The coronavirus pandemic meant the ice hockey year was once again disrupted, but there were still many bright spots for Great Britain in 2021.
From a stunning win for GB Men over Belarus at the World Championship and Liam Kirk ending as the tournament’s joint-leading goalscorer, GB Women attracting close to 2,000 supporters for a final-day decider in the Olympic Qualifiers in Nottingham, Casey Traill creating UK ice hockey history and a bronze medal for GB Under-20s in Brasov, there’s still been plenty of high points in the past 12 months.
GB impress again at the World Championship
It was another remarkable World Championship for Great Britain in Latvia as they surpassed their points tally from the 2019 tournament in Slovakia.
GB picked up four points in a group containing Russia, Slovakia, Denmark, Belarus, Sweden, Czech Republic and Switzerland.
The tournament was played in a strict bubble in two venues in Riga, with GB based at the Olympic Sports Centre over the road from Arena Riga.
Players and staff were only allowed in the rink or hotel and there was regular testing before and during the competition.
The standout result was the 4-3 victory over Belarus with Kirk scoring twice, while Ben Davies and Mike Hammond were also on target. It was a first regulation-time win for GB at the top level since 1962.
There were other memorable moments too as GB took Denmark to overtime before losing 3-2 – a side they were beaten 9-0 by in 2019.
Great Britain finished seventh in Group A which saw them move up to 16th in the world rankings.
Assistant coach, Adam Keefe, said: “It was a heck of an effort and they have done everyone proud. They can leave with their heads held high.
“One of Pete Russell’s mantras for this tournament was ‘never give up’ and we feel the players did that. Despite some tough nights, they never gave up and kept going for a full 60 minutes.
“As a result of that, some of the results against the world’s best teams were kept to a reasonable amount. As we were competing for the full 60 minutes it allowed us to stay in those games.
“And they deserve all the credit in the world for their victory over Belarus – it was a very special moment for an amazing group of players.”
Kirk sets the hockey world alight
And then there was superstar Kirk. He burst onto the world stage with seven goals in seven games and finished as the tournament’s joint-leading goalscorer alongside Andrew Mangiapane, who was part of Canada’s gold medal-winning side.
Kirk scored in both of GB’s opening games of the tournament against Russia and Slovakia.
After netting twice in Britain’s historic 4-3 victory over Belarus, he added to his tally against Sweden and scored twice in GB’s final game against Switzerland.
He was also named on the tournament’s All-Star team and a month later signed a three-year entry-level contract with Arizona Coyotes – the side who had selected him in the seventh round of the 2018 NHL Draft.
All-Star Team selected by the media
GK: Jussi Olkinuora (FIN)
DE: Korbinian Holzer (GER)
DE: Moritz Seider (GER)
FW: Andrew Mangiapane (CAN)
FW: Conor Garland (USA)
FW: Liam Kirk (GBR)
GB Women hit new heights in Olympic Qualifiers
Great Britain Women had a coaching change in May with Mike Clancy taking over from Cheryl Smith and his first tournament was the Olympic Qualifiers in Nottingham in October.
Despite just missing out on the next stage of qualifying, the performances of the the team will long live in the memories of those present or watching live on FreeSports.
GB opened the tournament with a 5-0 win over Iceland thanks to goals from Katherine Gale, Beth Hill, Aimee Headland, Saffron Allen and Casey Traill.
Lucy Beal was on target in game two but GB were narrowly beaten 2-1 by Slovenia, which set-up the tournament decider against Korea.
GB knew their fate – they had to win by two goals. It was an heroic performance against a side seven places above them in the world rankings.
Louise Adams scored in the second period and netminder Nicole Jackson posted a 25-shot shutout in a 1-0 victory, but they fell one goal short and it was Korea who progressed through to the next stage.
Record attendances and no covid cases
The tournament captured the imagination of young and old alike, setting new records for the women’s game in this country.
GB’s opening-day victory over Iceland broke the attendance record for a women’s ice hockey match in the UK – and this was broken again in the defeat by Slovenia the following night.
The final-day crowd against Korea saw 1,700 people in the National Ice Centre and those in attendance in Nottingham created so much noise it was like the arena was full to capacity.
But it wasn’t just the GB games that reached new audiences as the matches between Slovenia and Korea, as well as Iceland and Korea, were watched by hundreds of schoolchildren in a joint-venture between the Motorpoint Arena and Ice Hockey UK.
The tournament was played in a bubble with regular testing and there was not a single positive case from over 800 tests conducted during the week in Nottingham.
The covid protocols were overseen by IHUK’s Chief Medical Officer Matt Robbins, Tournament Doctor Marina Chitoni and Mike Hicks, who was a part of the Organising Committee.
Ice Hockey UK General Secretary, Andy French, said: “On behalf of the federation, I would like to send sincere thanks to the team for their work over the past few weeks.
