This morning, 23 men boarded a plane at Heathrow Airport. Their destination is Riga in Latvia, their hopes sky-high, and their mission already dismissed as impossible by many.
From Cardiff and Glasgow, Basingstoke and Sheffield, and even Sweden and Kazakhstan they come, coming together with the hopes of a nation on their shoulders and the chance to achieve something impossible.
The Team GB men’s ice hockey team face one last hurdle before possibly getting their chance to represent their country in Sochi for the 2014 Winter Olympics. Standing in their way are Latvia, France and Kazakhstan, all ranked higher in the IIHF rankings (Latvia are 11, France 14 and Kazakhstan 17).
The Latvians are the big dangers. They have NHL quality on their roster in several players, such as Kaspars Daugavins of the Ottawa Senators, and have played at the Winter Olympics before as recently as 2010. France and the Kazakhs, too, have beaten the Brits before, although GB ran the Kazakhs close last time the two met.
Over the next few days Chasing Dragons will provide a preview of all three games, including who to watch, the dangermen for the opposition, key points to the game and indeed what GB’s chances are.
Ashley Tait has said the GB team will have to play the three best games of their lives to qualify-and there is no doubt whatsoever that they face a MASSIVE task, particularly as their first game is against the hosts.
Things don’t look hopeful, at least superficially. Even many British hockey fans are adopting the attitude of “well, this’ll be a nice weekend out”. The odds are well and truly against the Ice Lions.
But so what? Let’s dream a little, UK hockey.
We British are a nation who have always performed best with our backs against the wall and heavily outnumbered by much stronger opponents.
Nobody realistically expected the British to win versus the French at Agincourt. Or versus The Spanish Armada. Or at Trafalgar. Or Waterloo. Or The Battle Of Britain. But there, British pride, hard work and sheer bloody minded will carried the team through against overwhelming odds. And it can do so again against the combined power of the Latvians, the French and the Kazakhs.
The pressure is all on the opposition to win. Nobody outside of this little island gives our men a prayer.
Sure, hockey in Britain is a minority sport, chaotic in administration, full of icon fusion and infighting between leagues. Sure, the wider sporting public probably knows very little about the efforts made by the GB men, although there is now a little more publicity for them.
But in the veins of these men, there runs the blood of men and women like Owain Glwyndwr, William Wallace, and Queen Elizabeth I. We British are a nation who have a history of facing an almost hopeless fight against much stronger opposition and winning. We may only be a little rock in the North Atlantic, but the people of this little rock have a history of doing great things. We’ve even already won an ice-hockey gold at the Olympics, which is more than any of our opponents have done. (and so what if it was won in 1936?)
Thirty years ago, a team full of amateurs who no-one gave a chance took on the powerhouses of the world game and won. That team was the Miracle on Ice USA squad.
The tournament in Latvia can be Team GB’s own miracle. All the rhetoric up until now has focused on the impossibility of the task they face. It’s time to switch the perspective.
When the GB Lions step out onto Riga ice tomorrow to confront twenty opposition players and the 14,000-strong horde of Latvian fans, there will be a small island of red, white and blue in the crowd…a swell of English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish under the screams of Latvian.
But invisible alongside them, tens of thousands of GB ice hockey fans. From Braehead to Basingstoke, Belfast to Bracknell, or Aberdeen in the north to Gosport on the Isle of Wight, anyone who spends the long, dark nights of winter inside a British ice rink will be with the Lionhearts, roaring them on. Steeler will join with Panther, Capital with Flyer and even Blaze with Devil, because whatever our club affiliation, we’re all proud to call this little rock in the North Atlantic home.
It’s time to make history. Skate for Shakespeare, Dylan Thomas, Oscar Wilde and Burns. Fight for Cúchulainn, Rabbie Bruce, Churchill and Victoria.
And men of Great Britain, in the icy cauldron of Riga Arena, may the hockey gods be with you this weekend.
Good luck, boys.