It’s been five years since Cardiff Devils were rescued by four businessmen from Calgary and in the first of a two-part interview, co-owner Steve King talks to British Ice Hockey about the deal and why he and his three friends all got involved.
Five years ago, Cardiff Devils were a team at their lowest ebb since their formation in 1986.
Their owner, Paul Ragan, had made a series of decisions that enraged the fans including the firing of popular player and coach Gerad Adams after stripping him of his coaching role.
Results dipped as they appointed Brent Pope as his replacement, only for him to miss a chunk of the season to commentate on the Winter Olympics in Sochi, with Dave Whistle in charge for the rest of the season.
The 2013/14 campaign was a complete mess, compounded by a ninth place finish that saw the Devils miss the play-offs for the first time in their Elite League history.
Five years on, they’re in the best shape they’ve probably ever been in, with two league titles, two play-off crowns, two Challenge Cups and about to embark on their third consecutive campaign in the Champions Hockey League.
And it was all thanks to four businessmen from Calgary, Steve King, Craig Shostak, Brian Parker and Kelly Hughes, who saw the potential and invested with the help of Todd Kelman, a good friend to the group and the general manager of Belfast Giants at the time.
But King looked back over the last five years and he recalled how the opportunity to take over in South Wales came about.
“It was through Todd, who was managing Belfast at the time and I’d been over to see Giants play Boston Bruins a few years. From there, I really fell in love with the league,” he said.
“I was impressed with the crowds and when the prospect of taking over Cardiff came up, Todd and I had a couple of pints on my back deck in my home in Calgary came up with the plan that he should be more than an employee and actually go after a team together and own something.
“We had a couple of teams to choose from and the situation was better for us in Cardiff, with the fan base and the new arena was coming. For us, the opportunity was there for us to make a difference.
“There’s not much point in buying a team that’s selling out and well run already. You wanted a situation where you could get into it as a businessman with some up sides and room for improvements so we’ve been lucky to do that with Cardiff.”
King, with a background in investment, runs his own private equity company, Alaris, which he has done for the last 15 years and as well as having business dealings with the other three of the group, who were also close friends.
Although it was clear Ragan wanted out of the club, the deal to buy the club over and begin the new era craved by the fans took its time as both sides looked to come to a resolution.
King spoke of one or two of the difficulties faced when it came to the negotiations and highlighted the state of the team at the time when they took over in July 2014, identifying the hurdles they had to overcome.
He added: “It wasn’t an easy deal to do and the process took its time. The previous owner has some expectations on price and it wasn’t one that made any sense to us.
“It took its time for both parties to reach an agreement and while we’re passionate people, as a businessman, it didn’t make sense to do something that wasn’t financially viable or make economic sense.
“In the end, we were very fair and managed to get something done, which benefitted all parties.
“We wanted to do our best and we took on a team that only had one or two players signed when we took over in mid July, but somehow managed to get a team that almost won the title in that first year and won the Challenge Cup.
“It was an amazing feat and that all goes to Todd and Andrew Lord for the job they did recruiting. It was something to behold.”
Once they got their feet under the table and started to understand the club and what was required more, one of the big decisions was the hiring of a new coach.
Almost from nowhere, Andrew Lord was appointed as the player-coach, having played in that disappointing campaign before. The decision was a surprise, considering his lack of experience in coaching.
But King revealed one man was responsible for the appointment that proved to be one of the best decisions they made since taking over the club.
“The credit for the the decision to bring Andrew in has to go to Neil Francis,” King said. “Neil’s a dyed in the wool Cardiff man and a club legend and was a big part of the deal getting done in the background.
“Todd, coming from Belfast, knew of Lordo as a player, but couldn’t be sure of what he could offer as a coach. The recommendation came from Neil and looking back, it’s a genius thing to have happened when you see what you see today.
“Looking back, it probably would have been easy to bring in an experienced coach from somewhere else, but we were restricted in terms of the budget in that first year. One of the negotiated factors from the purchase with the previous owner was he was taking out all the season ticket money.
“As a result, we had to put more money in, but we knew from talking to Franny that Lordo was a good candidate and would help with the budget.”
NEXT PART: The future of Cardiff Devils and how Ben Bowns stayed on