“It is the nature of man to rise to greatness, if greatness is expected of him”
British hockey fans will tell you that if their international hockey team has historically had a glaring weakness, it’s in goalie development. The annals of British hockey are full of goalies who have been good, even excellent, but through either the vagaries of the UK import system or a perceived weakness compared to goalies from North America or elite European countries, have struggled to establish themselves in top leagues either in the UK or abroad. Indeed, one of the most prominent voices in UK hockey, Sheffield’s Dave Simms, said famously as recently as the late 2000s that “you can’t win the EIHL with a British starting goalie”-pretty much dismissing the efforts of the best British goalies of the modern era in Stevie Lyle and Stephen Murphy as…well, not good enough to win a title. The fact that Murphy (who’s played in Sweden & Norway) then proceeded to go and do so with the Belfast Giants in 2011 after winning a playoff title the year laid this to rest-but there seemed to be no native-born challenger to Murphy for starting goalie for Great Britain.
With British hockey seemingly locked into a pattern for many years of producing goalies who were good, but struggled to match Murphy and break into the EIHL starting group-goalies who looked like they could possibly be the next big thing but somehow never quite made it to the top level-British hockey was desperate for the next big thing in net. A lot of hope finding it in 2011 rested on the shoulders of a teenager from Rotherham, South Yorkshire.
Ben Bowns was, in 2011, already a name being mentioned among those in the know as a possible challenger or even successor to Murphy…the then 18-year-old had developed through the Sheffield junior system at an impressive rate and had just finished his first season as starter for the English Premier League’s Sheffield Steeldogs as well as starting for GB U20s-the question that was being asked now was…could he play well enough to earn himself a chance at an Elite club?
In 2011-12 Bowns went all-out to prove he had the abilty to start in the EPL in a season that saw him record a 2.40 GAA and 93.0 save percentage for a Steeldogs side that was, by EPL standards, not amon the big teams. It was something of a coming-out party for the big (6’2, 212lb) Yorkshireman, and it was the season that brought him to the attention of the wider hockey public in the UK, with a callup to the full GB squad as reserve netminder and proof that the hype was, at least partly, justified…this kid was good.
The next season saw Bowns given the kind of chance rarely given to most British goalies…a starting slot in the EIHL. It would be a tough apprenticeship for him, as he’d move across Yorkshire to start in net for the Hull Stingrays for the next two seasons, recording remarkably similar save percentages and GAA’s (90.5 and 3.35 GAA in 2012/13, and 3.53 GAA and 90.7 last season in Hull as his team made the playoff quarter finals). While those stats may not exactly set the world alight at first glance, it has to be remembered that the Stingrays were a team who struggled slightly defensively those two years (although they made the playoffs on the final day in 13/14)-in short, they gave up a lot of shots and the young starter was given the kind of gruelling apprenticeship that only facing large amounts of rubber night after night can give a netminder-a relentless test of character and mental strength that would have broken some young goalies.
Not this one, though. Bowns stood tall on many a night in a Stingrays jersey and began to knock loudly on the door of other EIHL teams with his play. Stephen Murphy may have been the starter for GB in Bowns’ first world championship trip with the seniors (although in his one start for GB at the Worlds in 2013 Bowns did get a shutout), but his play with Hull meant that, for the first time since Stevie Lyle battled with Murphy, there were two legitimate native-born contenders for the senior international starting job.
It was the 2014 World Championship Div IB in Lithuania that really saw Ben Bowns’ coming-out party as an elite British goalie, though. After an injury to Stephen Murphy in the first GB game, Bowns started the next and seized his opportunity with both hands, having an absolutely superb World Championships of 5 games played with a SV% of 92.0 and a GAA of 1.90-stellar numbers for a 22 year old that earned him rave reviews and the GB Player Of The Tournament award.
Then came this season…the season after the breakout. An offseason which saw Bowns prised away from Yorkshire for the first time to start for the storied Cardiff Devils, a franchise looking to start a new era after a nightmare period. Bowns was trumpeted as a key part of that new team-as starting goalie in front of one of the most passionate crowds in the EIHL every week and on a team that Andrew Lord built hoping to challenge for honours, some wondered whether the now 23-year-old could make the leap from “solid EIHL starter” to “elite EIHL goalie” – especially when he’d make most of his starts in the supposedly tougher Erhardt Conference and face offensive powerhouses like Belfast, Sheffield and Nottingham most nights.
In short, everything Bowns has done up until now has built until this season. The 14/15 season was seen by many as the point where Bowns had to prove himself as an Elite League top-level starter once and for all. He was being challenged by Cardiff to make the leap in league play that he’s already arguably made internationally.
This was, if you like, the final exam.
And so far, it’s a challenge that, in the true fashion of his native county, the still-young goalie has risen to brilliantly. The exam is being passed with flying colours.
It’s not often Welsh people will take an Englishman to their hearts, but Bowns’ performances in net for Cardiff (he’s won 18 games so far his season, third-most in the EIHL among starters, and currently holds a 2.63 GAA and 90.7 SV%) have meant that he’s already been accepted as an honorary Welshman around South Wales. His play in net has been calm, assured and elevated several levels from his already-good efforts in Hull.
What Cardiff fans (and indeed British hockey) are privileged to be seeing at the moment is a young netminder truly coming of age. Ben’s strong, solid, often flawless play and air of quiet confidence in the Devils’ net are all the signs of a man who should be immensely proud of what he’s achieved already and knows for certain that he can get better still. Whenever I’ve seen him play for the Devils his season he’s been one of the standout players on the ice, displaying reactions and positional sense equal to those of any goalie in the EIHL, and making several saves a night that have provoked audible gasps.
While his time with Hull may have been his apprenticeship as an EIHL starter, at the start of this season when he signed for Cardiff, there were still some questions that Bowns had to answer for a lot of hockey watchers:
Can you make the leap to another team and handle the pressure of higher expectations as a starter?
Can you prove without doubt that you’re in the elite of British-born goalies and challenge Stephen Murphy as “best GB-born netminder out there”
Can you produce for Cardiff at a higher level even than you produced for Hull?
So far, the Rotherham-born, Sheffield-trained Bowns has answered all of this questions with the same answer.
Yes. Just watch me.
Cardiff fans love to sing “GB’s number one!” this season when their goalie makes a save in honour of Bowns’ recent international exploits.
And frankly, the way he’s playing now, there’s little to suppose that this season won’t be the year when South Wales’ adopted Yorkshireman makes that spot his own.
And as for that “you can’t win anything with British goalies” thing? Anyone who’s seen Bowns play this season wouldn’t bet against him being a huge part of helping the Devils prove that claim wrong, either.
Ben Bowns has come of age. GB’s young lion has gone through growing up and is now entering his prime-and the best thing about it is…he’s only going to get better still.
Be excited, British hockey. Be very excited indeed.