Lions V The World: GB’s World Championship Preview

This Monday, Great Britain take on the rest of the world in their annual trip to the Ice Hockey World Championships, held this year in Eindhoven, Netherlands. Under new coach Pete Russell (their fourth in as many World Champs) the new young Lions will be taking on S.Korea, Lithuania, Estonia, Croatia and the host country the Netherlands in a bid to return to division 1A, the “second tier” of the World Championships. With a roster containing several new faces and a pair of warm-up wins against Poland giving the team heart, they’ll travel hopeful of returning back up to the second tier of world hockey. But there are five teams standing in their way. Here’s all you need to know about each team ahead of the tournament.

GREAT BRITAIN (ranked 22)

The Lions travel with one of their strongest squads in a while, and also one of their most fresh-faced. Pete Russell hasn’t been shy in ringing the changes in his first World Championships, cutting much of the stalwart older generation of the past few years in favour of youth and speed. Notable GB fixtures to miss out include Jason Hewitt and Ashley Tait as new names Joey Lewis and Jack Prince make the step up, along with Jonathan Boxill, who has been very impressive for Nottingham Panthers since returning from North American juniors two years ago. Josh Batch finally gets a much-deserved chance on defence, too.

This is still a team that will rely heavily on stars like Ben O’Connor on the blue-line and Colin Shields, Rob Dowd and Craig Peacock up front though. In net Ben Bowns goes into his first tournament as unquestioned starter after being one of the goalies of the tournament last year and following it up with a superb season for Cardiff this time round.

The new squad is travelling hopefully after two wins against Poland in the warm-up phase, but its opening game against Croatia is crucial and could set the tone for the tournament-it’ll show just how far they’ve come compared to a comparable hockey power who’ve gone all out to improve their international standing rather than following the “evolution” path favoured by the Brits.

The GB squad will be expecting at least a bronze from this tournament, but are aiming higher still..with a group of new young players beginning to be given their chances and the squad in a transitional phase, it’ll be interesting to see just how good they are.

KEY PLAYER: Ben O’Connor – The defenceman is a leader both in his own zone and going forward, and is the brightest star of this GB team having spent several years in Kazakhstan. Anything good offensively will likely go through him, particularly on the powerplay…he’ll provide most of the blueline impetus going forward and will be expected to be a major contributor on both ends of the ice in this World Championships.

ESTONIA (ranked 29)

The little nation from the Baltic Sea is very much the underdog in this tournament-the Estonians come to this group having been promoted and relegated twice each in the last five years, and are the expected basement team in this group…with only seven rinks in the country and a five-team domestic league, they’re not exactly one of the toughest powers GB will face.

They’re also one of the youngest countries in the entire World Championships, with many of their players under 25 – over half of them, in fact. There is experience, too, in 36-year-old defenceman Lauri Lahesalu and 35-year-old forward Andrei Makrov, but the player to watch is 21-year-old Robert Rooba, who already plays in Finland’s Liiga with Espoo Blues and was key in their promotion effort last year…he’s Estonia’s brightest prospect.

The Estonians won’t be seriously expecting promotion or even to run the big teams close (last time they played GB they were beaten 7-0), but they will hope to play spoiler and will not be underestimated by any opponent.)

KEY PLAYER – Robert Rooba – The young forward is Estonia’s crown jewel of hockey players at the moment, and his speed, energy and experience already at a level much higher than most GB players means he’ll provide a test for GB when they meet.

LITHUANIA (ranked 26)

Last year’s hosts will not, according to reports, have their country’s proudest hockey export Dainius Zubrus on their roster, as the NHLer’s season in New Jersey finishes only two days before this championship starts – but the Lithuanians, like Great Britain, are looking to transition from the old into the new this World Championships. The Lithuanian roster will have a whole bunch of names familiar to British fans – Mindaugas Kieras on defence and Darius Pliskauskas and Donatas Kumeliauskas up front have all spent time in the UK’s EPL, as has Egidijus Bauba, brother of UK cult figure and Lithuanian legend Dino Bauba.

Under a German coach, and with half their team also clubmates at Energija Elektrenai, the Lithuanians know each other well and are sure to be a well-drilled unit-they took bronze last year in their home arena in Vilnius and will have an eye on repeating that showing in Eindhoven. They’re not one of the best teams at the tournament but will likely be well in the mix for a potential medal with GB, and should be watched carefully. However, with the Brits losing 2-1 to them last time out, there’s little to choose between the countries on paper.

KEY PLAYER – Mantas Armalis: The young netminder plays his club hockey in Sweden for Djurgardens Stockholm – and coming from the SEL, you can bet he’ll be well used to facing the quality of shots he’ll face in this tournament. If the Lithuanians can frustrate the stronger attacking teams in this group, they have more than a chance, and Armalis will be key in their strategy.

SOUTH KOREA (ranked 23)

South Korea are an example of what can happen when a team commits fully to improving its domestic programme and puts all available resources into it-few teams have risen as far or as fast in the world rankings (with the possible exception of their opponents in this group, Croatia) and they travel to Eindhoven in clear hope of a gold medal. As well as strong domestic players, the South Koreans have also taken full advantage of the dual-nationality system, with Brock Radunske and Mike Swift being joined at this tournament by former AHLer Mike Testwuide – the 6’5 forward will carry a lot of the weight of expectation this time round after scoring 90 points in 120 games in the Asia league.

