Liberation Day: Cardiff Devils’ New Era Begins With Todd Kelman

This week will be one long remembered in South Wales.

After a nightmarish 2013/14 season in which the Cardiff Devils lurched from off-ice crisis to on-ice struggle to PR disaster under the leadership of Paul Ragan-a season that was marked by fan unrest, arguments off the ice and revelations of players being treated like pawns (for the full story on just how bad it got, here’s Cardiff goalie Dan LaCosta’s story) It’s long and very involved, but the short version is that Paul Ragan went as far as refusing to pay money owed to an injured player, to the tune of nearly £4000.

This was the darkest day in a dark season for the Devils. It was the moment that the full extent of just how badly Paul Ragan was running the club came into the light publicly and left no doubt that things had to change before Ragan harmed the EIHL as a whole beyond repair. Fans all over the EIHL were united in saying “enough is enough”-even going so far as to call for action from the other nine EIHL team owners to prevent their brand being harmed any more amongst the hockey world by Ragan’s actions.

Then, on Wednesday, came the confirmation: the Devils were close to being sold. Paul Ragan was finally releasing his grip on the team, and there was much rejoicing in South Wales and hope that the new owner would be someone who could take the Devils forward and repair the damage done to relationships with fans, players and the hockey world. It would require a very good hockey person to do it.

Today, the Cardiff Devils have that person. In fact, they probably couldn’t have found a better man for the job right now.

That man is former Belfast GM Todd Kelman.

If you were outside in South Wales around midday today, you may have heard a mix of screams of joy from South Wales and lamenting drifting across from the Irish Sea on the wind, as Kelman confirmed that he was leaving his post as Belfast GM after 14 years at the club as a player and executive, to take on an ownership and GM role in Cardiff as part of the new ownership consortium, which also contains Canadian financial professional Steve King.

The news has been greeted with universal joy in Cardiff and sadness in Belfast, for a very good and very simple reason.

In getting Todd Kelman, Cardiff are now being run by the man who is very possibly the best GM in the EIHL, bar none.

This is said with no disrespect to any other executive-there are some very good people in charge of clubs all over the EIHL. However, for sheer business savvy, it’s very doubtful that anyone can beat Kelman.

His record speaks for itself. The 39-year-old from Calgary has been a part of UK hockey since 1997, when he joined Bracknell Bees. Joining Belfast in 2000, he has been in the city for every year of their existence, universally respected by Giants fans and players and considered a true legend. After stepping away from playing in 2007, he’s been  responsible for guiding the Giants through some tricky times, notably the Chris Knight affair, and has fought against financial problems and uncertainty to make the Giants one of the strongest clubs in the EIHL.

In doing so, he has made the Giants a template for other clubs to follow-thanks to Kelman’s efforts as GM they now occupy a place in the sporting landscape of both Belfast and Northern Ireland that many other clubs in the EIHL would kill for-in fact I would argue that only Fife Flyers can claim to be as woven into the fabric of their home town as Belfast are…and the Flyers have 60 more years of history on their side in Kirkcaldy.

Thanks to the efforts of Kelman and his off-ice team, the Giants have one of the best social media and marketing presences in the EIHL, are courted by local dignitaries every step of the way, and are seen along with Ulster Rugby as one of the major forces for bringing the Northern Irish communities together through sport.

Never mind that, they receive regular coverage on BBC Newsline and UTV and the Belfast Telegraph and News Letter, spreading their name and message not just in Belfast, but all across Northern Ireland. That kind of national media presence is something that teams in England and Scotland can only dream of.

There can be no better man for taking on the responsibility of selling and rebuilding a club whose image and credibility in hockey has taken an absolute hammering recently thanks to the actions of its previous management. Nor can there be a better man for rebuilding a fractured fanbases faith in their ownership and uniting them under the Devils’ banner.

