After being a part of the FreeSports broadcasting team for Division 2A of the IIHF Under 18 World Championships in Estonia, Jono Bullard writes about how and why Great Britain Under 18’s achieved a gold medal and promotion despite being fifth seeds.
“I’d like to think we can get a medal”. Those were the words the Great Britain Under 18’s coach Tony Hand said to me in his first interview of the week prior to their opening game against hosts Estonia. The team then went on to win gold, a feat that probably exceeded even the most optimistic of pre-tournament expectations.
The main reason I believe they won gold is due to the quality of players that were in the squad, especially on the forward lines. Just under a year ago I wrote this article highlighting young players who I felt were ones to watch for the future. Four players I highlighted in that article were part of the squad in Estonia and they all were pivotal in GB’s success.
Reece Cochrane & Joe Hazeldine both excelled on the blue line, Austin Mitchell-King started the tournament on the fourth line, but was moved up after Calum Robertson’s injury and slotted in wonderfully well with Cade Neilson & Mason Biddulph, working hard to create space for both to exploit.
However of the four players the one that really caught the eye was Mason Biddulph who finished the tournament with 9 points (6+3), a +/- rating of +9 and was deservedly named as GB’s player of the tournament. Biddulph showed why he is so highly rated and I expect bigger things await for him especially as he shone in a team that was loaded with offence. However as well as Biddulph others deserve to be singled out for their contribution.
A lot has been said and written about captain Liam Kirk over this season and rightly so. Not only is he an excellent player but what impressed me more was how level headed and mature he was for one so young. He led the team superbly and scored two game winning goals in the final two games. It’s also worth noting that he represented the under 20’s in Dumfries, he’s part of the long squad for the GB senior team and was captain for this tournament. The plaudits that have come his way this season have been fully justified and it’s no surprise to me that NHL scouts have been watching him. He’s a special player who I’m sure is destined for bigger things.
While Kirk was billed as the main attraction for GB those NHL scouts watching will surely have noticed others in the squad, the aforementioned Biddulph being one. Kieran Brown, Kirk’s Sheffield Steelers team-mate, was another who excelled at this level. It’s easy to forget that Brown is only 16, he possesses a natural talent for scoring goals and his strike against Poland was, for me, the goal of the tournament. If Kirk is tipped to be drafted then surly Brown must be under consideration too, especially as he has another two years to improve further before his possible draft will take place.
The final player who caught my eye over the tournament was Cade Neilson. Another player who is just 16 years old but players with a maturity that far exceeds his years. He is extremely intelligent on the puck and has the ability to buy himself time to look for the perfect pass. While he knows where the net is it was his set-up play that was particularly impressive and his ability to bring his team-mates into the game (3 of Neilson’s 4 tournament assists were for line-mate Biddulph goals). He is another who could be catching the eye of NHL scouts in the near future.
To be honest I could have waxed lyrical about everyone in the team, they all played their part in this magnificent triumph but it was a true team effort, everyone involved deserve the accolades coming their way. The coaching team of Tony Hand, Martin Cingel & Sean Easton have created an exciting, attacking team playing free flowing hockey that people want to watch. There’s also unsung heroes as well, team manager Ian Turner organised everything to the last detail, equipment manager Craig Cooke made sure that everything kit & equipment wise was in place while physio Gabby McGraw ensured any knocks and bumps were dealt with. They deserve just as much of the credit as those on the ice as they gave those on the ice the means and ability to do their best.
The great thing is that 12 of this squad will be eligible to compete in division 1B next year and while the competition will be tougher, they will have had another year of experience to prepare. This is a special group of players that we can get excited about and thanks to FreeSports, their progress can be followed on free to air television.
The future is incredibly bright and I hope everyone from the governing bodies to supporters gets behind them because they most certainly deserve it.