Belfast Telegraph

Making history - Adam Keefe and Great Britain ready for the biggest ice hockey tournament of their lives

Belfast Giants head coach Adam Keefe in his role as Great Britain assistant coach (MB Media/Getty Images)
Belfast Giants head coach Adam Keefe in his role as Great Britain assistant coach (MB Media/Getty Images)
Adam Keefe
Adam McKendry

By Adam McKendry

Kosice, Slovakia. Until this week, a place that most ice hockey fans in Great Britain probably didn't know about.

Now it's the centre of their universe for the next week and a half.

To set the scene, Kosice is the second most populated city in Slovakia, after the capital Bratislava, with a population of 240,000 and is the largest city in the east of the country, lying close to the Hungarian border. Known for its steel mill, and its importance to industry within Slovakia, Kosice was the 2013 European Capital of Culture along with Marseille, France, and boasts a well-preserved historical centre.

But none of that really matters. For the next 10 days, at least, its the host to Group A of the IIHF World Championships where Great Britain make their return to the top tier of international ice hockey since 1994, and the anticipation is palpable. A year of waiting since last year's Division 1A gold medal miracle in Budapest finally comes to an end right now.

Ever since picking up the most unlikely of gold medals by beating Hungary - in a division they were expected to be relegated from, no less - everything has been geared towards this tournament. If a player performed well, they were playing for their place on the plane. If they played poorly, their place was in jeopardy. Now that all falls by the wayside - it's now here.

That 3-2 penalty shots win over Hungary, which sealed their spot here this year, was played in front of 7,000 people. When GB get underway tomorrow, against Germany, it'll be in front of 8,300 people in the city's aptly named Steel Arena.

"It's very good, a nice venue. We haven't really been able to see the city but the venue is very nice," says GB assistant coach, and head coach of the Belfast Giants, Adam Keefe.

"It appears a bit bigger (than Belfast)!"

Even something as small as that reflects on how big a challenge this will be for GB. With a roster that consists of 23 players from the Elite League, and only two who play outside it, the majority of this team haven't played in an arena this big before. When they face hometown heroes Slovakia on May 18, the arena will be packed to the rafters.

But that in itself is only a microcosm of how much GB are up against it. Every other team in their group besides France has at least one NHL player on their roster, GB's most advanced player, arguably, is Arizona Coyotes prospect Liam Kirk. Every other team played at this level last season, not a single player on GB's roster has been higher than Division 1A.

Belfast Giants forward Colin Shields in action for Great Britain (MB Media/Getty Images)

They're the plucky underdogs that everyone will love, even if they don't expect them to do anything other than be taken apart by each opponent one-by-one. Their best chance at survival is believed to be by beating France in their final game on May 20, provided the French haven't already picked up enough points to stay up already.

An exhibition game last Saturday against the Slovaks saw them trounced 6-1, and they're not even considered to be one of the better teams in the tournament. What will the likes of the USA, with their superstar first line of Johnny Gaudreau, Jack Eichel and Patrick Kane, do?

It all presents a fairly bleak picture. And yet.

For all that negativity, GB possess the unknown. Not a single team in this tournament knows what GB are about given their long-term absence from the top tier. They have nothing to lose either - they're expected to be sent packing straight back down to Division 1A, so what's the harm in throwing out the form book and going all-out in the hope that something sticks?

"We want to improve as the tournament goes on and get up to pace, but the ultimate goal is to stay up and remain here. I think there's a strong belief in the locker room that we can do that," insists Keefe.

"It's not going to be easy, a lot of things have to go well and they have to do everything well that they did last season to get to this point to have a chance to remain.

"But these guys deserved it. They won four games last year and deserve to be here, and we're here now - they belong here, so let's play like it."

That means adjusting, adapting, improvising and, most importantly, improving. Learning on the fly will be so crucial for a coaching staff that are at the top level in the Elite League - heck, Keefe has just been nominated for European coach of the year - but are yet to truly test themselves against the elite of world ice hockey.

They can do it, no question. But how the players will adjust will be crucial. They've already have a first-hand taste of what it will take for them to elevate themselves to a level where they can stay put for next season in that defeat to Slovakia, when their opponents simply skated around them under they were worn out. That four of the six goals came after the 35th minute tells a story of itself.

"They learned that there's way less time to skate the puck and make your decisions. The pace of the game was really high against teams that are bigger, faster, so you need to make your decisions a lot quicker," admits Keefe.

"It was a great learning curve to get up to that pace. They understand the pace will be higher, but until you experience it and realise how fast you have to make your decisions it's a completely different game. Now that we've done that, we hope they'll be prepared to play at that pace now. The pace is probably going to pick up more and more too."

The schedule is imposing. First up tomorrow are Germany, led by Edmonton Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl, who Keefe dubs "one of the best players in the world", followed by the top-ranked side Canada and their all-NHL roster on Sunday and then Denmark on Tuesday. Tournament favourites the USA (also boasting an all-NHL roster) are next up on Wednesday, Finland are the opponents next Friday and then it's a rematch with hosts Slovakia next Saturday, the 18th.

Belfast Giants defenceman Paul Swindlehurst in action for Great Britain (MB Media/Getty Images)

It all comes to an end against France on Monday, May 20. The second lowest ranked team in the group, and a team missing its headline star, Stephane da Costa, on paper it's GB's best chance of a win and likely their best hope of staying up when it all comes to an end.

Keefe concurs.

"France," he immediately responds when asked if he was offered one win now, who would it be against.

"Not Canada or the USA?" I queried.

The response was smart and thought through: "Obviously you'd want to beat them - any win is points on the board for us - but you have to look at teams who are potentially on their way out, and to beat them means you have the advantage in the tie-breaker."

That's realism. If GB were to compete this year then it would be miraculous in the extreme, rather this is a team that knows that the best it will do is staying up and getting ready to go against next year, probably with the same ambition. Indeed, this year is all about increasing the profile of the sport - the best way to do that is by not getting relegated.

At the end of the day, all they can do is go out and give it 100%. They need everything to go right, nothing to go wrong and that old immeasurable stat of puck luck to work in their favour. In other words, it needs to be perfect.

"I fully expect this group to come and put their best effort every night - with some timely goals and good netminding, who knows what might happen," believes Keefe.

Last year in Budapest, upon stepping onto the bench, Keefe took a look around him and soaked it all in, appreciating the achievement of what his team had done a year previous and what they were about to embark on. Chances are he never thought that he'd be winning another gold medal at the end of that week and preparing for what is about to come in a day's time.

Because of that, this year he might spend just a little longer enjoying the view.

"I'm looking forward to making more great memories and learning new experiences with these guys this week," he insists.

No matter what happens, you just know it'll be one he never forgets.

Signing on

While there have been several departures from the Belfast Giants already, and only two signings in the door for next season, Keefe has insisted that things are on the right track when it comes to preparing the team for next season.

The Giants are gearing up to defend their Elite League and Challenge Cup titles, although have already been rocked by the departures of the likes of legend Colin Shields, captain Blair Riley, Dustin Johner, Josh Roach and David Rutherford.

However, Keefe is not concerned about recruitment going forward and, having already snapped up Polish international Patryk Wronka and British hotshot Ciaran Long, is eager for bringing in more names over the summer.

"We have a handle on what we think we need to compete, not just in the Elite League but in the Champions Hockey League as well," he insists.

"We want to make sure we not just have a good team, we want to make sure we improve year on year."

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