“Organising any tournament is complicated but this was on a different level. Doctor Matt Robbins has taken the lead regarding all covid matters and returning zero positive results is a fantastic achievement.”
Traill creates history
Earlier in the year in June, Casey Traill created history by becoming the first UK player to be drafted to the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL).
The NWHL is one of the two top women’s professional league in North America – the equivalent to the NHL – and Traill was drafted in the fifth round – 25th overall – by Buffalo Beauts in the 2021 Draft.
She said: “Having the opportunity to be drafted to any team in the NWHL is an absolute honour. It has definitely been a long journey for me, but I could not be more proud to represent British hockey on such a big platform.
“I am extremely grateful to Buffalo for taking a chance on me and hope that I can deliver for them both on and off the ice in the future.
“I wouldn’t be in the position that I am today without the love and continued support from my family, friends and coaches and I look forward to hopefully continuing to make them proud.
“My goal is to inspire other British players to continue to play and push boundaries, even when they think nobody is looking our way because you never know when or how your chance will come.”
Bronze medal for GB U20s
Great Britain Under-20s have recently returned from the World Championship Division II Group A in Brasov with a bronze medal.
GB started the tournament with two successive wins as Logan Neilson scored a hat-trick in a 7-2 victory over Spain.
Bayley Harewood netted twice in a come-from-behind 5-3 success over Lithuania, but GB’s promotion aspirations then faded.
They let a two-goal lead slip to lose 5-4 to Korea after penalty shots and then were beaten 4-3 by hosts Romania, who were relegated on the final day.
GB went into their final game against gold-medal winners Italy knowing a bronze was already secure and they put in an impressive performance, but were beaten 3-2 by the top seeds.
Finley Howells was named Forward of the Tournament and GB’s Player of the Tournament. Neilson and Howells finished as the tournament’s leading point-scorers on eight points, while Neilson led the tournament with six goals.
Head Coach, Martin Grubb said: “We only had two guys on our team who had experienced winning a medal and four who had played at a World Championship before.
“Add in the pandemic and even the uncertainty about travelling to Romania, we at least were able to win a medal.
“Although we are disappointed at the colour, the players will learn and grow from this experience. Thank you on behalf of us all for all the support from back home, it was much appreciated.”
GB U18s continue preparations for 2022 World Championship
Great Britain Under-18s missed out on playing at a World Championship in 2021 with their tournament cancelled as early as November 2020.
But under-18s will travel to Tallinn for the 2022 World Championship Division II Group A from 3rd to 9th April to face hosts Estonia, along with Lithuania, Romania, Korea and Serbia.
After being shut down because of the pandemic, they returned to the ice in June as part of a major men’s and women’s junior camp in Ice Sheffield.
Preparations have continued ever since and in August, Head Coach Sean Easton named the squad who would go forward to trial for the 2022 World Championship roster.
The most recent camp took place just before Christmas and the under-18s coaching staff will name their final World Championship roster in the new year.
National Development Head Coach, Tony Hand, said: “We had some players missing because of mandatory government isolation requirements, but everyone who did attend can take a lot from the camp.
“The intensity was high and the players really benefited from the on and off-ice sessions. I really feel the coaches will have some difficult decisions when selecting the team for Estonia as the level of players throughout the camp was extremely high.”
International action for GB U18 Women
Great Britain Under-18 Women took part in the Four Nations tournament in Reykjavik in November and they ended with a record of one win from their three matches.
A 4-0 defeat by Spain U18 Women was followed by a superb 2-1 victory over Poland U18 Women with GB’s goals coming from captain Chamonix Jackson and Ruby Newlands, while netminder Emma Nichols saved a penalty shot.
They were beaten 2-1 by Iceland Women after penalty shots, but the point was enough to secure second place in the competition.
It was meant to form part of GB’s preparations for the U18 Women’s World Championship Division II in Istanbul, but the tournament was cancelled by the IIHF on Christmas Eve – just two days after GB had named their final roster.
Head Coach, James Ashton, said: “I feel so gutted for the girls who have worked so hard to be on the roster, but totally understand why the decision has been made.
“I know the girls will be devastated the tournament is not happening, but they can be proud they were named on the team. But we will regroup and start the plans for 2023 in the coming weeks.”
Stars of the future with GB U16s Men and Women
Another crucial cog in the GB wheel in 2021 was the return to the ice after the pandemic of the men’s and women’s under-16 teams.
Camps for both sides have been held throughout the year in Ice Sheffield with the stars of the future getting valuable ice-time.
At the June camp in Ice Sheffield, GB players Liam Kirk and Saffron Allen were on hand to talk with the youngsters – two fantastic role models for the players to follow in the footsteps. There was also a two-day men’s junior camp in Dundee.
The men’s and women’s under-16s GB sides are vital in the development of the national team – both men and women – so their return to the ice in 2021 was arguably one of the most important moments of the year.