After two straight gold medals successes, Great Britain headed to the 1994 World Championships hoping to upset some of the world’s best. However, it was a tournament that was unforgettable perhaps for the wrong reasons.
It’s been a quarter of a century since Alex Dampier, the former Murrayfield Racers, Nottingham Panthers and Sheffield Steelers coach, led GB to their last appearance in the top flight of the championships.
But lack of preparation and heavy defeats made it a miserable campaign for the team in Bolzano, Italy, returning home with only seven goals on the board and conceding 44 as the top sides really made light work of them.
Now, 25 years on, Dampier says knew he was on a hiding to nothing as he took charge of what proved to be his final campaign behind the bench for the national team.
“I just hoped that we could possibly get together, win a game and stay up and it was a difficult task,” he said, as he looked back on that experience. “There was a lack of preparation and we’d basically gone from Wembley, at the end of the domestic season to the airport.
“Preparation is the biggest thing of course and I tried to pick a squad that knew they would get their ass kicked and forget about it the next day. Players can be fragile and it was hard on us, but we needed characters that would let it roll off the back and just go again.
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“I think the only pressure we had on us was to go there, be respectable and try to win a game. There were so many critics at the time and it was very club orientated back then and not so much the national team.
“I’d gone to World Championships before to watch games and scout players so I knew what we were getting into. As a team, we couldn’t compete and weren’t co-ordinated well enough.
“Individually we had some good British kids that could have gone to play in Europe, but the failing was our lack of organisation. We weren’t prepared and I think, for me, I realised how important preparation was.
“As a club coach, you don’t get a lot of prep time so everyone was on a level playing field. You’d show up in Murrayfield in last August, meet with the lads, have a few scrimmages then the league started. If you wanted to get an upper hand, preparation is the key and more teams started to take that approach on board later on.”
The Brits knew they were up against it when they came up against Russia in their opening game, with both sides sharing 15 goals. Sadly for GB, the Russians scored 12 of them to set the tone for what was going to be a long 11 days.
Two days later, the Germans were next up and while the scoreline was more respectable by comparison, losing only 4-0. However, hosts Italy delivered a crushing 10-2 blow as the week got more and more miserable.
Dampier insists despite the heavy scorelines, keeping the players motivated in the face of those devastating results wasn’t the issue. In fact, it was quite the opposite.
He added: “I had a feeling we’d probably get beat up in the first game against Russia and I hoped if we could hang on for half the game then run out of stream. We weren’t ready for that type of game, the speed and the physicality.
“After a certain point, we were just chasing them around. Skill wise and talent wise, we had enough to handle them, but the preparation side badly let us down.
“Motivating them in the national team was never an issue, especially in this run of games. If anything it was more of an issue bringing them down because they were so hyped up to win.
“Against Germany, it was felt if we could get a couple of bounces, we could steal a point. They were well organised, as were the Italians, who had a month’s training camp. We were flying by the seat of our pants by throwing guys together and generally winging it as we went.”
Despite the manner and the heaviness of the losses, Dampier admits it was perhaps a culture shock for his men, including top players including Tony Hand, Tim Cranston, Mike O’Connor and Rick Brebant.
But there was a feeling that individually, there were players who were capable of playing for some of their more illustrious rivals that year and hopes, for some of the younger players, they used the experience to help them in their careers later on.
“For some of my players, it was something of a culture shock for them as they’d never come up against this level of hockey,” he said. “Individually, they’d see imports coming over, but come up against a team of 18-20 of them. It’s a daunting task to shut them down when they play well together.
“I talked to the guys after, you try to take some positives. It was too easy to be negative, but some of them felt they could have fitted into a team like Canada and played a role for them. I think a lot of them were right.
“It was a positive thing for a lot of them, but as a team, it was quite the opposite. For some it was a learning curve, which I think could have served them well further in their careers.”
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Dampier is proud to see his once adopted country about to rub shoulders with the game’s elite again and offered some advice to current incumbent, Pete Russell as he prepares to head down the similar path to his predecessor.
But ‘Damps’ hopes there isn’t the same level of negativity he faced back in 1994 and is hopeful the current group don’t make the same mistakes.
He said: “I like that the current GB is getting the support and preparation they need for this campaign. As an organisation, we didn’t well going to Bolzano and I hope the guys involved now don’t make the same mistakes.
“I think Britain have a good group of players, but without the right preparation, it’s a daunting task.
“I’m really pleased to see GB are back there and I hope there isn’t a lot of negativity towards it. We had to deal with that in 1994, probably because of the amount of dual nationals that were playing.
“As for the coach, I haven’t followed Pete’s career too closely I admit, but I think I had him at one of my camps when he was a kid.
“From what I do know, he’s done very well, but if were to offer advice, it’s to keep everybody grounded. It’s like a boxer. Just because you get your ass kicked one night, it doesn’t mean you quit. You dust yourself down and go again.
“Whether you win or lose, you have to go out there with a game plan, but not get downhearted. That’s the worst thing you could do, but I wish them all the best in Slovakia.”