Ice hockey prospect Will Bray battles personal demons on route to the top
Goal tender Will Bray has taken a huge step towards meeting his sky-high ambitions after making his debut in the top flight of English league ice hockey aaged just 16.
In a whirlwind season, Bray made his National League debut for Peterborough Phantoms before Christmas.
And there was more to come in February when he made his bow with Coventry Blaze’s senior first team
“The back-up goalie was injured so I was given my chance,” he explained.
“This was a huge leap of progress for me and has led to bigger things. I loved every minute.
“My goals are to be on the draft list for the 2021 National Hockey League, and to sign a professional Elite League contract full-time.
“Lots of people would say my goals are very ambitious, but if my dreams don’t shock, they aren’t big enough, and it gives me something to work hard for.”
Bray, who recently moved to Granby after growing up in Plungar, took up the sport as a six-year-old after starting his journey on ice in figure skating at the National Ice Centre.
Inspired by trips to watch English club powerhouses Nottingham Panthers, he started out as a defenceman, but moved between the pipes aged eight for Sherwood Sabres and Nottingham Pumas (under 10s).
“This was after I saw Craig Kowalski, my first idol, play,” he added.
“He just blew me away with his speed and athleticism.”
While still a primary school pupil at Redmile, Bray had regional honours on his CV, earning selection for the Midlands Conference Under 11s team aged nine, and then had his first taste of overseas action at the Tilburg U12 tournament, in the Netherlands.
He drew attention when named goalie of the tournament, having claimed a shutout against the Dutch Under 12s national team, and, later that year won national medal with the Midlands team which won the U11 Conference, beating Scotland in the final.
At club level, there was another national final with Nottingham Pumas, which ended with defeat to Guildford.
But Bray made up for that disappointment by returning to win the final in 2016 with the Tiger Cubs U13s, keeping both Bracknell and Chelmsford scoreless in the semi-final and final, respectively.
The same season he rose to international level with England U13s in the Czech Republic, a trip he repeated the following season with the national under 14s squad.
“I worked with some amazing Czech goalie coaches who gave me new techniques which I still use today,” Bray said.
“It all allowed me to improve lots, which would be crucial for me later on.”
Bray left Nottingham for Peterborough for the 2016/17 season to be closer to his long-time goalie coach Euan King, whom he cites as the biggest influence on his career.
At Peterborough, and playing top-flight junior hockey the season before that, he found himself among struggling teams, but this gave him the benefit of plenty of practice.
“I managed to face lots of shots, and improve subsequently,” he said.
“I played for South East at conference and we didn’t do very well, but I progressed by learning to play under immense pressure.”
After further international experience with England U15s, Bray was once again looking for a new club for the 2018/19 campaign, but off the ice there were bigger issues to face.
“At this point, my mental health had taken a turn for the worse,” he explained.
“I had bottled it up for a while during the 2017/18 season, but I felt it was time to talk.
“I got help and managed to overcome it which was very hard.”
Accepting an offer to play for Coventry helped both his game and his personal battles.
“It was a decision I haven’t regretted one second of,” he said.
“Immediately I started having so much more fun, and at the same time my mental health was improving more and more.”
Again, Bray found himself at the sharp end of the action in an under 18s team battling relegation, but victory in their play-off game ensured another season of top-flight ice hockey.
The omens didn’t look good for the opening months of this season as illness and a torn pectoral muscle left him sidelined.
But then came the National League debut against recently-relegated Elite League side Milton Keynes, and then his full senior call-up for the Blaze – a 4-0 win over Manchester Storm.
Next there are plans to back up the big ambitions.
This summer, the former John Ferneley College pupil heads to Aosta, in Italy, for a training camp with Dusan Sidor, one of the best goalie coaches in the world.
“This season gave me belief to go on and try my hardest to sign a full professional contract as soon as I can,” Bray added.
“It reminded me why I wanted to play professionally as a little kid watching Craig Kowalski.
“I’m loving my ice hockey at the moment – I truly look forward to being on the ice every time.”