‘They believe they can win’: Inside Great Britain’s push to earn the respect of the hockey world

‘They believe they can win’: Inside Great Britain’s push to earn the respect of the hockey world
Tony Hand, the Gretzkyesque scorer who made mincemeat of defences in Great Britain’s best hockey leagues for 34 seasons, came to a rare realization shortly after he arrived at the 1994 world championships in Bolzano, Italy. His team had next-to-no chance to win a game — or even to preserve its dignity.

“We weren’t prepared back then,” said Hand, who retired in 2015 with a career tally of more than 4,000 points, but had zero goals and zero assists that spring at Bolzano’s PalaOnda arena. “Teams were just skating through us. We were forechecking. Guys were just skating past us like we weren’t there.”

Hand and the rest of the British men’s national team didn’t hold a training camp or play an exhibition game together before they sputtered to an 0-5 record at that year’s worlds, the federation’s most recent appearance in the tournament’s elite division. The Brits lost 12-3 to Russia, fell 10-2 to the host Italians and dropped a surprisingly close 8-2 decision to the eventual champions, Canada. Physically, Hand says, they simply weren’t fit to share an ice sheet with giants of the sport.

No one would mistake Britain for a hockey powerhouse these days, but the team’s prospects of coming away with at least one victory will be much brighter when it returns to the top division next year. Late last month, Britain placed first in the second tier of the IIHF’s annual championships, cinching promotion when a desperate shot from the bottom of the left circle found its way into the goal with 15 seconds left in regulation in their final game.

British forward Robert Farmer celebrates the goal he scored with 15 seconds left in regulation against Hungary at the Division I, Group A world championships on April 28. Dean Woolley / Handout / Ice Hockey UK

The lower rungs of the world championships never attract much notice in Canada, where even the main competition, which is about to enter the knockout stage, is seen as secondary to the Stanley Cup playoffs. But Britain’s last-gasp win over Hungary in the Division I, Group A tournament finale in Budapest on April 28 was met with jubilation from players, coaches, officials and fans on that side of the ocean. In 12 months’ time, they will get long-awaited rematches with the Canadas and Russias of the world, to whom they will be eager to prove that they can play.

“I’ve never seen a Great Britain team work so hard,” said Hand, who is now the head coach of Britain’s national developmental program. “Every player on the ice gave everything they could. There were no passengers. I think Britain has to play that way, because obviously, you’re playing a lot of skilful teams. (But) people underestimate how good some of these players are.”

Unbeknown to most Canadians who don’t make a habit of trawling the Wikipedia entries of long-ago Olympics, the early years of hockey history are specked with British successes on the grandest stages of the game. Led by recruits with English bloodlines who were born and raised in Canada, Great Britain won a bronze medal at the 1924 Winter Games in France and came away with Olympic gold at Germany in 1936. The Brits had finished third at the world championships a year prior and won silver in 1937 and 1938, shortly before the competition was shelved for the duration of the Second World War.

The immediate aftermath of the war was the last time Great Britain fit the profile of a respectable hockey country. Their men’s team hasn’t qualified for the Olympics since 1948. Britain was ranked No. 24 in the world going into this year’s world championships, directly behind Ukraine, Japan, Poland and Hungary. And even though dozens of NHL alumni were born in England or Scotland — from the influenza-stricken Hall of Famer Joe Hall to Steve Smith, Steve Thomas and Byron Dafoe — none of those players were raised in their native country, meaning the next born-and-bred Brit to rise to prominence in North America will be the first. (Hand had tryouts with the Gretzky-era Oilers in 1986 and 1987, but was cut each time.)

British forward Brett Perlini skates against Italy at the Division I, Group A world championships on April 27. Dean Woolley / Handout / Ice Hockey UK

As recently as last year, Britain was stuck playing in the third division of the world championships, known as Division I, Group B, where it had languished since going winless in the Group A tournament in 2013. The program had by then spent the whole 21st century vacillating between the two pools, never performing quite well enough to vault back into the top flight. But people around the team say the quality of play in Britain’s Elite Ice Hockey League has increased dramatically in the past five years. Players have become stronger and more mobile; they battle harder for the puck and make quicker decisions when it winds up on their stick. Peter Russell, the head coach of the national team, calls the EIHL “the best-kept secret in Europe,” and says its 20 or 30 best homegrown players — the group from which he selects his roster each year — are just as good as the imports who arrive from elsewhere on the continent or North America.

“We’ve got a really good league over here that a lot of people wouldn’t really rate,” said British forward Brett Perlini, who led the EIHL’s Nottingham Panthers in scoring this season before winning the MVP award at the world championships. “Guys are hungry for it. They believe they can win. You put the work ethic in and next thing you know, we’re going up.”

