Team Great Britain has the oldest average age of any team in Group J of the IIHF Olympic Qualifiers, with 29.09. But that doesn’t mean the team is devoid of youngsters looking to prove themselves to their nation.
GB’s squad has four players 25-years-old and under at this tournament: Ross Venus (25), Jackson Whistle (24), Ollie Betteridge (24) and Scott Conway (24). For these youngsters, earning the invite up to the international level means everything.
“I was really pleased,” said Venus, who plays for the Coventry Blaze of the EIHL. “It’s been four years since I made the team last, so obviously it’s really disappointing when you find out you don’t make the call. I feel like I’ve been playing well this year, and I was hopeful of a return into the setup.”
It was the third call-up to the men’s squad for Nottingham Panthers forward and hometown boy Ollie Betteridge. He has already earned the trust of the Great Britain staff and seems to be becoming an important part of this team going forward.
“It’s always nice. It’s a nice feeling when you get picked for the GB team, but I just try and do the best I can for the national team.” He said. “It really is an honour and a big achievement to be able to put on the jersey.”
Pressure to Perform
The job isn’t done once they get the call, however. They then have to prove themselves worthy of staying at this level, especially with Team GB now in the top flight of international ice hockey and astonishing hockey fans all over the world with their skill, speed, and heart. These players have a limited time to showcase what they can do, to earn the faith of the British brass, and really put their skills on display.
Not surprisingly, the task gets harder every year.
“Obviously in that sort of bottom-six role in this team there’s a lot of competition for places with the amount of good quality Brits there are in the league at the moment,” said Venus. “I’m here now, it’s just about playing well and trying to cement a place for the World Championships.”
The World Championships are the goal for these young Brits. If international ice hockey is a music festival, the IIHF World Championships are the main stage. It’s the biggest arena these players will get to prove the doubters wrong and to go up against the absolute best-on-best of high-level competition. In last year’s World Championships, Team GB held their own against Germany, surprised the world with their sheer compete versus Canada and USA, and had a heroic win in overtime over France to solidify their place in this year’s competition.
So it’s not hard to see why that kind of experience is the ultimate aim for these players. Indeed, Ross Venus repeats multiple times during the interview that these Olympic Qualifiers, this season, is all about trying to get there.
For Venus, that might not be too tall a task.
He has had a scoring boom with the Coventry Blaze this year; his 31 points in 39 games is the highest total of his EIHL career so far. Venus has already broken both his goal and assists records, with 12 goals and 19 assists, and his renewed confidence in his on-ice abilities is sky-high.
Told during the summer that he was starting the season on the fourth line, Venus wasn’t pleased. He was determined to show his worth to the team, to prove them wrong.
“I think it lighted a fire in me and I wanted to prove that I can do more than that.”
Now, riding the high of his best offensive output yet, he has already been promoted to Coventry’s power-play unit and seems to be receiving more and more freedom from the coaching staff to go out and make things happen on the ice.
“It’s that freedom but also the confidence that comes with it, it’s trying to combine those two and I think I’ve kind of found that spot now.”
Better and Better(idge)
Ollie Betteridge, also, is having a solid year with his hometown Nottingham Panthers. Last year he broke his personal goal record- his eight goals last season were the highest of his EIHL career. This season, with seven goals and a handful of games left to play, he might just be on track to break it again. For Betteridge, that confidence comes from an increase in trust from the coaching staff.
“It’s different in Nottingham this year, I’m really enjoying it, being put in different situations and being able to use my shot and speed a lot more now.” He said, adding that in addition to the increase in ice time, new Panthers coach Time Wallace is “putting me in situations where I’m able to succeed.”
It’s something that has progressed slowly over Betteridge’s five full seasons in the league. Each year he gets more comfortable, each year he gets a little more trust. It’s a system of development that seems to be working for Betteridge, making him one of UK hockey’s players to watch in the coming years.
“Every year I get more responsibilities, more trust from the coach, and I get to play a little bit different roles every year. It’s always nice, and I’m really enjoying it here and hopefully, we can build success here.”
The Future of GB Hockey
British hockey has come a long way in just a few years. Previously known as a hotbed for enforcers, the EIHL used to be a lot more physical, undisciplined, and- in Ross Venus’ words- ‘fighty’.
But recently there’s been an uptick in skill. Part of that is through imports; the league earning prominence in global consciousness and gaining a reputation for skill certainly helps attract higher-level players from overseas. But it also speaks to the quality of Brits as they rise through the ranks of GB hockey, from U18, U20 to the men’s team.
“It’s definitely moving in the right direction, especially with what’s happened with British hockey over the past few years,” said Betteridge.
It’s something evident in the success of the Team GB setup, and these youngsters certainly have the drive to take up the mantle for Great Britain and keep the British game moving in the right direction.
Ross Venus stresses how he grew up always wanting to play for GB. Ollie Betteridge sees his role as “try[ing] and do everything I can to help my teammates and be the best player I can to help towards the team.”
You can tell after five minutes of conversation just how much playing here at the Olympic Qualifiers means to these guys. But they’re not thinking too far ahead right now. With the uncertainty borne from GB’s considerable bottom-six depth, they are just trying to enjoy the experience and take as much out of it as possible.
Asked whether he sees his currently-fourth-line role expanding for GB in the future, Ross Venus shrugs good-naturedly, “Who knows- I’m just happy to be here.”
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Feature Image Credit: Dean Wooley (@woolster80)