The Giants are still in safe hands with Steve Thornton-in true Kelman fashion this move is made only after arrangements have been made to ensure that the Giants don’t suffer-the kind of long-term thinking that historically has been conspicuously absent from UK hockey.

But today sees the day the Devils once again have the potential to become a true force in British hockey. If Todd Kelman and Dave Whistle work the same magic together on Cardiff as they did in Belfast, then the sky is the limit.

After so many days under a dark cloud, today, the sun has come out again for Cardiff hockey. And Devils fans can smile again.


“Frozen Dreams” Taster: “Punch Drunk Love And Playoff Hockey”

This post is a little different to usual. Next season, I plan to write a book about a season in British hockey, which for now is tentatively titled “Frozen Dreams”. It will chronicle a season in the life of a UK hockey fan, week by week, as well as ramble around what the game means to us fans. Think of it as part “Fever Pitch”, part “Zamboni Rodeo”.
As a taster, since it’s already written, here’s an extract of what will hopefully become the introduction, for your approval. Enjoy. 🙂

Someone once said about football “it’s not a matter of life and death. It’s more important than that”

Hardly a surprising thing in Britain-a country that lives and breathes the sport.

Me, however, I’m an anomaly. Like a small but growing band of British people, sporting heaven for me is not found on a football pitch, but at an ice rink.

Ice hockey is a sport that has given me an incredible amount. It’s given me my friends, a way to keep myself fit, and pretty much all my social life. It’s given me some incredible highs and some devastating lows. It’s given me more sleepless nights than I ever care to count (when you live in Britain and the best league in the world is in North America, you very quickly learn about the tyranny of timezones).

Most importantly, perhaps, a shared love of hockey has allowed me to meet my future wife, Kerrie-a fiery Northern Irish lady with wit so dry it’s not rained there since 1954 and a person who you, dear reader, will come to know incredibly well over the following pages, along with a good few other people for whom hockey is nothing short of a religion and whose lives and memories are dominated by a sport many people in the UK don’t even know exists.

For the true hockey fan, seemingly every milestone in our lives can measured with reference to a game, a season, a team. Other people have school dances, holidays, or, to link back to a sporting context, World Cup summers. We remember midwinter trips to Whitley Bay or Nottingham the way football fans remember trips to World Cup Finals or music fans remember trips to Glastonbury, because often, some of the major moments in our lives happen among a few hundred people sitting in a freezing icerink. To show you what I mean, here’s an example:

I fell in love for the first time to the soundtrack of a thousand people roaring with pure, primal, unrestrained joy as their dreams came true in one magical instant.

Admittedly, it wasn’t my somewhat-late initiation into the mysteries of human emotion that caused this reaction-in fact, I very much doubt whether me suddenly realising what this weird thing that caused people to pour their souls into writing songs, poems and everything else in between about since time immemorial was had anything to do with it.

It was far more likely to be the fact that Ashley Tait had just crowned an incredible season in Coventry by taking a pass from Jozef Lukac, deking once, twice and beating Nottingham’s goalie, Ladi Kudrna, in overtime to win the Blaze the Elite League playoffs (the only time until now Coventry have won them), and incidentally sealing the first Triple Crown of league, Challenge Cup and playoff wins (the Crossover Cup competition being won by Belfast even though there was no official trophy presented means that there is still dispute over whether or not this qualifies as a Grand Slam) in British hockey since Sheffield’s 2000/01 triumph.

It just so happened, however, that a great milestone in my “normal” life happened at the same time as a massive one in that of my hockey life…and ever since then, even though both the girl I fell in love with and every last trace of the celebrations of the 5th of April 2005 have vanished into the mists of time, they’ve been inextricably linked in my mind.