2017-18 was Perlini’s first season in the EIHL, and the five games he played at worlds were his first appearances with the British national team. Though he was born in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., during the hockey off-season in June 1990, he grew up in Guildford, England, in the thick of his father’s pro career. Fred Perlini was a Toronto Maple Leafs farmhand in the early 1980s and spent his last decade as a player bouncing between teams in Britain, including the Guildford Flames. In his spare time, Fred conducted frequent shooting lessons in the family driveway — essential practice sessions that bolstered Brett’s hopes of pursuing the game himself.

To compensate for the lack of ice time on offer to the youth of Guildford — the 80,000-person town only has one rink — Brett Perlini played for four or five minor hockey teams each season as a kid, often competing a few age groups above his own. At age 14, he moved back to Sault Ste. Marie to live with his uncle and to progress through the Canadian bantam, midget and junior ranks. That decision laid the groundwork for a four-year college career at Michigan State and a five-season stint in the East Coast Hockey League. A British teenager longing for a similar future would have to turn pro before they’re old enough to drive — and, quite possibly, before they’re mature enough to face off against grown men.

“It can be done over in England. I just feel I had a better opportunity going into the Canadian system at that time,” Perlini said. So did his younger brother Brendan, who moved to Sault Ste. Marie with the rest of the family in 2007, when he was 11, and went on to star for the Ontario Hockey League’s Niagara IceDogs. The NHL’s No. 12 overall draft pick in 2014, he just wrapped up his second season with the Arizona Coyotes.

British forward Liam Kirk warms up for a game against Italy at the Division I, Group A world championships on April 27. Dean Woolley / Handout / Ice Hockey UK

The question of whether Britain will ever send a prospect of its own to the NHL may be answered in the next several seasons, depending on how an 18-year-old forward named Liam Kirk continues to develop. Kirk scored nine goals and 16 points in 52 games this past season with the EIHL’s Sheffield Steelers and took a regular shift for Britain at the world championships, his latest steps in the alternative timeline the Perlinis could have lived had they stayed in England as teens. Kirk turned pro in 2015-16, his 16-year-old season, and scored at a point-per-game clip in a league one level below the EIHL in 2016-17. Listed at six-foot-two and 160 pounds, he is slight at this stage of his career, but Russell and Hand say he compensates with speed, scoring touch, confident puckhandling and hockey intelligence beyond his years.

Kirk is expected to jump from the EIHL to the major junior Canadian Hockey League next season, the consensus best move for his progression. As Russell and Hand say, it would be nice for him to get the chance to dominate against his opponents his age. In Britain, the more immediate hope is that an NHL team will take a flyer on him this June at the entry draft. The league’s Central Scouting Bureau has ranked Kirk 65th among eligible international skaters, suggesting he has an outside shot at being selected. (The Calgary Flames drafted last year’s No. 65 international skater, Swedish winger Filip Sveningsson, in the seventh round, the first time since 2014 that the player in that slot was picked.)

“I’ve got a feeling: I think he’s good. You see him in a game and he adds something,” Russell said. “Good coaches and good teams are always looking for something different. I think he’s got something different.”

To Perlini, the quality that will allow Kirk or another youngster of commensurate talent to break the British barrier will be unwavering self-belief: “Sticking with it, never doubting yourself.” It is the characteristic that keyed the national team’s breakthrough at the world championships, where they could have fallen prey to doubts of their own in recent years. In 2015, two years after they were last relegated to Group B, Britain missed out on promotion to Group A by finishing second behind South Korea, even though they won their matchup with the Koreans 3-2. (South Korea made its debut in the top flight at worlds this year, but will be demoted back to Group A after going winless with a goal differential of minus-44.) In 2016, Britain finished second in Group B once again, felled this time by a 2-1 loss to the champion Ukrainians in their last game.

Last year, though, Britain went unbeaten in five contests in Group B, outscoring their opponents 32-5 to secure a return to the tournament’s second tier. There, playing in front of sparse crowds at the Budapest Sports Arena in Hungary late last month, they entered the final game of the round robin in third place, needing merely to force the home team to overtime to finish first.

In the daze of the post-game celebration, after Britain had waited out the meaningless extra period and won in a shootout, a sweaty, beaming Farmer admitted to interviewers that his golden goal was more than a touch fortunate. “Rubbish,” he called it. Given a bit of time to reflect, and knowing precisely what it had delivered, his coach had a different take.

“People don’t think it was a great goal,” Russell said. “I think it was the best goal I’ve ever seen.”

British players celebrate their Division I, Group A world championship title on April 28. Dean Woolley / Handout / Ice Hockey UK

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