So before he headed out on a three week road trip this week, I was fortunate enough to interview Team GB defenseman Ben O’Connor.
Ben was part of the GB team that made it through to the last round of qualifying for the Winter Olympic Games in 2014.
Ben started his junior career in Canada before heading back to the UK.
He is now one of only two current Team GB players to be playing club hockey outside of the UK.
I know it’s only been a few days since the Olympic Qualifying games in Latvia but how do you think Team GB and yourself personally, performed?
Ben: I think we showed the hockey world that GB can play at that level and we have a good team.
I personally think I played hard and played well, though as for all my team-mates… (he was joking I promise!)
In the first game against Latvia was it daunting, or just an exciting prospect facing all their NHL/AHL players and of course the legend that is Sandis Ozolins?
Ben: Of course going into the first game is going to be tough, especially against the host nation, with a full arena, and that is before you look at their team list with experience . It was very exciting to be playing against Latvia on the world stage and once we scored our first goal to tie the game at 1-1, I think the nerves settled.
It must have given the team confidence knowing they competed so well in the 1st period and for stretches of the 2nd against Latvia. Something to build on for the upcoming WC in Hungary this April?
Ben: Yes exactly! We have shown what we can do and how well we can play. We need to come away from the tournament with our heads held high and learn from our mistakes. If we do so, I think we can have success in Hungary .
My last question regarding International hockey. You’ve been around the Team GB scene for a little while now. What do you believe is the biggest single thing UK hockey could do to give itself a better chance to compete at these major Championships?
Ben: Well playing outside the UK for 3 years now, I have seen how other countries & their national teams prepare for WC and OLQ campaigns. The leagues have international breaks and the national team goes away to have camps & exhibition games.
All of which helps when they come together at a tournament, it makes a big difference.
In past years we haven’t had the chance to go away for a camp, so I think you will be able to see just from GB’s trips to Japan and now Latvia how much more familiar and confident the guys are together in Hungary .
Despite being just 24 years young, you’ve had 14 clubs on your resume by my last count.
Have circumstances always dictated this or have you always been a guy to move onto pastures new for whatever reason?
Ben: (initially laughs) Yes its not easy moving around all the time but I make the decision based on my career and what I think is best for my hockey . I would like to stay and play for a team for more than one year but I also want to play at the highest level possible. Sometimes you have to move around new countries, new leagues and new teams to do so.
So you mention not playing in the UK for the past 3 years and I’m guessing not everyone will know that you now play professional club hockey in Kazakhstan. How did that initial offer come about and did you have to think long and hard about the decision to head east?
Ben: I played for GB at the World Championships in Ukraine and there were some representatives from Karaganda attending who saw me play. Shortly after I received an email offering me to go and play for them.
It was an easy choice for my career, but then the worry of living, everyday life style & culture crossed my mind. I put that aside after being assured everything was fine and I haven’t looked back since, couldn’t be happier.
Ben went on to say.
I’m really enjoying my time here. In last two years I have seen a big improvement to my game on and off the ice.
Training twice a day with gym work outs and maturing personally in a different environment, has all has helped my progression.
Great to hear the move is paying dividends for you. With that in mind and spending a year in France and now in your 2nd season in Kazakhstan, do you see yourself as a talisman for British players and hockey, by showing the rest of Europe and Russia that GB players can compete in other leagues?
Ben: In a way I guess , but we all showed at the qualification tournament in Latvia that we all can play at this level. I would like to see more British players in Europe or Russia. It would only increase the standard of the national team and also give other British players coming through, more responsibility in the elite league with more ice time .
You seem like you’re having a great season.
32 points in 38 games(league leading defenseman), and far less penalty minutes than at this stage last season. Do you put this down to anything specific or just the aforementioned training regime?
Ben: Maturity in not taking stupid penalties. As for the points I’m an offensive defenseman. I like to jump up in the play and we have a good team this year. I just want to help the team win and if I get points that’s great but if not that’s ok to.
It was nice to break the league record because the current record holder is also playing on our team.
Just a couple more questions about your club hockey.
Brett Parnham has just joined your team. Do you remember/know him at all from your time in the OHL?
Ben: I actually live with him now. I didn’t know him in the OHL but we were both together for 2 months at the start of the season in Karaganda , so its nice to have a familiar face around.
You came pretty close to winning the Championship with Sary-Arka Karaganda last season. Do you think Arlan Kokshetau can win their first ever Championship this year?
Ben: Yes it was a great experience to be apart of last year .
Arlan Kokshetau have a great opportunity this season. Currently sitting first in the league with 9 games left, 6pts clear, and we have a great team.
To bring the championship to Kokshetau would be very special for the city and myself, as I have never won anything with a club team before .
If I may, just a few quickfire questions to end with.
Do you support/follow an NHL team?
Ben: Detroit Red Wings
What was the best thing about playing junior hockey in Canada?
Ben: Every single day was amazing, I loved it all.
Playing in the OHL against and with great players, which now most of them are big names in the NHL, was very special .
Have a favourite pre-game/post game meal?
Ben: Pre-game is chicken and pasta. Post game anything! (laughs) Again pretty boring, pasta and any meat.
Lastly, who is the best forward you have faced in your career to date?
Ben: Playing against Kopitar in Slovenia U18 WC was special.
When I played in the OHL every team had a “stud”, Patrick Kane, Bobby Ryan to name just two, so I have been lucky enough to have played against some very good hockey players.
Thank you so much for your time Ben.
I’m sure everyone will join me in wishing you all the best for the rest of the season with Arlan Kokshetau and look forward to seeing with you with Team GB in Hungary.
Ben: Thank you very much! I would also like to thank all the GB fans who made the trip to Latvia. The support was amazing so thank you.
On a personal level a huge thank you to Ben for agreeing to do this interview at such short notice and for giving me a fair amount of his valuable time.