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Benny and Mike in the Daily Mail with Paul Newman.

Benny and Mike in the Daily Mail with Paul Newman.

Just in case you missed it – the Daily Mail has run a fantastic article with Mike and Ben O’Connor

The link to the full story and photos is HERE

or just read below …………

Twenty five years ago Mike O’Connor was a defensive rock in the Great Britain side that shocked the ice hockey world by reaching the top level of the world championships and taking on the superstars of Canada and Russia. Now they are back with a familiar name in their ranks.

Ben O’Connor will be following in the footsteps of his father when he takes to the ice in Kosice, Slovakia, on Saturday for Britain’s shock return to the elite of ice hockey for the first time since those heady days in Italy a quarter of a century ago.

It will be O’Connor junior, an outstanding defenceman with Sheffield Steelers and arguably Britain’s best player, who has to repel some of the biggest names in the game just as Mike did all those years ago during Britain’s one-year foray to the very top.

‘It’s a dream come true,’ said Ben as he sat alongside his father talking to Sportsmail. ‘Growing up you want to play against the superstars of the world and to be on the same ice as NHL players is going to be very special.

‘I think most of us in the GB team won’t make the NHL so our only chance of competing with the best comes in the Olympics or World Championships.

‘After we won promotion last year we were so excited and this year’s tournament has been a long time coming but it’s just around the corner now.’

That promotion came totally unexpectedly last year when a goal 15 seconds from time gave GB the draw they needed against hosts Hungary in their final match.

The aim was simply to retain their place in the second tier of the world championships but they exceeded all expectations with their second consecutive promotion. Now they face Germany in their opening match on Saturday before taking on the NHL-laden squads of Canada and the United States.

‘It’s a massive deal for our sport and we want to be playing against the biggest and the best,’ said Ben. ‘We’re facing USA, Canada and Finland in our group so we will have our work cut out but we’re going to embrace it and try to show the world GB can play hockey and we deserve to be there.

‘Realistically it’s going to be very difficult to stay up but we’re targeting France and Denmark as games where it’s possible for us to win. If we beat Canada I don’t think we’ll be ready for the next game because we’ll be flying so high!’

It was in the Italian alps that Mike O’Connor, a Canadian who qualified as a dual national to represent GB, played against his countrymen in a tournament where his adopted nation ended up beaten in every game but far from humiliated.

‘When we played Canada we went in for our pre-game skate and lined up in the hallway getting their autographs,’ remembered O’Connor senior. ‘They must have thought “who the heck are these guys?” I think they felt the public had been let in rather than the team they were playing that night!

‘I grew up aspiring to play in the NHL and to play against players we’d idolised as kids was incredible. It was an experience I’ll never forget. We didn’t disgrace ourselves against Canada and we were quite pleased with the outcome despite the scoreline (GB lost 8-2), but I think the Canadians were using the first round to have a bit of fun because I spotted a few of them in the beer tent. They didn’t get serious until the next round!

‘They were different times and we used a lot of dual-nationals with the Brits but now I watch this GB team and they are packed with outstanding home-grown talent. We targeted Austria as the one game we could win and we got shellacked.

‘We weren’t even at the races because we had no preparation. Now these guys have got five warm-up games before they go to Slovakia and that will stand them in good stead and get them up to speed.

‘I think it will be an amazing experience for everybody and, you never know, GB could upset somebody.

‘Coach Pete Russell has got them playing a very good game and while nobody’s suggesting these guys are going to push Canada, Finland or the States, there are a couple of teams in there that GB could surprise if they don’t come out ready to play. That’s what they’re looking for but however tough it will be they deserve to be there.’

Mike arrived at Durham to play for the Wasps in 1983 ‘just for a year to have a good time’ and has been in the country ever since. He had a distinguished career with Durham, where Ben was born 30 years ago, and Sheffield where he is now the commercial manager of his son’s side.

‘You know what, this is the best level of hockey the UK has ever seen,’ says Mike of the modern day Elite League.

‘In the old days when each side had three or four imports they stood out. Now, though, there’s a great crop of Brits and they’re not playing at the top because they’re British, they’re there on merit. I never thought we’d top the Superleague days but this certainly has. From top to bottom it’s a good product.’

Ben O’Connor is one of the stand-out players in the current set-up. ‘Growing up watching my dad play I wanted to follow in his footsteps,’ he said. ‘My dad didn’t push me into hockey but I just wanted to be like my old man. From an early age I knew I’d do whatever it took to get there.

‘When he played for Durham I’d sit on the step and watch him play. Then here in Sheffield I’d sit in the stand with mum and it was fantastic.

‘I’d go down to the dressing room and went on the ice when they won the grand slam. I remember that like it was yesterday. It was something else and playing for Sheffield runs deep in me because of all the memories.’

Mike, 57, takes up the story. ‘I’m very proud because he’s done very well and it’s been on merit. Ben’s done his own thing and travelled the world and I was delighted when he came back to Sheffield.

‘My message to him now is to enjoy every minute of it because when you retire and get on with life these are the times you remember. Make the most of it.’

Ben again: ‘The only thing he has ever really said to me when I’ve asked for advice is follow your heart because at the end of the day it’s my career and I’ve got to make the decisions and live with the consequences.

‘He’s always been very supportive but it’s always been up to me. I’m very grateful to have someone in my life who has been there and done that.’

The big question is, who was the better defenceman? Father or son? ‘I suppose I was closer to the NHL than the young lad purely because that’s where I plied my trade,’ said Mike. ‘But Ben is obviously a lot more offensively gifted than I was and, yes, he is better than me, I’ll concede that. Times have changed. It’s a different game now.’

Ben smiles: ‘That kills him to say that! We pride ourselves on the fact our system has grown and improved ten-fold since 25 years ago. Hopefully we can keep going and kids who play the sport can see us in this tournament and see what’s possible.

‘If I was a kid watching GB play Canada I’d think ‘I want to do that.’ I was lucky enough to have dad and that’s what I wanted to do.’ Now Ben will get the chance to do it against the very best, just like dad did.

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