Also familiar to British eyes will be centre Woo-Sang Park – the former Coventry Blaze forward is a key contributor for his country. But perhaps the name that will most resonate with British fans is coach Jimmy Paek – a former Stanley Cup winner with Pittsburgh and a Nottingham Panthers legend who is a hockey god in his home country.

Like the Lithuanians, the majority of the Korea squad play for one club team – Anyang Halla, which will ensure that they know each other well. Radunske and Testwuide will likely lead the offensive charge, and the Koreans are a fast, skilled team that will put up a formidable obstacle as they challenge for gold and promotion. They’re also younger and hungrier than the team relegated from Div 1A last season, and with nine players 25 or under, they’re showing the junior investment begun five years ago is also bearing fruit. They, along with Croatia, are the main threats to GB.

KEY PLAYER – Mike Testwuide: Barely granted Korean citizenship in time for the tournament, the big former Adirondack Phantom has been prolific in Asia, scoring over 25 goals in all his seasons there. He has the pace and power to play the North American-style game the British players are used to and will be a force in front of the net, making space for those around him to weave their skills. He’s one of the most dangerous forwards in the tournament.

NETHERLANDS (ranked 25)

The Dutch are in a tricky position this tournament. With a domestic league full of struggles and having recently had support withdrawn from them by the Dutch Olympic committee, the Ijs-Oranje are in something of a downswing as they host this tournament. They’ve competed at Div 1B level since 2000, and have never really threatened either promotion or relegation until last year, where they only avoided it thanks to a 9-1 win over Romania on the final day.

This Dutch team warmed up with two friendlies against ice-hockey powerhouse…er…Belgium. They were unable to travel any further due to the aforementioned budget constraints. However, they hope that hosting the tournament will bring attention to the sport in the Netherlands that’s much needed after a tricky season.

As far as players go, the entire squad is domestic-based, with the exception of forward Nardo Nagtzaam. The majority come from two teams-Tilburg and Heereenveen – unsurprising since these are the teams that dominated the Dutch league by some way this season. In forwards Peter van Biezen and captain Diederick Hagemeijer, along with the aforementioned Nagtzaam, who plays his hockey in the US NCAA, they have a capable first line, but goalie Ian Meierdries is sometimes suspect and the defence is…well, anonymous. Kevin Bruijsten has had an excellent season in France’s Ligue Magnus and will be hoping to make some noise at this tournament, too.

The Dutch are hoping to put on a good show on home ice in Eindhoven, but will likely finish outside the medal places, unless the home crowd can lift them to unforeseen heights. They are more than capable of acting as spoilers to another team’s medal ambitions if caught on a good night, though.

Key Player: Diederick Hagemeijer (F) – The big Dutch captain is something of a talisman for his country in recent years, and along with Nagtzaam provides a dangerous combination of skill, speed and size. He’s the player the Dutch look to to set the tone and lead them going forward, and he’ll have to use all his leadership skills to carry his country beyond mediocrity in this tournament

CROATIA (ranked 28)

Ignore the world ranking – this could be the year that Croatian hockey really starts to make itself noticed. With the rise of Medvescak Zagreb in the KHL has come the rise of a Croatian team previously too good for Div II but not good enough for Div I. GBs first opponents this time round present an intimidating prospect thanks to the array of dual-national talent they can boast from the net out.

Mark Dekanich has been a top AHL goalie and was phenomenal for Zagreb in the KHL in his first season before struggling a little more this time out-he will share duties with team-mate Mate Tomljenovic between the pipes. In front of him a very North American-looking defence boasts quality from top to bottom in the likes of veteran Alan Letang, Andy Sertich and Kenny MacAulay.

However, it’s up front where the star power really hits – Ryan Kinasewich, Andrew Murray and Mike Glumac are all dangerous, with Murray having a resume few forwards at this level can boast – 221 NHL games. Kinasewich in particular is an offensive force when he gets going, having been prolific both in North America (103 points in his last ECHL season) and in Austria.

They’re a big team, too, and under coach Donald MacLean they joyfully play a gritty American style mixed with a little Eastern European skill. Their roster is built of players with impressive CVs, most of whom currently play at the top levels in Europe. They’re a very strong team indeed.

One ray of hope for the opposition – they’ll be missing Croatia’s first NHLer Borna Rendulic, who is nursing a broken foot, but GB’s first opponents are one of the favourites for gold along with South Korea. They’re the toughest possible test for the Lions in their opening game.

Key Player – Andrew Murray: This guy might be the best individual player in the tournament. Certainly he comes with arguably the most impressive CV – the big Manitoban has played 221 NHL games for the Columbus Blue Jackets and while he’s not a big scorer at all, he’s the player who’ll make the space and time for his linemates to do their thing. Hitting like a train and a demon forechecker at this level, he’ll relish hunting down opposition defencemen and making life hard for them.

So – that’s all you need to know about GB’s World Championships campaign. Don’t forget that if you’re in Britain, you can watch the GB games live on Premier Sports…I will be throughout the week.

Good luck, GB. Do your country proud.

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