Team GB: The Northern Stars
When Team GB made the trip to the World Championships in Zagreb last month, it was clear that the Northern connection was at full strength. Travelling to Croatia with former Vipers Jonathan Weaver and Colin Shields, reserve netminder and one-time Warrior Thomas Murdy, ex-Jester David Clarke and Durham-born Assistant Coach Tom Watkins, former Billingham Bomber Robert Dowd completed Pete Russell’s squad following a return from injury which had previously prevented the forward from competing at the 2018 Winter Olympic pre-qualifying tournament in Cortina back in February.
With so many of these individuals having an influence in games on the world stage, here’s what the Northern Stars have to offer GB…
Breaking through the ranks of Billingham’s junior setup to feature at a senior level during the club’s 2003-04 campaign, Robert Dowd was able to tally twelve points for the Bombers in the space of fourteen games whilst simultaneously racking up goals for both the Under 16 and Under 19 sides in the same season. Before long, Dowd received his call-up to Great Britain’s Under 18 squad and, soon after, he found himself integrated in Sheffield Scimitars EPL outfit which provided the Teessider with a pathway into the line-up of Elite League franchise Sheffield Steelers.
It was here that the skilled forward began to slowly but surely make his mark, achieving forty four points in his first full season with the club, having already gained some ice time across nine games between 2006 and 2008. It was a switch to Belfast Giants which saw Dowd have his most successful season to date, the forward lighting the lamp on thirty seven occasions and tallying thirty five assists to become the team’s leading goal scorer. Following a season in the Allsvenskan, Dowd returned to the Steelers where he continues to be one of the side’s most consistent players.
Though missing out on GB’s pre-qualifiers for the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics through injury, Dowd more recently took to the ice as alternate captain at the World Championships, crucially snatching a superb overtime winner against Estonia to keep GB’s promotion hopes alive before missing out against Lithuania due to illness.
Robert Dowd took time to reflect on the World Championships:
“They were good, fast-paced games where I think our team really looked good. Getting off to a good start is key in these tournaments. Winning that big first one was great for us. It was a great honour for me to be given the A, a responsibility I don’t take likely but, playing with a room of leaders, it’s a very easy job.”
When asked about his overtime winner in GB’s second game of the tournament and whether or not Estonia’s comeback was a surprise to him, Dowd noted:
“No, any team in this tournament is dangerous. They have a couple of really good players who came up big. It was a great feeling to grab such a big goal. It always feels good to score but scoring for your country is extra special.”
However, missing out against Lithuania due to illness, Dowd was forced to watch the game from the stands and admitted:
“It was very nerve-wracking to start with but once we got a couple and started playing better and better, I could actually sit back and enjoy the game.”
Born in Peterborough, Nottingham Panthers’ captain and GB winger David Clarke is another who once graced the ice in the North East of England. Playing for Newcastle Jesters, in the final season that the club would be known as such, Clarke was one of the team’s most reliable players, contributing in forty one games at the start of his ice hockey career.
Clarke then went on to play for Peterborough Pirates, Milton Keynes Kings and Guildford Flames before embarking on a lengthy career with the Panthers which so far spans twelve seasons. Taking on the role of both alternate captain and captain at the club, Clarke took a season away from England to play in Italy’s second Division with Alleghe before making his return to the EIHL.
Clarke’s invaluable leadership skills were noticeable once again at the tournament as he fulfilled the role of alternate captain in the absence of Robert Dowd and he certainly had an impact on his team’s success, grabbing two assists in GB’s 6-1 victory over Romania. Making one hundred and nine appearances in international fixtures for GB, including those in the Under 18 and Under 20 divisions, Clarke has accomplished thirty seven goals to become a key component of Great Britain’s roster.
The Northern connection was further strengthened by the presence of Sunderland-born defenceman Jonathan Weaver whose experience was shown to be valued by Pete Russell, the Head Coach opting for the thirty nine year old to take to GB’s blue line yet again. Starting out with the Durham Wasps in the BHL from 1992 to 1996, Weaver then joined Newcastle Cobras and, though he left the club in 1998 for Manchester Storm, the winger eventually returned to the city to link up with the BNL’s Newcastle Vipers, also making the transition into the Elite League with the club.
GB’s recent trip to Zagreb presented an opportunity for Weaver to achieve his best points tally for Great Britain since the 2010-11 World Championships in which he grabbed a goal and seven assists as team captain to finish the tournament as GB’s highest points scorer. Once again demonstrating his strength in defence, Weaver continues to excel as one of GB’s greatest assets, again picking up a silver medal with the national team who continue in their battle for promotion to Division 1A.
Likewise, ex-Newcastle Viper Colin Shields also exhibited his excellence at the World Championships, scoring against hosts Croatia, third-placed Lithuania and István Geréb’s Romania. Before playing ice hockey in the North East for a single season, Glasgow-born Shields gained experience in the USA, icing for seven teams across the NAHL, NCAA and the ECHL from 1998 until 2005. Following a season with the Belfast Giants, Shields made his return to the East Coast Hockey League with Fresno Falcons before a switch to the Idaho Steelheads saw the forward rack up twenty nine points in thirty three games ahead of his move to the Vipers.