I remember, as a very cynical and somewhat unlucky-in-love 20-year-old, turning up for that bright spring weekend in Nottingham with a strange feeling that something momentous was going to happen.
Back then, before a combination of cynicism, conflict and seeing the seamy underbelly of UK hockey team with all its jealousy, egos and conflict killed any team allegiances, I was a starry-eyed fan of the Blaze-the kind of unquestioning cheerleader owners dream about having, especially when they need a few quid. I’d not encountered the bitterness, jealousy and sniping that a few years later would kill once and for all my love of the Blaze as a fan. And that year was a good year to bleed blue. After all, optimism was rampant in the Blaze camp after a team containing such glorious names as Martin, McNamara, Lehman, Calder, Carlson, and NHLer Wade Belak had steam-rolled their way through all competition to the league title-their unearthly Challenge Cup Final win against Cardiff (6-1 up after the first leg, Cardiff go 4-0 up at home after being presented as dead and buried and then, in possibly the most exciting game of hockey I’ve ever seen, somehow lose 5-4 to a Blaze team seemingly backed by all the forces of the hockey gods, with Bari McKenzie scoring the game winner!) only strengthened the impression.

Saturday passed in agonies of anticipation-the Blaze sneaked through against Sheffield and Nottingham beat Cardiff in order to set up a meeting of the league champions v the home club. I honestly can’t remember much about the Saturday game…if asked to recall that weekend, however, I do remember first becoming properly aware of the girl who was to cause me to be hit by a thunderbolt the following day.

Katie was part of my group of friends…fairly short, soft voice and with strikingly beautiful green-blue eyes and strawberry-blonde hair…but up until then we’d not exchanged more than a few words occasionally, as you do with groups of friends, as she was more a friend-of-a-friend within the group. However, she came to my notice properly rather painfully during a game of what might best be called "foot hockey" outside the NIC, when, despite being a few inches shorter and several stone lighter, she caused me to collide painfully with one of the supporting pillars of the NIC down at the Castle Inn side…putting an end to the game and meaning that I was limping around the NIC, and the trip to Rock City afterward, for the whole evening. On the plus side, at least it started a conversation.

That Saturday night was a strange one. I couldn’t sleep a wink. At the time I thought it was due to the potential for history to be made the following day, but looking back, Katie may have had more than a little to do with it…

Sunday passed in a blur, mostly-the third-place game between Sheffield and Cardiff was absolutely dire, notable only for goalie Jason Cugnet playing as an outskater. Tension rose throughout the game until, by the time the teams stepped onto the ice with Blaze chasing a historic treble and Panthers roared on by a sea of yellow-and-black at the horseshoe end, right next to the Blaze crowd, my guts were churning from the tension.

Then, everything came into sharp focus. I remember that. I don't remember much about the first two periods, though-I didn't see either Neal Martin's go-ahead goal or Nick Boynton's equaliser 40 seconds later at the start of the second period, thanks mainly to the queues at NIC catering, which meant I only made it back into the arena just in time to see the Panthers celebrating. I don’t remember anything else except that there was no other score.

The third period, with the game still tied. was horrific, as medical science (I think, looking back, that the virus I’d had the previous week came back for one last spiteful hurrah) and the sheer tension of the game combined to produce a chemical reaction that gave me crippling stomach pains. Mark Cadotte somehow missing an open net from three feet out, which would have put the Panthers ahead, was the final straw for me, causing my body to rebel violently and me to barely make it to the toilet before the NIC hot-dog and over-priced pint of Tetley’s went out the same way they’d came in about half an hour earlier.

I sat outside for a minute or two to recover, then stood up to go back in and experienced the scariest sensation I’ve ever had at a hockey game.

My legs wouldn’t work. My mind was screaming at me to get back in-it was the third period of a tied playoff final, for God’s sake!-but my body just did not want to go back through that door and risk seeing Blaze fall at the final hurdle, and nothing I could think or say would change its mind.

Then, as if my nerve-endings weren’t wound tight enough, the doors opened, and Katie came out…

You’re probably expecting some sort of fairy-tale here, but there isn’t one. She and a few others had seen me leave my seat at great speed, and were simply coming out to check I was OK. We didn’t even exchange more than a few words..and back in she went, along with everyone else.

