Ice Hockey World Championship: Great Britain relish return to top league

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GB return to elite level with win over Hungary - highlights
2019 Men's Ice Hockey World Championship
Venue: Bratislava & Kosice, Slovakia Dates: 10-26 May
Coverage: Live radio commentary on Great Britain's matches on BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra, BBC Sport website and app

For the first time in 25 years, Great Britain's men's team will be rubbing shoulders with the sport's elite at the Ice Hockey World Championship.

Britain sealed their place in this year's tournament - which starts in Slovakia on Friday - with a dramatic overtime win against Hungary in Budapest last year.

After years in the international doldrums, Britain will come up against giants of the sport - the likes of 26-time world champions Canada, the mighty United States and Olympic silver medallists Germany.

Canada and Olympic champions Russia will start as favourites, closely followed by Sweden and the USA.

At 22 in the world, Pete Russell's GB side are the lowest-ranked team in the championship and will be hoping to win one game, so what chance have they got in Slovakia?

Exciting times for British ice hockey fans

Great Britain ice hockey team celebrate beating Hungary
Great Britain celebrate after beating Hungary in overtime to qualify for the elite-level World Championship

On the domestic front, ice hockey in the UK has enjoyed its fair share of ups and downs since the last time GB were in sport's top flight in 1994.

The standard is high, with a mix of British and import players from the likes of Canada, United States, Sweden and Finland. The fan support is big too, with Elite League champions Belfast and play-off champions Cardiff, as well as Nottingham and Sheffield, all drawing sell-out crowds.

Internationally, however, it has been a harder sell. After a good stint under Paul Thompson, GB dropped to their lowest point since the early 1990s when they were relegated to the third tier.

With few people interested in the coaching job, Russell was appointed to pick up the pieces in January 2015. A fiery Scot who seems to thrive in the spotlight of a big tournament, he has overseen back-to-back promotions.

The 44-year-old has a strong group of players who understand what it takes to play at the top level and while they know the task ahead, they are keen to be history-makers.

Russell's message to his players will be simple - be competitive, be aggressive, but don't give away too many chances; play with emotion and physicality, but stay on the right side of the refs.

This is a hugely tough task, but one the players will relish. Win a game and it might be enough to stay up, win two and you have probably guaranteed it.

These are exciting times for British ice hockey fans and whatever the result they will enjoy the ride and the experience of seeing their players compete with the very best on the planet.

Great opportunity for GB's star players

Great Britain's Liam Kirk in action against Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod
Great Britain's Liam Kirk, here in action for Great Britain, hopes to break through to play in the NHL

So, who will be the main players for GB?

Ben Bowns - Cardiff Devils' netminder has won everything domestically and will probably need to be GB's best player if they are to avoid relegation back to the second tier.

Big and strong, Bowns has an ability to make spectacular saves and also has a calm streak when things go wrong in front of him. A good tournament could lead to a life-changing contract in North America, Russia or Sweden.

Ben O'Connor - the Sheffield Steelers defenceman is a player who will get you off your seat. A great skater and skilled player who will be crucial when Britain have power-play chances. Ben's dad Mike was part of the GB team that last played in the top flight 25 years ago.

Few who saw it will ever forget the penalty shot he scored in Eindhoven against South Korea a few years ago, a goal which went global and saw him praised on Canadian and American TV.

Liam Kirk - the first British-trained player to be drafted to the NHL, the top league in the world, Kirk has been playing in the top junior league in Canada for the past season, learning all about playing the North American game.

Still only 19, a good performance here will boost his chances of going on to make it in the NHL with his draft side Arizona Coyotes. From a GB perspective, Russell just needs him to contribute at both ends of the ice. Scoring goals will be without doubt GB's biggest challenge in Kosice.

What should we expect from GB?

Saturday, 11 May

Great Britain v Germany (15:15 BST) - commentary on BBC Sport website

A tough start against the Olympic silver medallists but this will be one of the games that Russell is targeting. His side will be fresh and they face a German side who have brought in a number of new players since the Olympics.

Whilst the top league in Germany is a very good standard, British sides have had some success against German sides in the Champions Hockey League.

Championship format
There are two groups of eight with the top four from each qualifying for the quarter-finals
The bottom team in each group will be relegated to Division 1A in 2020
GB are in Group A and will play all seven pool matches in Kosice
The last time GB played in the elite league in 1994 they failed to earn a point

Sunday, 12 May

Great Britain v Canada (19:15) - live on BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra

The most intimidating sight in hockey is a Canada shirt bearing down on net at a major international tournament. Despite the Stanley Cup play-offs still continuing in North America this Canadian team will be one to watch.

Canada have been world champions 26 times, so GB better be ready to hang on. Take any liberties and they will no doubt pay the price.

Tuesday, 14 May

Great Britain v Denmark (15:15) - live on the BBC Sport website

This is another of the games that Britain must target if they are going to stay up. Denmark have improved since a serious revamp of their domestic league 15 years ago.

But Britain need to get points from somewhere and a good performance here could see them do that.

Wednesday, 15 May

Great Britain v USA (15:15) - live on BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra

The Americans are led by Chicago's Patrick Kane, a free-scoring forward who a few years ago signed an eye-watering eight-year $84m contract.

In contrast, the top GB players earn around £30,000-50,000 a year. The financial gulf is massive; hopefully the gulf in standard will be a little smaller.

Friday, 17 May

Great Britain v Finland (19:15) - live on the BBC Sport website

The fast-skating Finns ooze skill and scoring. They have a sprinkling of NHL talent, but their European-based players are quality and will all want to show what they can do.

Their head coach knows all about British ice hockey - Jukka Jalonen coached the Newcastle Jesters, then owned by Finnish owners, back in the early 2000s.

Saturday, 18 May

Great Britain v Slovakia (19:15) - live on BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra

A Saturday night date with the hosts won't be one for the weak of heart. Ice hockey is the national sport of Slovakia and they will expect a comprehensive victory.

Tomas Tartar is one of their stars and will give the GB defence a real test. The two teams met in the build-up and Slovakia skated to a comfortable win.

Monday, 20 May

Great Britain v France (15:15) - live on BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra

The most-important hockey game GB has faced in a generation, this will most likely turn out to be a winner-takes-all final fixture.

Win and Great Britain will probably have another year in the top flight, lose and it could well mean relegation. If they win then a place in the quarter-finals will be at stake, but only the most optimistic of GB fans will be putting that date in the calendar.

Great Britain squad

Netminders: Ben Bowns (Cardiff), Thomas Murdy (Cardiff), Jackson Whistle (Sheffield).

Defencemen: Tim Billingsley (Nottingham), Dallas Ehrhardt (Manchester), Steve Lee (Nottingham), Evan Mosey (Cardiff), Ben O'Connor (Sheffield), David Phillips (Sheffield), Mark Richardson (Cardiff), Paul Swindlehurst (Belfast).

Forwards: Ollie Betteridge (Nottingham), Ben Davies (Guildford), Robert Dowd (Sheffield), Robert Farmer (Nottingham), Luke Ferrara (Coventry), Mike Hammond (Manchester), Liam Kirk (Peterborough), Robert Lachowicz (Nottingham), Ben Lake (Coventry), Joey Lewis (Kaufbeuren, Ger), Matthew Myers (Cardiff), Brett Perlini (Nottingham), Jonathan Phillips (Sheffield), Colin Shields (Belfast).

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