Thirty years after Cardiff Devils were formed, the top ice hockey team in Wales is continuing to lead from the front. Back in the day it was the vision of John Lawless that powered Cardiff from the lowest tier of UK hockey to national champions in just four seasons – winning few friends in Durham at the time, since we’d become accustomed to claiming that title for ourselves.
Today the organisation is still forward-looking and, with a shiny new arena up and running at last, hopes are high that the long wait for a national title may soon be at an end. Twice in the last two seasons the Devils were pipped at the post by Sheffield Steelers, this time the club reckons its assembled its best ever roster.
First, though, it’s a warm-up game against Medvescak Zagreb of the KHL. In the middle of August, which is hardly peak hockey time. The idea is that bringing a representative of probably the best league apart from the NHL will excite Cardiff’s hockey public enough to make them forget that it’s supposed to be a winter game. It also offers a good test for the Devils’ roster at the start of pre-season and tests the water for the much-mooted KHL franchise potentially heading to London in the not-too-distant future.
For Devils GM Todd Kelman, getting Medvescak in town is a big deal. “It’s fun to test yourself against better league and when we heard the KHL was looking to play a game in Britain we wanted to be the first team to bring them over,” he said. “It’s cool to have that kind of relationship.
“We’ve been joking around about salaries this week – they’ve probably got guys on their team that make half as much as our whole roster gets – but I can’t say enough about the guys from Zagreb, from the players to the management to the coaching staff.
“Apart from their own program they’ve stayed late for a couple of nights to take some of the junior sessions with our kids. The players and coaches all stayed out on the ice to work with the kids, which was great. They didn’t have to do that and it’s been a cool experience for our younger Devils.”
The gap in class was visible in the pre-game skates on Saturday morning. Medvescak’s preparations were quicker and slicker; not surprisingly Cardiff’s player coach Andrew Lord had been involved in several of their practices during the week, looking to learn from this display.
They also learned a lesson on the ice, where Medvescak’s greater speed – not so much skating speed as choosing the right options faster and more frequently – ensured the outcome was more exhibition than game in a 6-0 win. “If we weren’t playing Medvescak this week we’d be talking about how good our team looks but it’s kinda been overshadowed by having these stars out there,” Kelman added. “We stepped on the ice and we thought ‘man, we look good’ and then we watched Zagreb and it was a sharp intake of breath. We saw how much better it could be still.”
Despite the loss, though, hockey is on the up in Cardiff once again. Last brought silverware for the first time in close to a decade when the Devils won the Challenge Cup, while the opening of Ice Arena Wales in the spring has given everyone a lift – players and spectators alike. There was certainly plenty of noise in the arena, even if it wasn’t quite full for pre-season. The Barry Town bugler, heard earlier that afternoon, also sounded like he was in the room.
Defenseman Josh Batch has noticed an upsurge of interest. “People are much more willing to come to a game when it’s in a nice new arena rather than the tent we used to have,” he said. “This place is much more spectator friendly, the sightlines are better. We sold out the last few games of last season here and we’re hoping for a packed barn this year.”
With growing support and a big anniversary to celebrate, 2016-17 could be the season that Cardiff Devils finally get that long-awaited Elite League trophy.
Ice Arena Wales, Cardiff, Wales
Exhibition game. Aug. 13, 2016
Cardiff Devils 0 Medvescak Zagreb 6 (Pare, Smejkal, Katic, Sauve, McMillan, Mertl)
Att: 2,000 (head count)