However, the next few minutes saw me go temporarily insane. The fact that she’d came out to look for me somehow set off a crazy internal conversation and bargaining with Fate in my fevered mind, as I sat alone in the cavernous spaces of the NIC foyer and realised that I’d liked her since I met her a month or two earlier-the gist of which was “you have to go back in there-and if Blaze win, then it's a sign that if you ask Katie out, there might be a chance”;

And then the hooter went.

Jesus…it’s gone to overtime!

I stood up, marshalled all the resources of my fevered body, and made my way back in to watch, death-or-glory-type thoughts in my mind. Suddenly, there was Lukac, arrowing a pass to Tait, and the ice opened up in front of him…

I don’t mind admitting that, if you could hear or see all the prayers rising up to the hockey gods at that moment, mine would have drowned them all out with ease-it wasn’t so much a whisper as a silent scream of protest and pleading.

As he went in, I swear my heart stopped. I was still breathing, but to all intents and purposes, my blood had frozen. As the Blaze captain played chicken with Ladi Kudrna, it wasn’t just the dreams of every Blaze fan he had on his stick, but seemingly my fragile, fevered soul and every last hope I’d allowed to build up, unawares, about this girl I barely knew.

He scored. As you know if you follow British hockey.

As the celebrations exploded around me, I searched the crowd for people I knew…saw many, many faces that had become friends originally through a shared love for hockey and then just because they had…and was filled with a sense of shared joy almost as strong as any other I’ve ever had.

And then, I saw her. To this day, whether she meant it or not, I swear our eyes met, and Katie smiled at me-and at that point, even as Coventry went wild around me, there might as well have been no-one else in the room…

Two months later, we became a couple. A year after that, for reasons which are still unclear to me, and out of the blue, she left me. I haven't seen her in nearly nine years now. Time has moved on But, when conversation turns to that magical weekend amongst Blaze fans, or when I hear the commentary clip from BBC radio of Tait scoring, I don’t remember the season, or the celebrations, or the sight of the goal first of all (although these are memories that I will probably carry forever, even though my love of the team that brought them is dead and buried.

I remember the feeling at that smile-my giddy, 20-year-old self “this is what love feels like, then” feeling.
And, even though Katie and I have gone our separate ways and the chances of me seeing her again are non-existent, I remember how beautiful it was, how it made me feel, and how it added something even more to my already-stratospheric levels of joy.

And that is why, however many trophies I see a team of mine win in my lifetime (and there’ve been a few since then) the 04/05 playoff win, even though I spent much of the game throwing up or feeling almost catatonic with tension, will always be the most special one. And I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for that 04/05 Blaze team and the 04/05 season: a team that continues to cast a long shadow over every Coventry season that fails to match it.

Hockey is full of these moments. Every single week in a rink somewhere, little dramas are being played out as fans everywhere live and die with their teams, all over the hockey world. Here in Britain, as the Elite League enters its 11th season, it’s exactly the same. This book aims to chronicle a season in the life of UK hockey, from the view of a longtime fan of the game. Week by week, ups, downs and sideways in the life of British hockey, not from the viewpoint of a player, or even a team, but simply someone who loves the sport in all its forms. Watching, playing, and writing about it.

Some rules:

This will be a fan’s journal of a season. Not an edited, factual account (although we’ll try and remain as objective as possible). It’ll take the form of diary entries, with chapters divided up into weeks. There’ll probably be a lot of focus on the Coventry Blaze in particular purely because they’re the nearest team to me. I’ll try and include results of every EIHL game, but it MAY not happen that way. There will be lots of running off on tangents about the game and what it means to me, too.

Sitting here in June on the eve of the 2014 Stanley Cup Finals, I have no idea how this will turn out. But it’s going to be a fun journey finding out.

Let’s drop the puck. 🙂