British ice hockey is on a high – and Billingham’s Robert Dowd is a playing a big part in Team GB’s most successful World Championship campaign in decades.
He’s an assistant captain on the team currently playing in the IIHF tournament in Riga and, with three assists in four games, the Sheffield Steelers forward is second in team scoring. That’s helped the Brits record a historic 4-3 win over Belarus, the country’s first regulation-time victory at the highest level of international competition since 1962.
Dowd, 33, began his career on the ice at the Forum, and worked his way through the junior ranks at the Bombers (now renamed Billingham Stars) before emerging as one of the best players in Britain. Now he’s mixing it on the ice with players from the NHL, guys with Olympic and World Championship medals.
Hockey has loyal following in Britain, but the game largely flies under the radar, swamped by the tsunami of interest in football. But, at arenas like the Forum, talented players emerge – and Dowd hopes the national team’s rise from the obscurity of Division IB to the World’s elite can inspire more.
“I came from a small hockey town and, to be honest, that’s true of the majority of British players,” he said after GB’s latest training session in Latvia. “To come from that and to make it to here, I’m blessed, I’m very lucky.”
The next generation might be even luckier, though. Britain’s climb up the rankings has put our players under a global spotlight. Liam Kirk, Dowd’s team-mate for Sheffield and GB, was the first English-trained player to be drafted by an NHL team. He has four goals in Riga, tied for the tournament’s top goalscorer.
Now Dowd hopes that others can follow and start to crack the world’s top leagues.
“I would have loved an opportunity like this to strive towards when I was younger,” he says. “We never had a shop window like this.
“If some of the younger guys have a good tournament here, they could end up in one of the best leagues in the world but when I was coming through, even if you had a good tournament agents were still unwilling to look around Europe for you.
“If we can build a system that keeps the national team at this level, we can get young kids into the best leagues in the world. That would be great for British hockey.”
For Dowd, now approaching the veteran stage of his playing career, it’s about looking to the future. He’s remained in touch with his Teesside roots, with family still living in Billingham. And that means staying in touch with the hockey club, when his own playing commitments allow.
“When I get back, I like to go down the rink,” he adds. “A couple of years ago when I was hurt playing for Sheffield I went back home and managed to get to a game. It was nice to see a few old friends who are still playing. I got back to give out some of the awards for the juniors at their ceremony about two years ago as well, and a lot of the people were still involved from back when I was there.”
And the future could see Dowd working with more of those juniors.
“I enjoy coaching, I love working with the next generation,” he says. “It’s fun to see people develop in such a short time and once my playing career finishes, I’d definitely be interested in bringing on young players.”
The 2021 IIHF World Championship is taking place in Riga, Latvia. The group stage ran until June 1st, with the top eight teams advancing to the knock-out rounds. For full details, see www.iihf.com.
Photos: Dean Woolley, courtesy of Ice Hockey UK