Kazakh-bound Sheffield Steelers star predicts others will follow in his footsteps

Ben O'Connor celebrates for Steelers. Pic: Dean WoolleyBen O'Connor celebrates for Steelers. Pic: Dean Woolley
Ben O'Connor celebrates for Steelers. Pic: Dean Woolley
Departing Sheffield Steelers defenceman Ben O'Connor reckons there could be more British stars heading for opportunities in some of the world's biggest leagues.

The 29-year-old will be the first British player to play in the KHL, the mainly Russian league, considered to be the second best in the world, after moving to Kazakh side Barys Astana.

But following on from the success of the GB national team and the prospect of Steelers team-mate Liam Kirk being drafted in the NHL, O’Connor reckons this is just the start.

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“I hope with me going to the KHL and the possibility of Liam Kirk being drafted in the NHL, this is the beginning of some big moves for British players,” he said.

“We seem to get overlooked for one reason or another and I think the success of the national team is making people take notice now.

“Liam has had a great year and he’s off to the Combine next week so it’s all positive.

“We’ve got very good British players so it’s about time we get noticed and given the chances to play in better leagues.

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“Plus I also think the improvement of the Elite League has helped with that and I’ve noticed it since I came back in 2014 and every year since, which has helped the national team.

“I would certainly love to see more guys ply their trade abroad. It will just be a matter of time when you consider we’re in Pool A against some top teams next year and the world will be watching.

“I don’t think I’ll be the last person to be leaving.”

O’Connor also revealed how the move to Kazakhstan came about, admitting the success of the GB team in the recent World Championships in Budapest was probably a factor.

But he admits it started out as a joke between him and some former team-mates from his first spell in the country before the reality of a return to Kazakhstan became more apparent.

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He added: “It all came about at the World Championships when I met up with some old teammates from my time in Kazahkstan and they were staying I should go to Astana.

“I know a couple of the guys high up at the club to say hello to and they jokingly said I should sign for them. I said ‘yeah, okay’, but never gave it much thought.

“After the tournament, my agent got in touch and from there, one thing led to another and it’s all happened.

“I think the performances at the World Championships helped things along and as a team, we were fantastic and we all contributed individually.“The fact I know Kazahkstan was a factor, having played there with Karaganda and Kokshetau so I know what I’m going into.

“I also know Astana as a city and I’m more than familiar with it so I can’t wait to get back. It’s a world away from Sheffield certainly and I’ll miss the place.