The first-year expansion Vegas Golden Knights made it within three games of a Stanley Cup title. Tiger Woods nearly won his first major tournament in years. And, of course, England nearly erased decades of international soccer hurt with a run to the semifinals of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
Despite the fact that the Three Lions nearly “brought football home,” their run was not the most improbable sports story to come from the British Isles this year.
That distinction belongs to the Great Britain ice hockey team, who earned promotion to the top division of the IIHF with a gold medal run at the Division IA World Championship in Budapest, Hungary in April.
You read that right. Great Britain will be competing with the likes of Russia, Sweden and Canada at the 2019 IIHF World Championship in Slovakia next May.
It was a run as unexpected as they come in sports. And as those on the ice and in the board rooms of British ice hockey tell it, they didn’t expect it either.
The British Standard
You might not know it, but Britain has a hockey history. In the early days of the modern Olympics, Great Britain was often in medal contention. The national team took home bronze medal at the 1924 Olympics in Chamonix, France and the gold medal at the 1936 Olympics held in Nazi Germany. That team was filled with dual-national British-Canadians.
However, since then, Britain has been toiling in the middle ranks of international ice hockey. Team GB made it back to the top division in 1994, but was routed at the World Championship in Italy. The team went 0-5 and was outscored 44 to seven.
The team had another chance to get back to the top division in 2001, but lost it in heartbreaking fashion. Going into the final day of the Division I Group B World Championship in Slovenia, Britain and the host nation were battling it out for promotion to the top flight. The two teams had the exact same record, meaning wins by both teams on the final day put the teams’ fate in the hands of goal differential. Britain took down Kazakhstan 11-2, so Slovenia needed to beat Estonia by a massive margin in order to get promoted.
Slovenia won 16-0.
That was forward Colin Shields’ first year on the British national team. He was selected in the sixth round of the 2000 NHL Draft by the Philadelphia Flyers, and as a young kid on a team full of veterans, he couldn’t grasp the gravity of what just happened.
“I think back then all of the older guys were devastated and just couldn’t believe what happened and how close we were. At the time, I was just like ‘Oh it doesn’t matter, we’ll get ‘em next year’ type thing.”
“Now, here we are.”
Since then, Shields has seen it all, including another near-miss in 2011 when a Kazakhstan overtime win in the last game of the tournament kept Britain out of the top division yet again. It’s been a lot of heartbreak and a lot of frustration.
However, last year, there was a glimmer of hope. The team hosted the 2017 IIHF Division IB World Championship in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and dominated the tournament en route to promotion to Division IA, something the team hadn’t done since 2013.
All of that history and frustration led up to the 2018 Division IA Championship in Budapest. However, promotion to the top flight didn’t seem to be in the cards.
“Something we never really felt like we were close with,” Shields said of winning Division IA. “Even the last few years we were sort of in the lower division and just battling to get back up to this division because we were up here for a couple of years, so it seemed so far away and didn’t seem like something that was realistic.”
The Run in Budapest
Great Britain’s magical run to glory was almost derailed before it could begin.
In a pre-tournament tune-up match, British forward Evan Mosey took a hit, fell awkwardly and went down in pain. He had broken his leg in three places and would miss the tournament. Mosey had eight points in five games in the 2017 Division IB Championship, so the team had to find a way to replace his production.
With or without Mosey, the expectations weren’t high for the team.
“Coming into this tournament, there’s no doubt that most people didn’t expect us to do too well,” said Andy Buxton, Great Britain’s general manager. “They thought we’d be competitive, but probably we would be the ones most likely to get relegated.”
Great Britain started the tournament on the right foot with a win over Slovenia, but followed it up with a 6-1 loss at the hands of Kazakhstan. A win over one of the top teams in the division followed up by a tough loss created a whirlwind to start the tournament for the team.
“I think winning that game was just a huge upset,” Shields said of the win over Slovenia. “We had a power play that was sort of clicking, it was running well in practice. We had two power-play goals and a goal after the power plays, but right after that we played Kazakhstan the next day and got dusted I think 6-1. We were brought back down to Earth pretty quickly there.”
Then came the matchup with Poland that would determine Great Britain’s path forward through the tournament. Down 3-2 in the third period, Britain peppered Poland with three goals in the final frame to win and set themselves up nicely for a championship run. A few other games fell in their favor, and a victory over Italy put them in position to control their own destiny going into the final day and a showdown with hosts Hungary.
April 28, 2018: The Final Day
On the last day of the tournament, five different teams could possibly earn promotion. Kazakhstan beat Poland 6-1 to keep themselves in the discussion. In a moment of poetic justice for Britain, Slovenia fell to Italy 3-2 in a wild game to eliminate them from promotion contention. With both teams needing a regulation win to have a shot at promotion, both teams pulled their goalies in the final minutes and Italy found the empty-netter.
Going into the final matchup, Britain needed a win or overtime loss against the host country in front of a packed arena to advance. But, they found themselves down 2-0 late in the third period. The team dug deep, though, and clawed back in with a goal from Robert Dowd at 10:55 of the third to cut the deficit in half.
With three minutes left, Great Britain’s lethal power play had a chance to strike, but it was quickly squandered by a Hungary breakaway that turned into a penalty shot. But, as he had done all tournament, goalie Ben Bowns stood tall and shut the door.
