By John Jones
Cardiff freshers looking to get involved in ice hockey do not have far to travel to witness some world-class action, as the Cardiff Devils look to defend their Elite League title for the second successive season. Ahead of their season opener against Nottingham Panthers, we sent Sports Editor John Jones to the club’s Director of Corporate Development, Neil Francis, about the team’s form, his hopes for the upcoming season, and his involvement with the club and the sport as a whole.
Cardiff born and bred, Francis worked his way through the Devils’ junior development system to make his first team debut at just 16 years old. After a 15-year playing career, and 679 games for the club, he retired as a player and took up the role of Bench Coach, which he held for seven seasons.
Now having moved up into management, Francis may be less involved with the on-ice action as he once was, but is delighted to have had such a long association with the Devils, and being able to share the incredible successes of previous seasons, after what was a difficult period for the club.
“We’re now into our fifth year of new ownership” Francis explains. “Todd Kellmann came in and took over as managing director, backed by four businessmen from Calgary, and it was chance to rebuild the club, to strip it right back down and look at what we needed to change to get back to the glory days of the 1990s, when we were the dominant force in British ice hockey. Sadly, for various reasons, the Devils had fallen behind some of our competitors and the club wasn’t in a good place,” said Francis.
However, the appointment of the dynamic Canadian Andrew Lord as head coach in 2014 kick-started what has since been an “incredible journey” for the Cardiff club.
“We won the Challenge Cup in our first year under new ownership, which really set the tone that this was going to be a winning organisation again.
“We’ve built on that year on year, and in 2017, we won the league title for the first time in 20 years, before managing to regain it last season, as well as adding the end of season play-off trophy for the first time in 19 years.”
Nevertheless, whilst happily surprised at the speed of the club’s dramatic turnaround, and enjoying the club’s position back on the top perch of UK ice hockey, Francis is wary of the potential dangers that lie ahead in the upcoming season.
“The toughest thing in any sport is to retain championships, as you put yourself up on the pedestal where everybody is going after you – whenever teams play against the champions, they’re upping their game by 10%.”
Given their commanding performances in their first defence of the league title last season, there is, however, confidence amongst the Devils’ players and coaching staff that they can bring glory to the Welsh capital once again.
“We’re always trying to raise the bar, as we know that the chasing pack are raising their standards to try and catch us – it’s a tough job, but we’ve put in some great foundations to it. We have a great nucleus of guys that have been with us over the past four successful years, and they know what is expected of them.
“Winning is definitely a culture here, and the expectation for those arriving in Cardiff [such as new signing Charles Linglet] is that you are brought in to help us compete for a championship. Defending titles is always tough, but we’re well up for the challenge.”
Away from the Devils’ performances, it was interesting to learn how Francis was drawn to ice hockey, a sport that suffers from lack of mainstream exposure in the UK, and, in Wales particularly, is often overshadowed by the feats of the nation’s rugby and football teams.
“When I first started, the Devils were fairly new; there was this big buzz that there was a new and unique sport in town. As a 12-year-old who enjoyed sport, I went down as a spectator, and the pace and physicality of the sport had me hooked straight away.”
When asked what advice he would give those wanting to get involved in ice hockey, Francis stressed developing the basics.
“Skating is the most important thing. Ice hockey is not like any other sport where you can run out on a field and learn the game as you go along – you’re on two blades on a very slippery surface, and if you can’t get from A to B then you’re obviously going to have real trouble playing the game.
“Once you’ve picked up the basics of good skating, you can develop the rest of your game quite quickly,” Francis added.
To aid this development, the Devils not only have a successful junior club in place, but also run learn-to-play programs, suitable for all ages and abilities. Cardiff Redhawks, made up from university students from around South Wales also play regular fixtures against teams from all over the UK.
Francis encouraged any interested freshers to give the sport a try; “even if you don’t make a career out of ice hockey, there is still a lot of enjoyment to be had by playing the game at a recreational level”.