Taking into consideration the success of Team GB, Shields took time to share his perspective mid-tournament:
“I think we have all come together with one goal in mind: winning the gold medal. We were so close last year and I think everyone came back hungry and focused this year on the task. We are playing as a team and for each other, you can see everyone playing their role and for each other, not as individuals. The whole tournament has been great, seeing some of the guys get milestone caps was great. We have so many characters on the team, friends who have played on this team for fifteen years or more. It’s special to share moments like that with them.”
Also travelling with the squad, reserve netminder Thomas Murdy is another with strong links to the North East, having played in Sunderland’s junior setup before making the switch to Whitley Bay. It was here that the superb shot stopper was recognised for his ability to consequently find himself selected for GB’s Under 18 team. Swiftly making the transition to the Elite League with Coventry Blaze, Murdy has also enjoyed loan spells with EPL outfit Swindon Wildcats before signing for the team in 2012.
First choice netminder at Telford Tigers for the last three seasons, Murdy was recently released by the Shropshire side though he continues to be one of Great Britain’s best between the pipes. This is evidenced in Murdy’s presence at the World Championships, the netminder only edged out of the starting line-up by the brilliant Ben Bowns and the more experienced Stevie Lyle.
Having observed GB’s action at the World Championships from the stands as a result, Murdy took time to present his take on the tournament:
“I think the World Championships have been great; the team have performed very well and the game against Lithuania proved that. Each game we play has a great atmosphere due to the travelling fans which is a great boost for us. Bownsy [netminder Ben Bowns] has been great all tournament. He has been really solid at the back, making the big saves at key times, like the save against Estonia to keep the game tied at 3-3; that was a huge moment in the game for us. It’s an honour to be able to represent your country in any way you can so to be involved with the squad at this year’s World Championships is great. As for the future, I will just continue to work hard and try to improve, and hopefully make the final team for future championships.”
Considering how far he has developed his game since his departure from NIHL club Whitley Warriors, Murdy revealed:
“I am happy with how things have gone for me since moving away from Whitley Bay but I was lucky and I have been given lots of opportunities to progress so I am grateful for that. There are a lot of talented players who come through the Whitley Bay junior system. It’s just a shame that players have to move away from the North East now if they want to progress further in their hockey careers; even more so now there is no professional hockey in the North East.”
The Northern link is further extended to GB’s bench where Durham-born assistant coach Tom Watkins oversees play alongside Head Coach Pete Russell. Having played for more than two decades, Watkins’ early playing career can be traced back to the North East. Starting out with Sunderland Tomahawks in the club’s Under 19 set up, Watkins then went on to feature for Newcastle Warriors, Billingham Bombers and Durham City Wasps in his first season as a senior in 1995; his greatest accomplishments were with the Teesside outfit however, having scored twenty one points in thirty two games for the Bombers.
Since then, Watkins has split his career between Telford Tigers and Coventry Blaze, more recently becoming Head Coach of Telford’s EPL side and Director of Coaching of their NIHL feeder team.
Looking ahead to GB’s future, Watkins took the time to provide some insight into the team’s strengths and the areas that the side must improve on in order to accomplish promotion in the future:
“I think looking back now, a month post-tournament, it’s still frustrating but we have to take the positives and keep building on them. I am pleased with the performance and commitment from players, and the team spirit that is created in a relatively small amount of time is excellent, but, and it’s a big but, it still hurts. To be in the same scenario as the previous year is painful. It’s important we give ourselves a chance to win and be in that position to give ourselves a chance of success. For the time the team has together to prepare, I think we have grown together over the last two seasons and we will hopefully improve from this experience. Of course, there are always areas we can be better but, when you look back at the key stats of the tournament, we were placed well in several departments. The one area I feel we can better is around the opposition net. One good opportunity and we have to bury that chance to change the game, meaning that we capitalise at key times after periods of good pressure and territory to carry the momentum further in our favour.”
Further to this, Watkins took time to consider the impact that Northerners Robert Dowd and Jonathan Weaver have had on GB, both players going from strength to strength since their departure from ice hockey clubs in the North East:
“I grew up with Jonathan and have been close friends with him since we were young kids. I have played with him and against him for Durham and Sunderland respectively. Weaves was always a special talent, a very smooth skater, good poise and awareness, and was hungry; he still is. It’s great to see him playing and enjoying his hockey. It’s different when guys play for a living, different pressures and expectations, but the one thing with him that is always apparent is how much he loves to play the game. That shows at practice, always doing more, always trying to improve. He has had such a successful career because he puts in the hard work on and off the ice. I can say pretty much the same about Dowdy, he loves to play and compete. They are both very hungry to be the best and help their team have success. Both had excellent tournaments in Croatia and they are two of our most influential players for sure.”
Last but not least, the Northern connection is also bolstered by the presence of GB’s official photographer Colin Lawson, father of Whitley Warriors’ Richie and Alex who have also starred with Newcastle Vipers across all divisions over the years, from ENL2 to the Elite League. For more of Colin’s photos of Team GB, please visit: http://www.icehockeymedia.co.uk/.
Thank you to Robert Dowd, Colin Shields, Thomas Murdy and Tom Watkins for taking the time to share their views.
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