardy and put GB back in the game. Another turnover saw the puck, eventually, recycled to O’Connor at the point. His shot was padded away by Hardy but dropped to Mike Hammond who batted in his fourth goal of the World Championship. That’s four times as many as Alexander Ovechkin, Stanley Cup winner and arguably the greatest player in the world, has managed in this year’s competition. 3-2, game on.
“After that third goal we needed to take a breath, compose ourselves and just re-assign ourselves, get ready,” O’Connor reflected. “They scored three goals in five shots, we thought we could do the same. And we did. We started with one, we built on that, we got two and they started to panic.
“Their defence were tired, we were making them go back and get pucks all night and they didn’t like that. We’ve got some quick forwards, that’s how we scored the overtime goal. Just bat it down, get after it, chase it to the front and goal!”
Robert Farmer completed the fightback, tying the game in the third period, and from that point on it felt like Britain had the game. And this was no hurly-burly, dump and chase hockey; no crude, up and at ‘em play. GB controlled the puck, passed it smoothly, probed the tiring French defence in search of vulnerabilities. Even a late power play for France passed with few alarms.
Then came overtime. By this time, a clutch of journalists – mostly British – had gathered near the mixed zone waiting for the end. The tournament organisers had two teams of flag bearers on standby, one holding a Tricolore, the other with the Union Jack. The tension cut through the chill of the ice. France swarmed forward, blue jerseys buzzing around Ben Bowns’ net. From the opposite end of the rink it was hard to make out what was happening as Sacha Treille was denied by a huge pad save from the Cardiff Devils goalie.
A breakaway, relief for a stretched British defence. A gap in the French lines – ‘once more unto the breach’ – and captain Jon Phillips streaked down the ice. A stumble, a recovery, a pass to the front of the net and Ben Davies, who had misjudged a glorious opportunity in the first minute of the game, enjoyed total redemption as he beat Hardy and secured a famous victory.
Quarter of a century since Britain’s last appearance at this level, an appearance that ended in heartache as late Norwegian goals sank us in a relegation play-off, a British team had won a game in the Elite Pool. That hadn’t happened since 1962 against Finland.
Davies’ goal grabbed the headlines but was the first to acknowledge that this was a supreme team effort. “It feels incredible,” he said. “Bownsy made some unbelievable saves to keep us in the game, we had to kill a penalty with four minutes to go. The boys just put everything on the line throughout the tournament and we just knew if we just stuck it with we could get it done.”
And the winning goal? “Jonno just told me to put it in front, he’s the fastest guy on the team, he’s the captain so I have to listen to him. I put it in front, he got to the puck first and threw it out, two D-men went to him and I just got a chance on my own in front of the net.
“Absolutely, it made up for that chance at the start. When I knew that wasn’t one of my players to the side, I wanted that back instantly. I’m so glad we could get that done in the end.”
Steel Arena, Kosice, Slovakia
May 20, 2019. IIHF World Championship
France 3 (Rech 2, Treille) Great Britain 4 OT (Dowd, Hammond, Farmer, Davies)