As a new ice hockey season dawns, NIHL fans leave behind a summer which brought about the shocking collapse of Sheffield Spartans, the drastic transformation of last seasons’ league leaders and the introduction of five new imports to the Moralee Conference in preparation for the rollercoaster-of-a-campaign which lies ahead.
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…
Though only a month has passed since playoff weekend, there has already been several adjustments made to teams in NIHL North Division One, with much discussion surrounding the departure of key players from Moralee champions Blackburn Hawks.
Setting himself the challenge to raise at least £20,000 for a cause close to his heart, Barons’ captain Rob Eley has taken to the ice for one last time to conclude his testimonial season with the club he has served for over a decade.
Emma Hill reviews the NIHL North Playoff Weekend from 9th-10th April.
With the NIHL North playoffs fast approaching, just who are the contenders in the Moralee and Laidler Conferences and what have they brought to the ice this season?
Having recently made the trip to Cortina for the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics pre-qualifying tournament, Team GB’s official photographer Colin Lawson took the time to reveal his thoughts, feelings and experiences of the trip as he captured the sport through the lens.
As official photographer to the national side for the last four years, Colin has covered the sport from a grass roots level as well as club, conference, national and international games over a thirteen year period.
“I was first asked to photograph the EIHA Conference Tournament in 2008, together with a good friend Ian Hanlon. We built up a reputation of being able to provide high quality images from major tournaments and, when IHUK hosted the 2012 IIHF Women’s World Championships Division 1 Group B at Hull, I was approached to provide the tournament photography for the IIHF on behalf of IHUK. Building on the reputation of being able to provide great images within very tight timescales for the IIHF, IHUK & EIHA, the media is really what has led me to the privileged title of Team GB’s official photographer and I now photograph all of the teams that play under the GB programme; GB Men, GB Under 20’s & Under 18’s Men as well as the GB Women & GB Under 18’s Women.”
On The Best
It goes without saying that Colin has seen a wide variety of players pull on the GB jersey to ice for their national team but, when asked who has been the best he has seen play for Team GB, the photographer admits it is quite a difficult question to answer.
“All of the players are good and have different strengths. I never photographed the two ‘greats’ in a GB shirt, Tony Hand or David Longstaff. However, if pushed, I would say that there are two that share it for me today, Jonathan Weaver and Ben O’Connor. The most memorable moment has to be Ben O’Connor’s penalty shot in game eight of the 2015 IIHF World Championships in Eindhoven against Korea. Late in the third period, with the score line at 2-2, Korea were penalised for throwing the stick on a Russell Cowley breakaway. Ben was to take the penalty shot and as he approached the goal, he turned his back, lifted the puck between his legs and into the top corner.”
Needless to say, when quizzed about his all-time favourite photograph, Colin is very quick with his response.
“Let me think, for a nanosecond! Ben O’Connor’s penalty shot. It captured the moment perfectly. It was to have been the cover photo of the Ice Hockey Annual until someone called Tony Hand decided to retire from the sport!”
On The Travel
Colin’s role requiring him to travel with Team GB for tournaments, the well-travelled photographer took time to compare his latest trip to last year’s World Championships.
“My favourite has to be the most recent, the 2018 Winter Olympics IIHF Pre-Qualification Tournament in Cortina, Italy and the reasons aren’t hockey; it was the scenery. Simply stunning. I love the mountains and hills at home but this was something else, snowcapped ‘proper’ mountains and I recall tweeting that I would love to wake up to this every morning!
“The town of Cortina or, to give it its Sunday name of Cortina d’Ampezzo, is most famous for having hosted the 1956 Winter Olympics – a good year that was although the games preceded me by seven months so I can only use the history books for facts of the games! It sits at 1,224 m (4,016 ft.), almost the same height as Ben Nevis, and is dwarfed by the massive summits of the Dolomites which were all covered in snow. There are photographs and mementoes of the games all around local streets. The Stadio del Ghiaccio (Ice Stadium), built for the Olympics, now sports a roof and outside still has the Olympic logo and a basin for the Olympic flame. Together, with the rest of the Media team, we climbed into the roof (with permission) and prepared an introduction to the final game in front of them. We all felt very privileged to be so close to a part of the Olympic history.
“Most of the time it was bright and sunny, with temperatures getting down to -25c through the night and there was the obligatory snow that goes with the time of year. Although it was cold, it didn’t feel too bad, apart from when you’ve been in the ice rink from 9:30am until 2am the next morning! Facilities are excellent, skiing and walking is huge there and the Italians know how to look after the tourist.”
Climbing Mount Tofana on the Freccia nel cielo Cablecar to Col Drusciè and on to Ra Valles at a height of 2500m (8200 ft) with Team GB, Colin had just one word to describe the experience: “Awesome.”
“Anyone going must take a trip up to both Col Druscie (1778m) where I took a team photograph and Rifugio Ra Valles (2475m) the vista is breath taking.”
Colin confesses though that not all trips have been as enjoyable.
“The worst was last year’s World Championships. Needing only a point in our last game against Lithuania to claim gold and promotion, we lost the game 3-2. The whole team, from players, coaches, staff and the media team, were absolutely gutted, not to mention the fantastic travelling fans from the GB Supporters Club, with dreams of playing in Division 1A shattered.”
