Ice Hockey: Britain face old rivals

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The Independent Online
ON 4 April Great Britain swept aside China 14-0 to take the gold medal in the Pool B World Championship and qualify for a place in the qualifying tournament for next year's Olympics.

On Saturday the week-long tournament starts at the Sheffield Arena with the hosts facing four strong teams in a round-robin competition, with the winner going to Norway.

The first opponents are Poland, coincidentally Britain's first scalp in Pool B. Hopes of another win should be tempered by the fact that the 5-4 win was against a team tired from a long coach journey and facing a side they knew nothing about.

Monday's opponents, Japan, were also beaten 5-4 in Pool B. In Norio Suzuki and Motoki Ebina they have two players with seven world championship medals each.

Poland and Japan may be beaten again by a British side now 14 players in a 25-strong squad who shout for the puck with trans-Atlantic accents, but one of their two remaining opponents look likely to make it to Norway.

Latvia's last international appearance was in 1936. Now independent again they are calling home their players, and one in particular who has outstanding experience in the sport's toughest position playing in the toughest league in the world. Arturs Irbe was a member of the Sovietworld championship squad in 1989 and 1990 but he arrives in Sheffield from the NHL's San Jose Sharks.

Then there is Slovakia, who have Peter Stasny, one of New Jersey Devils' top scorers last season. If he is joined by Peter Bondra (Washington Capitals) and Zdeno Ciger (Edmonton Oilers), they could be greeting their former team-mates from Czechoslovakia next year.

If it all sounds doom and gloom for Britain, there is some hope. The vocal home support will number nearly 8,000 and neither Latvia or Slovakia have experienced the physical back-checking British side before. Scott Neil, one of the British-born players, said: 'We have no illusions - they are the toughest opposition we faced to date.'

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