Poland dreams, GB hopes
by Andy POTTS|20 MAY 2024
Norway and Great Britain clash at the 2022 IIHF World Championship. The 2024 rematch promises to be an even more competitive affair.
photo: © International Ice Hockey Federation / Andre Ringuette
It’s make-or-break Monday at the 2024 IIHF World Championship. For four nations - Norway, Great Britain, Kazakhstan and Poland - victory would secure another season in the top division. These games might lack the star quality of the knock-out rounds, but in terms of intensity and passion, they're up alongside any gold medal game.

In Group A, the survival showdown pits newly-promoted Great Britain against a Norwegian team in its 18th consecutive World Championship. Since winning promotion in 2005, the Norwegians have generally stayed out of trouble. But Sunday’s 4-1 loss to Austria leaves Tobias Johansson’s team with just three points. Although GB has yet to get off the mark, a British win in regulation would send Norway down via the head-to-head rule.

It's familiar territory for Pete Russell’s GB team. In 2019 survival went down to the final game, and a dramatic OT victory over France proved just about enough. Then in 2022 it was a do-or-die battle with Austria and a 3-1 lead turned into a 5-3 loss to send the Brits back to Division IA.

Defender Ben O’Connor played in both those games and knows what to expect. “We don’t give up,” he said. “Anyone that plays us knows we always fight to the end. We’re a very proud nation, a very proud team. We have a never-say-die attitude. We feel we’ve been playing better and better in every game. We had a bad second period against Finland and it showed, but other than that we’ve been playing some good hockey.”

Meanwhile, back in Norway, media coverage of the team has been critical. Former national team player and now TV pundit Alexander Bonsaksen described the 4-1 loss to Austria as a “total collapse” and questioned the work of head coach Tobias Johansson.

“When it comes to changing lines or tactical moves, there is no answer,” Bonsaksen said. “We just can’t change the picture of the game.”

For his part, Johansson could not explain what went wrong in Sunday’s game but insisted he had no concerns about the showdown against Great Britain. “Everything is in our hands,” he told Viasat. “I’m not worried at all.”

Andreas Martinsen, in his 12th championship, is also confident. “I think it’s going to be a similar game to Sunday,” he said. “We have to be a little better and then we’ll have a good chance.”

History might favour Norway. In 1994, the two nations met in a one-off relegation battle. Tied 2-2 after 50 minutes, the Norwegians grabbed two shorthanded goals on the same penalty kill and skated to a 5-2 victory. O’Connor’s father, Mike, was on the British team that day, up against Petter Thoresen, dad of this year’s captain Patrick.

Ben has already surpassed his dad’s single year of World Championship play. Now he wants to avenge that Norway loss. “We’re here to solidify as a [top-division] nation,” he said. “We don’t want to be up and down every year. We want to stay. We can build on our experience and go into the game ready.”

Group B’s battle, as expected, sees newly-promoted Poland seeking victory over Kazakhstan to escape an immediate return to Division IA. The Poles picked up plenty of plaudits for some courageous and adventurous play, but the only point so far arrived in an overtime loss to Latvia. Kazakhstan, meanwhile, started brightly with a 3-1 victory over France but faded after that. A 10-1 loss to the USA on the eve of Monday’s meeting was hardly ideal preparation, but only a regulation-time win is good enough to save Poland. If the game goes beyond regulation time, Kazakhstan stays up and Poland goes down.

Kazakh head coach Galym Mambetaliyev is not too concerned about a hangover from Sunday’s mauling.

“We and Poland are in the same situation,” he said. “Nobody can just wave a magic wand and fix everything, we all need to understand that we need to be prepared for games like this. I don’t think we’re feeling sorry for ourselves.”

The Kazakh coach was taking nothing for granted against the Poles. “They play disciplined hockey, they wait for their chances and quickly go back to defence,” he said. “Nobody has blown Poland away here. Maybe they don’t always have the speed and skill, but they’re a tough nut.”

For Poland, a first top-level World Championship since 2002 has been a steep learning curve. Centre Filip Komorski believes the lessons are sinking in. 

“We’re fighting to keep our dreams alive a little longer,” he said. “In Division I or in our domestic league our mistakes might not be so important, but at this level it’s different. We are happy with the way we played against last year’s runner-up, but we still didn’t get any points.”

As with the GB vs Norway game, there’s a historical precedent of sorts. In 2020, Poland – then in Division IB – travelled to Kazakhstan for an Olympic qualification tournament. The Kazakhs were expected to progress with ease, but fell behind 0-2 in the decisive game against Poland. Despite getting back to 2-2, the Kazakhs fell 3-2 in a result that arguably started a Polish renaissance that led the team all the way back to the elite.