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"I never thought I'd get this chance, now I can't wait to face the world's best"

After an 18-year GB career, Belfast Giants legend Colin Shields on what it means to reach the top

By Adam McKendry

There are certain nations that are synonymous with top level ice hockey: America, Canada, Russia, Finland, Sweden etc.

Now throw Great Britain into the mix.

It's a fairytale story of how the nation reached the top table of world ice hockey by winning Division 1A of the World Championships, and right in the middle of it all was Belfast Giants forward Colin Shields.

Britain's all-time leading goalscorer, this was what the 38-year-old had been waiting for his entire career, and now he's finally got it.

"It's something I'm really proud to be a part of, knowing we're going up to the next level, and I don't think it's set yet," he says, before laughing: "Maybe when we're chasing Canada around it will!"

To put it into context, GB had only been promoted to Division 1A from 1B a year previous. All the experts and pundits had them as good as relegated coming into the tournament.

"Our goal was to stay in the group," Shields states.

"Obviously we wanted to win the group or get a medal, but I think looking at the way the group was laid out and some of the top quality teams in it you'd have gotten pretty good odds on that!"

But they got off to a good start in Budapest. Recently-relegated Slovenia were dispatched 3-1 in their opening game, although Kazakhstan brought them back to earth with a 6-1 drubbing.

Game three against Poland would determine where GB's destiny lay - again they proved everyone wrong, winning 5-3.

With their status in 1A secured, focus switched to promotion, with GB knowing two wins, over the Italians and hosts Hungary, would be enough to get them that gold medal.

On paper, Italy was GB's toughest game, but again completely against the odds they dug out a dogged 4-3 win.

Having done the impossible, beating teams they were never expected to give a contest to, all GB had to do was make sure they took the game to overtime against Hungary for gold.

What happened next was quite simply amazing.

Faced with the possibility of gold, nerves took over. Hungary scored twice and GB were 2-0 down with just 18 minutes to salvage their campaign.

"We knew that wasn't going to be an easy game, especially with the home crowd behind them and going down 2-0. We were definitely on the back foot," Shields admits.

"There were such a great number of GB fans there for all our games, and it was funny because for most of our games they were right behind our bench, but for the final game they were about as far away from our bench as possible!

"You could hear them. It was an electric atmosphere."

GB knew it was all or nothing, and they got back within one when Robert Dowd fired home, but then Hungarian forward Janos Hári was pulled down when through on goal.

Penalty shot.

"For them to get that penalty shot, oh boy," Shields recalls. "If they'd scored that you could be talking game over."

Hári took it, GB netminder Ben Bowns the only thing in his way. Hári shot high, the netminder thrust a leg up in the air, and the puck missed.

And so, the game came down to the dying seconds, Hungary defending desperately and GB firing shots relentlessly at goaltender Adam Vay, hoping one would sneak through and in.

Then, with 25 seconds remaining and Bowns pulled for an extra attacker, the magic moment happened.

Brett Perlini won the face-off, the puck found Robert Farmer and he launched a hopeful wrister at Vay. The netminder failed to close the gap and the puck squeezed through and into the back of the net.

It wasn't pretty, but GB didn't care. The celebrations began early on the bench, the gold medal was theirs.

Shields laughs: "When it gets to a moment like that, you never find someone wide open to crack a one-timer top corner, it always seems to be a mad scramble in front or a loose puck that ends up going in.

"Everyone was on the edge of their seats and was standing on the bench, and to see that puck go in is something I'll remember for a long, long time."

The 2-2 tie was enough to ensure Britain would finish top of the division - the tournament's supposed whipping boys had triumphed.

For Shields, that feeling was a long time coming.

Did he ever think he'd reach the World Championships?

"Probably not!" he says.

"It was after my first year in Slovenia (in 2001), we were tied with Slovenia on points and it came down to goal difference to decide who would get promoted and Slovenia beat Estonia something like 14-0 in the last game to gain promotion.

"I kind of thought, it's okay, we'll get promotion next time, but then we started dropping down divisions and I thought I wouldn't get that opportunity.

"But it's something special and something I'm really thankful to be part of."

For Shields, however, this isn't just a one year effort.

"Everybody that's been a part of the program for the last 20 years has been instrumental in getting us to the World Championships," he claims.

"It's not just the 22 players and the coaches who were (in Budapest), everyone has had an impact on that going back 20 years and it's forged our identity. You saw that last year in how the guys cared for each other and the guys who were there before.

"There's so many backroom staff you don't see, we have a great set-up. There's a huge effort that goes into it."

In Slovakia next year, they'll face the big names of the sport. Patrick Kane, Sidney Crosby, Sebastian Aho, Leon Draisaitl, all stars of the NHL - the best ice hockey league in the world.

"A lot of players you watch winning the Stanley Cup and playing in the play-offs, it's going to be cool to see yourself face up against some of them," Shields grins.

"We were laughing the other day, if you're facing off against someone like Sidney Crosby, you might be looking for the camera to try and get a smile in for the perfect picture!"

Next year they'll be expected to lose every game against the world's best.

Shields won't care. It was supposed to be the same this year and look what happened.

The forward concludes: "We're looking at the old cliché, take it one game at a time, give ourselves a chance to win a couple of games and see what happens.

"Nobody gave us much of a chance to move up to the division we're going to, so why not prove them wrong again?"

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