“You could tell everyone was buzzing because we were clicking and you thought that might be it there that we were gonna score and then they got that penalty shot and it was like ‘oh man what’s going to happen here,'” Shields said. “Bowns made an unbelievable save. I don’t think anyone thought it would come right down to the wire like it did.”
After more tense moments in front of a raucous Hungarian crowd, it came down to one last face-off. With time winding down, a scramble of players kept the puck in the British offensive zone. The puck found its way to Robert Farmer’s stick, and he moved down the half-wall and fired the puck towards the net, almost like the Chicago Blackhawks’ Patrick Kane did in Game Six of the 2010 Stanley Cup Final.
For the first, and only, time in the tournament for Farmer, the puck slid past the line and in.
Britain had tied it at the end of regulation, and that’s all they needed.
That created an awkward moment when the regulation buzzer sounded.
“I think when the final buzzer went, I actually jumped on the ice and threw all my equipment and got to the pile and someone said ‘Hey get off the ice there’s overtime still,'” Shields said. “I got my gloves and helmet and went back to the bench. At this point, you almost didn’t realize kind of what happened.”
Great Britain went on to win in a shootout, sending themselves and Italy to the top division and into the limelight of the British sporting public.
Finding a Place
Turn on NBC Sports Network on any Saturday or Sunday morning and you can see that Britain loves its sports. Soccer and rugby fandom is passed down from generation to generation all across the United Kingdom.
In a nation where sport is embedded in the national culture, hockey has taken time to find a place. The national league of Great Britain, the Elite Ice Hockey League (EIHL) is in 12 markets across England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. According to Buxton, hockey has a home in those markets, but has failed to stretch its influence broadly beyond the pale of those rinks.
In that sense, Great Britain could be looking at a hockey boom like Nashville saw once the Predators became successful.
“We are a sport-loving nation,” Buxton said. “The people that have seen and been exposed to hockey over here, they have fallen in love with it. It is very popular in the areas where we have this kind of level of team. The interest from the likes of TV and sponsors and the likes. It’s driven really from the success of the national team.”
“I honestly believe we could see something similar. It’ll take a few years for it to develop. It won’t happen overnight, but this could be one thing you consider a great push, a little nudge up the next couple of steps and we can go from there. I’d certainly love to think that.”
Part of that growth will also likely come from phenom Liam Kirk, a native of Maltby, England who was selected by the Arizona Coyotes in the 2018 NHL Draft. Having a British player make the NHL could give the game exposure back home, similar to the way Australians rallied around the Washington Capitals’ Nathan Walker after he made the big league.
The impact of the national team playing at the top division and Kirk’s NHL journey could be felt twofold: in the British player development model and in increased investment both in terms of the on-ice product and off-ice marketing.
Where there are ice rinks, youth hockey thrives, but there’s no middle step between playing at the youth level and getting to the professional ranks. There are no junior teams and no top-level university teams.
Shields hope that changes.
“For kids at 15-16, there’s no jump, there’s no major junior or university or college setup, so there is a big gap for kids and the kids that can afford to go to other countries, maybe in Europe or in North America, that’s great,” he said. “But for a lot of other kids, they end up just packing it in or sort of not being able to develop with those key years.”
“I think hopefully that us being in that top level, we can give some more of an urgency to try and create that stepping stone for those kids to show them that if you can stick in with it and dedicate yourself that you will be able to become a full-time professional and there will be a place for you to play.”
On the marketing side, Buxton hopes that making the top division can demonstrate that the on-ice product is worth getting involved in.
“I think we have an opportunity now,” he said. “I think the powers- that-be that govern our sport in the UK have to take a good look and think that we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, once-in-a-generation opportunity, certainly to see if we can use this to really grow the sport to get more businesses, more councils, more rinks, more everything. What can we do to give people the opportunity?”
Great Britain will enter the 2019 IIHF World Championship in Group A and will have to face off against perennial hockey powers like the United States, Canada and Finland. It will be a tall task to stay up in the top flight, but in a way, the team’s result in Slovakia next year matters far less than the impact of the team’s mere presence.
It’s about growing the game at the grassroots level. It’s about getting a sport-crazed nation to trade in their soccer scarves for hockey sweaters. It’s about turning on the TV and seeing British-born players wearing the Union Jack, or in a certain case, a Coyotes sweater.
That’s what keeps Buxton going and what drew him back to the national team while continuing in his role as chairman of the EIHL’s Coventry Blaze.
“I feel really good about where we’ve taken the national team and what it may do for future British players in this country,” Buxton said. “I love watching all the imported players, they’re fantastic, but my motivation really is to see the British players develop and do well and the pure British side of the game continue to develop and more people play and more interested and more opportunities and where they believe that they can go somewhere in the game.”
For Shields, it’s about fulfilling a lifelong dream. He’s played everywhere from Maine to San Diego to Idaho to Belfast. Getting to play at the top level was something he thought was beyond reach.
He’ll be 39 when he takes the ice in Slovakia, and he’ll take nothing for granted.
“I just didn’t think, especially at 38 now, I never thought I’d have the opportunity to play at that level. It’s something that you’ll remember forever and even this tournament you’ll remember forever and I’m really looking forward to next year.”