On The Role
Reflecting on the ups and downs of his role, Colin reveals,
“the highs, quite simply by having the honour and privilege to photograph the National team in the sport I love. Not quite the boyhood dream, but as near as damn it. The lows, having to get the team to pose for a team photo in front of the fantastic travelling fans; they all do it without a single sign of dissent in their lowest moments and this shows the respect the players have for their fans.”
With photographs difficult to capture at the best of times, the fast paced sport can make life challenging for those behind the lens, with key events often missed when seizing the perfect snap.
“You never feel as if you have seen a game,” he explains. “Watching it almost completely through the lens you miss so much of the action. You can be focused on one player and something happen just a few feet away and be as naive as to what’s gone on as someone sitting at home. I often ask one of the players nearby ‘what happened there?’ In photographing the Warriors games, [Colin also photographs for Whitley Warriors Ice Hockey Club where his sons, Richie and Alex, have iced for the past few seasons] I almost always photograph centre ice from between the benches; the main reason being that I favour a long lens and, as a result, capturing some of the play right in front of the goal is occasionally difficult with players and officials getting between us.”
On Team GB
Returning to the subject of Team GB and the difference between Head Coach Pete Russell and assistant coach Tom Watkins in comparison to previous coaching duo Doug Christiansen and Corey Neilson, Colin acknowledges,
“Pete Russell and Tom Watkins, in my opinion, are much better in touch with the players than Doug Christiansen and Corey Neilson. They don’t have quite the level of experience as coaches but I think that they know how to get the best out of the team. I recall Pete’s closing comments before the Italy game in Cortina which I found to be very inspirational – ‘You can either line up at the end of the game and sing your hearts out at our National Anthem or stand and listen to theirs, it’s up to you boys.’ Pete, being Pete as anyone who knows him would know he had a few extra words in there but it wasn’t just the words that came out, it was the passion that they were spoken with. I can’t recall either Doug or Corey being as openly passionate; perhaps it’s down to heritage, who knows?”
Switching to the topic of the tournament in Cortina, where Colin held responsibility for all photographing opportunities, he recalls Team GB’s first game against the Netherlands in which the side won 6-5.
“I think they started the game slowly and nervously, but so did the Netherlands. The team showed character coming from behind and then never let their spirits drop in what was a GB score, Netherlands score, type of game. The highlights [were] GB scoring as many goals in a game. Yes, they conceded as well but scoring more than the odd goal in a game has been GB’s Achilles in the past.”
Achieving six goals against the Netherlands, Team GB then went on to score six more against Serbia and Colin agrees that this was the best he’d seen the side play in the tournament.
“They outshot them 52-16 which is an incredible statistic at international level. Goals came from a number of different players, including two firsts for Matty Davies and Jonathan Boxill, with a further 2 goals by an ex-Newcastle Jesters player David Clarke.”
During this game, Stevie Lyle also achieved a personal landmark, earning his seventy sixth cap as the experienced netminder was favoured over Ben Bowns on this occasion.
“I think that Stevie Lyle has an old style of play in that he’s a stand up goalie whilst Ben plays a lot of butterfly style. Whilst Stevie, in my opinion, is the best GB goalie of all time (not taking goalies who only play one or perhaps two tournaments into account) to date gaining his seventy sixth International cap, I think that Ben will continue to go from strength to strength.”
Continuing to reflect on individual successes, Colin considered the work of Colin Shields in this fixture, noting,
“to be the second highest goal scorer for your club is a great accolade, but to be for your country is something special indeed. To score thirty three international goals in a team which is often criticised for its lack of goal scoring is brilliant. Oh, by the way, he was another ex-Newcastle player, this time it was for the Vipers.”
With GB’s qualification to be decided in the final game against Italy, the side finally lost out, conceding a 6-2 defeat to dash their hopes of a place at the Winter Olympics in 2018, but just what gave Italy the edge?
“A few things, six of their players play for the same team (Bolzano Foxes) and obviously have a chemistry that comes from playing regularly together, two of them were brothers and have their own chemistry, they had a longer training camp and, finally, but probably the most crucial, they trained at altitude for their camp which I believe was for 10 days. Meanwhile GB had a one day camp followed by a twelve hour journey to Cortina and then after a meal, straight into their first altitude practice.
“The game against Italy was GB’s third and by this time the altitude almost certainly caused fatigue in the players which, had they had more time to acclimatize, would not have been so influential. Penalties certainly played their part, the early double minor on Craig Peacock for high sticks led to two goals from Italy and probably killed the game. Penalties cost GB but Italy were without doubt the better team and deserved the win.”
According to Colin, Team GB’s next trip will be when they head
“to the World Championships in Zagreb, Croatia, between the 14-20th April, using the Olympic Tournament as a platform to build upon.”
However, GB also have International Challenge matches against Poland in Nottingham and Coventry before a World Championship campaign mid-April but, when asked if he will be making the trip, Colin told us,
“This is the same weekend as the NIHL Playoffs, which I have already committed to prior to the dates being released so it’s a very difficult one for me, Club or Country? Depending upon the timings of the Playoff games, I may try to fit them all in.”
Thank you to Colin Lawson for taking the time to be interviewed. To view Colin’s work, please visit: http://www.icehockeymedia.co.uk/.
Featured Image courtesy of Colin Lawson – our sincere thanks for his permission to use the image!
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