Cardiff Devils have been one of the top clubs in the Elite League since they were taken over by four Canadian businessmen in 2014 and have become the team to beat. In the second part of this two-part feature, co-owner Steve King talks exclusively to British Ice Hockey about the challenge for the new season, how Ben Bowns was persuaded to stay and his vision for the future.
It’s been five years since Steve King, Kelly Hughes, Craig Shostak and Brian Parker took over Cardiff Devils and turned them into the Elite League powerhouse you see today.
The success has been non-stop, with two EIHL championships, two Challenge Cups and two play-off titles as well as a third straight Champions Hockey League campaign to look forward to.
But last season, they missed out on what would have been an historic third consecutive title as they were pipped on the last day in dramatic circumstances by Belfast Giants.
Devils however got their revenge in the play-offs a week later, denying the Giants a Grand Slam with a 2-1 win in the Nottingham final.
As the new season gets closer, the challenge is very much on with Cardiff and Belfast expected to challenge again for the top honour, plus Sheffield Steelers and Nottingham Panthers could get themselves back into contention after making big changes to their respective teams.
But the threat of the others is something that drives the Devils as they look to be top dogs again and co-owner Steve King admits it is difficult against teams with a bigger budget, but prides himself on the reputation the club has gained in the hockey world.
And he’s welcomed the challenge of the other teams in what could be another exciting campaign.
“There’s a few challenges there, but one thing we don’t have is the sort of revenue other teams have in this league and I know this is talked about by the fans,” he said.
“We’ve never spent above our means. We’ve never had to put more money into the club and always work with what we have. What we have is less than some of the other clubs and it will stay that way.
“It’s never a good idea for clubs to spend more than what they bring in and it’s not good for the league. It’s not sustainable.
“So, being able to keep up with challenge, and it’s very evident the other clubs are tired of us winning and are really going for it with their chequebooks. But that’s fine.
“We’ll work harder and one of the nicest things I’ve heard from players I talk to is we have a good reputation in the hockey world from agents and players for treating people well.
“We’re known for being men of our word, which goes a long way and we’ve had several players join us for less money than what’s been offered to them elsewhere and that goes a long way for competitiveness. But we know it’s getting tougher and tougher.”
Arguably one of the biggest deals they made this summer was the return of netminder Ben Bowns, who performed so well in the World Championships for Great Britain that teams from abroad were linked with him.
However, he opted to stay in South Wales for another year, delighting the Devils fans who had almost resigned themselves to the fact that Bowns would take up a lucrative opportunity elsewhere.
King and the rest of the ownership group have become close to Bowns during their stewardship of the club and revealed what kept their highly rated goalie in the league, when it was expected that they would need to shop for a new one.
“Bownsy has become my adopted fourth child and he stays with my wife and I in the summer when he comes over and gets trained by NHL coaches and players so he’s become part of the family,” King added.
“For him (to leave), it would take something incredible for him and his new wife to want to move on. They’ve just bought a new home in Cardiff and his wife has a business.
“Unless he got something extremely special, like a guaranteed starting role at a top club, it really wouldn’t be worthwhile for him to leave. It may come around in the future, but there aren’t a lot of spots like that open in the hockey world.
“Goaltending is a tough profession so if it happened next year, it would be a great opportunity for him, but tough for us, but we’re delighted he stayed with us this season even though there were other options for him.”
Todd Kelman, King’s close friend, is the managing director and runs the club on a day to day basis with Andrew Lord, who looks after the team and the coaching side of things.
So how much influence does King and the rest of the ownership group have on the running of the club from their base in Calgary?
“Todd and Lordo run the team,” he said. “We don’t call the shots from here, but they do ask our opinion on things and every now and then, Lordo will ask me to get on the phone to someone he’s trying to sign to persuade them.
“Most of our imports come from Canada and are between 26 and 36 and every player has concerns about life after hockey and that’s where we can help out.
“We’ve done it in the past and I’ve helped former players with job opportunities and that can be a big factor in persuading someone to come.
“Between the four of us, Lord and Todd, there are around 20 to 30 texts flying around every day. We love the team we’ve put together and while there may not be some wow factor signings compared to others, we have got players that we think will fit the roles we have for them well.
“It’s not all about signing an all-star team. It’s signing players for the right roles that can help to win championships. We’re going to have a younger, faster and more physical team this year and I’m really excited about that and it’s going to be an entertaining one to watch.”
Five years on, King truly has fallen in love with Cardiff and enjoys every opportunity he can to fly over and see everyone.
Referring to it as his ‘second home’, he’s keen to spend more time in the Welsh capital, but outlined where he sees the club and the league in five years time and progression in the Champions Hockey League is very much something he would love to see achieved.
King added: “Cardiff is definitely my second home and I get very excited every time we come over. It’s such a lovely city with a great blend of old and new and the fans involved are a great, loyal group of people.
“Looking to the future, we want to keep building and keep being the team to beat. We want to do more internationally as well and reach the next stage of the Champions Hockey League and I think that’s definitely possible.
“I also want to see the league build as well and I don’t see any reason why it can’t get itself to the sort of levels other countries have got to, like Austria and Germany. The cities that have teams are big cities and are world class places. With great management in the league and effort from all of us, we can help get it to that level.
“It’s tough because we don’t have the revenue streams to compete with those leagues right now so that’s a possibility so it’s going to take time and effort and won’t happen overnight.”