By Sion Ford
For a city that has a sporting history dominated by rugby and football, it comes as no great surprise that the Cardiff Devils ice hockey team are still something of a secret to those outside the sport. However, over the course of the past four seasons the Devils have outshone the other professional sports outfits in this city.
The Devils exist as a team competing in a fringe sport, which has developed a cult following among the South Wales population, in the shadow of Cardiff’s traditional sporting history.
In four years, the Devils have won the Erhardt Conference title three times, the Elite League title and the Challenge Cup twice, and the Playoff Championship once – this level of domestic success hasn’t been seen by any professional Welsh outfit for decades, and it hasn’t shown any sign of letting up.
Last season saw the Devils retain their league title and win the Playoffs for the first time in 20 years, as well as making it to the final of the Challenge Cup for the fourth time in as many seasons.
And so, as another season beckons, the Devils are looking to continue to build on the incredibly successful period that has come about under the ownership of the ‘Calgary Four’ and the direction of player-coach Andrew Lord.
Where recruitment is concerned, a couple of last year’s championship winning team have already been confirmed as not to be returning, with the most notable absentee being Andrew Hotham. One of the core players of the Devil’s team during this new era, Hotham won himself the title of Defenseman of the Year for the EIHL in his four years in Cardiff, with three of those years placing him as the highest scoring defender.
Hotham is a player whose skill-set meant that he was always capable of greater things – although the standard of ice hockey in Great Britain is improving, it is still some way off that of our European neighbours – and so his departure, whilst upsetting for many Devils fans, cannot come as a complete surprise.
Others confirmed not to be returning are Drew Paris, another D-man, and bench coach Jamie Elson, both of whom contributed to the Devils’ success in their respective time with the Welsh side.
One of the signs of a successful team is the ability to retain a core group of players that embody the values and personality of a team, and it is on this front that the Devils are thriving. So far there have been 15 of last year’s squad announced as having signed contract extensions, including the netminding duo of Ben Bowns and Thomas Murdy, the gritty forward Justin Faryna, the veteran forwards Sean Bentivoglio and Layne Ulmer, the mercurial forward and ‘Mayor of Cardiff’ Joey Martin, as well as the younger crop of British talent in the form of Josh Batch and Craig Moore.
As things currently stand, only one new face has been announced, that of Mike Hedden. The 33 year-old forward joins the Devils having spent the past three seasons in the German league; a feisty goalscorer who has played at the top European level and who also had an extended period playing in the American Hockey League (AHL), a competition which is the second-tier to the NHL.
There is still some speculation about the fates of other members of last year’s team, such as the silky forward Patrick Asselin, and there remains unanswered the question of whether the Devils’ player-coach, Andrew Lord, will now take on the shortened title of just coach. In spite of these factors, though, the outlook ahead of the new season looks as bright as ever for the Devils.
The Devils start their pre-season with a fixture against rivals the Nottingham Panthers on 11th August. Following that is a double-header against HK Poprad of Slovakia on the weekend of the 18th of August, and a dust-up with historic rivals the Coventry Blaze on the 25th. The Devils then begin their Champions Hockey League (CHL) – the ice hockey equivalent of the Champions League – campaign at home against Red Bull Salzburg on the 30th, before hosting SC Bern on the 1st of September.
Last year’s CHL campaign saw the Devils compete against some of the best and most prestigious European club teams, ultimately finishing bottom of their group, though there were some fantastic results against far better funded and far more established teams at home. To put things into perspective, the Devils’ fixture against SC Davos was the equivalent of a Welsh Premiership side facing off against Juventus or Real Madrid.
The hope for the Devils on the European front – bear in mind that this will be only their second venture into the CHL in the current professional era – is to place higher than the previous season. Or at least that will be the hope for those outside of the locker-room; within the Devils camp, there will be the belief and ambition to qualify for the knockout stages in spite of the incredible odds against them.
As for the domestic titles, there will be an expectation now from the supporters that the Devils continue their success. During the 1990s, the Devils dominated the professional game in Great Britain, and while the word ‘dynasty’ cannot yet be used to describe this period in the club’s history, Cardiff’s best-kept sporting secret will go into the upcoming season with one goal in mind: to win everything.
They might not attract the same headline space as that of Cardiff City or the Blues, but the Cardiff Devils deserve the recognition they are now being afforded, and are genuinely a team that this city can be proud of and get behind. To say that there are exciting times ahead would be an understatement – we are living in the exciting times now, and here’s hoping that they are far from being finished.