In the 1990s the Cardiff Devils were one of the major players in UK hockey, having won three league titles in five seasons, three playoff championships in seven years, and an Autumn Cup to boot. After their last playoff title in 1999, though, they had only won a solitary Challenge Cup (think the FA Cup in soccer), and gone through a series of owners.
The Ragan days
The last of these owners was a man named Paul Ragan. Ragan built himself a £20M fortune via an insurance brokership he created himself, and later moved into operating a large taxi firm in Wales. He gained some mainstream media coverage via his appearance on the Channel 4 show "The Secret Millionaire", where he lived amongst people living in the poorest areas of Derby, a town in the Midlands, and shared some of his wealth with the people he encountered.
In 2010, he took a controlling interest initially in the Devils before later taking over at the Sheffield Steelers, owning two clubs at the same time (this isn't uncommon over here). After a voluntary liquidation, in somewhat shadowy circumstances, the two clubs separated again, with the Steelers being bought out. Ragan did remain in charge at the Devils, though.
Following the split, the Devils' fortunes on-ice were average at best. The fans were loyal to the coach and the team, but their smaller budget was a handicap against the bigger arena sides. That is, until 2013-14.
In 2013, there were mutterings that things weren't too happy in the valleys. Long-time coach Gerad Adams was removed from his duties, replaced with long-time Devils figurehead - and noted hat-wearer - Brent Pope. Bench Coach Neil Francis left his role, and many players were replaced with cheaper European imports - and you get what you pay for.
Fans protested outside the Big Blue Tent, Cardiff's long-term temporary home ice. The Devils missed the playoffs for the first time in 10 years. Two months after the end of the season, by June 2014, only one player had been signed for the following season, and fans were baying for blood.
For further reading on this, Stanley Cup Of Chowder writer Paul Wheeler looked at the torrid situation on his own blog at this link.
Suddenly, a group of white knights
Todd Kelman had been involved with the Belfast Giants for 12 years, becoming manager of hockey operations after icing for them. He was considered the man behind their success, but was looking for a new challenge. He saw an opportunity in Cardiff, but needed the financial backing.
Kelman had been friends with Steve King, President and CEO of Calgary-based Alaris Royalty Corp, for many years, and approached King with the idea of owning a hockey team. King joined forces with Brian Parker (President and CEO) and Kelly Hughes (Vice-President) of Acumen Capital, also of Calgary, and car dealership owner Craig Shostak to create a consortium.
They bought the club from Ragan, and immediately placed Andrew Lord - a player for the Devils in 2013-14 - in charge as player/coach. He quickly assembled a roster in a month, with relatively low expectations for the forthcoming season. They duly blew those away.
With the extremely PR-savvy Kelman in place as managing director, the Devils quickly gained a reputation for having one of the best match night experiences in the league. He made the fans feel part of the club again, welcomed away fans to the BBT and requested feedback from them, and launched social media initiatives to keep fans involved - something the previous regime shied away from.
On-ice, it was even better. After an initial slow start, the Devils duly gathered momentum in late October, and didn't look back. The run took them all the way to the Challenge Cup final, where they defeated the Steelers at their own arena in Sheffield, winning their first trophy since 2006.
While they eventually lost out to the Steelers for the league trophy, and they failed to make the playoff finals weekend, the season was considered a huge success. Twelve months prior, nobody would ever have predicted the roller coaster ride that both the fans and players went on.
Building for the future
While the foundations for the club seem to be on very solid footing, the team is about to welcome in another new era. Through a scheme started by SORAC while Ragan was still in charge, and with backing from public money, the Devils are due to move into their new permanent home, the Ice Arena Wales, mid-way through the season.
Lord, who won the Ice Hockey Journalists UK Coach Of The Year award, has remained in charge of the on-ice product, making the most of having the full off-season to work with to recruit well. The team he has created is a mixture of British defence, including the arguably the best British goalie in the league in Ben Bowns and one of the more exciting defensive prospects in Josh Batch, and Canadian attacking prowess, including favourites from last season Brent Walton, Joey Haddad and Joey Martin. He has also added proven EIHL players in Leigh Salters and Guillaume Doucet. There's even a Calgary influence on-ice, in the shape of forward Luke Piggott.
They'll be looking to go one better this year, and who's to say they can't? They narrowly missed out on the league title last year after almost no pre-season preparation. It's scary to think how good they could be now. That, mixed with the new arena, means it's an exciting time to be a Cardiff Devils fan.
If you're a native of YYC and need a team to follow over here, you could do much worse than taking a look at the Devils. They offer live webcasts for all home games. Find out more information at cardiffdevils.com.