The Cardiff Devils won its first ever Elite League championship, ending a 20-year wait to be crowned Britain’s top hockey team.
The Welsh organisation was a dominant force in British hockey in the early 1990s, but after lifting the inaugural British Superleague title in 1997, Cardiff failed to add to its tally of four national titles…until now.
A comprehensive 6-2 victory away to Sheffield Steelers last weekend clinched top spot with three games of the regular season to spare, and Cardiff returned home to celebrate its first full season at the newly-built Ice Arena Wales with the trophy it has sought for so long.
In the early years of the 21st century the team was twice threatened with extinction due to financial woes and then the news that its home rink was earmarked for demolition. But a change of ownership three years ago and the move to the purpose-built Ice Arena Wales last spring has transformed the Devils’ fortunes.
Todd Kelman, the club’s GM, was part of the management team that came in 2014. Calgary-born, but a veteran of two decades on the UK hockey scene in Bracknell, Belfast and now Cardiff, he reckons his team prevailed in the highest-level competition he’s seen in this country.
“I have been involved in top level ice hockey in the UK for nearly 20 years as a player and a GM and this is the first year I would say that the Elite League is better than the Superleague,” he wrote on the Devils’ website. “The glory years are not behind us, they are in the here and now and hopefully in front of all of us, not just in Cardiff but throughout the league.”
Cardiff led from the front this season, with just one loss in the first 13 league games setting the tone for the campaign. The Challenge Cup was secured with a 3-2 victory over Sheffield in the final on March 5, but a 2-6 reverse in league action in South Yorkshire a week later set nerves jangling. The Devils’ lead was down to four points with two weekends of action to come. Having narrowly lost out in the previous two seasons, the team was determined not to fall at the final hurdle once again.
The following weekend saw the team back in Sheffield – and indulging in a little psychology as starting goalie Ben Bowns entered the arena on crutches amid reports that he was struggling with an ankle knock. In the event, though, Bowns had no problems and neither did his colleagues. A first-minute goal from GB international Mark Richardson got the Devils rolling, and a commanding performance delivered an emphatic 6-2 victory and secured the title in the club’s 30th anniversary year.
“Less than three years ago, we were a hockey team in ninth place,” head coach Andrew Lord told IceTime TV after the hooter. “Now we’ve come to Sheffield and won the league. It doesn’t get much better than this.”
Victory on Steelers’ ice was especially sweet for Cardiff after being pipped by the Sheffield team in the previous two seasons and there were generous words from defeated head coach Paul Thompson after his team gave up its title.
“This has been coming for a couple of years under Andrew Lord and this year Cardiff got it right in every area,” Thompson told the Sheffield Star. “He’s done a great job and every team – including us – will be looking at their blueprint and seeing what was so successful for them.”
In Andrew Hotham, Cardiff had the Elite League’s top-scoring D-man: he finished with 10+43=53 points from 49 games. Hotham was one of several players who arrived when the club changed ownership in 2014, having previously played AHL hockey in Oklahoma and featured for Dusseldorf in the German top flight. The club’s leading scorer Joey Martin, another of the 2014 recruits, currently has one more point than his colleague on the blue line.
Meanwhile, the club’s determination to do things the right way has been reflected off the ice in its support for Scott Matzka. Last summer, the 38-year-old former Devils star announced that he had been diagnosed with ALS, a terminal disease that destroys the body’s ability to control its muscles.
As soon as the news broke, Devils fans started a campaign in support of their former player. A fund-raising exhibition game between the current roster and Matzka’s record-breaking class of 2010-11 attracted more than 2,000 fans and raising over £60,000 for Scott’s family. Kelman added: “I am as proud of what our fans all did to support Scott Matzka as I am of winning the title.”
Cardiff’s next challenge is to complete a clean sweep of UK trophies by winning the post-season playoffs. Unusually, in Britain, the playoffs are secondary to the regular season competition. This is largely due to the difficulties of scheduling a full-scale set of seven-game series among teams that – for the most part – share their arenas with other activities.
Next season brings a first ever tilt at Champions Hockey League action, joining Europe’s biggest competition alongside Britain’s Continental Cup winners, Nottingham Panthers. GB’s Continental Cup representative will be the winner of next month’s playoffs or, if Cardiff or Nottingham triumphs on April 9 at Nottingham’s Motorpoint Arena, the place will go to the Elite League runner-up. Belfast Giants are currently in second place, three points ahead of the Steelers with two games to play.
The 2017-18 campaign will also see an expanded Elite League. Guildford Flames and Milton Keynes Lightning are scheduled to join Britain’s top-tier competition from the second-string English Premier League. That will take the league up to 12 members for the coming campaign.