Cardiff GM Todd Kelman on Elite League Win and CHL Qualification [Part I]
The Cardiff Devils celebrated their 30th Anniversary season in style, by winning their first British Elite Ice Hockey League title, and did so with three games to spare.
by Kris Watkins
Cardiff Devils’ Managing Director Todd Kelman kindly found time to talk to us prior to the EIHL Trophy’s homecoming night match versus the Fife Flyers a few weeks ago. We started by asking if the league win, and Champions Hockey League qualification, had sunk in yet.
“No, it’s sunk in for me already. The EIHL title is a weird trophy to win, I guess we’re the only league in the world to count the league winners as the national champions, everyone else considers the playoff winners as the champions,” said Kelman. “If I'm honest, it is always more exciting to win an actual game on the day, to watch the clock tick down as we did a couple of weeks back in the Challenge Cup Final, but we’ll take it whatever way we get it!”
Kelman is in his third year as Managing Director of the Devils, since moving from the Belfast Giants where he was also the GM. Over that time the Devils have seen a pretty major turnaround both on and off the ice.
“When we bought the club in the summer of 2014, the Devils were playing out of what was considered a temporary rink, and it was probably the low point in the organisation's 30 Year existence,” explained the Calgary native. “They’d had a very tough season on and off the ice, had finished 9th in the league and missed the playoffs. We came in here at a time that a passionate, very well-informed fan base were at a low, and their core number of fans had dwindled to around five or six hundred people.
“People have since asked, ‘What did you guys do to turn it around?’ and the answer was not much at all. We put together a decent team that first year, and we just treated the fans well, we treated them as they should be treated. We put out a team that they could be proud of and cheer for, we never talked about off-ice issues publicly, and we treated the players with the utmost respect. The team performed that season, and that’s been our recipe for success for the last couple of years. We treat the players, our staff and the fans in the same way.”
Now that the Devils have qualified for Europe’s premier team competition, what does the man at the top know about the CHL?
“I know a lot about it, I follow it, I watch as many games as I can and I watch the final every year. I run a hockey team but I’m a hockey fan too, you know, and its amazing quality hockey to watch,” said the GM and owner. “I don’t think we’re going to win the Champions league, I hate to tell our Devils fans that – I think that’s a given – but in the same breath, it’s just a huge honour to be able to take part in such a prestigious competition. The one thing I’d say about the British league is that I’m sure that our buildings will likely be sold out for those early round games, whereas it’s maybe a harder job for teams from the top European leagues to draw all of their fans in to watch cup games in August.”
What does playing in the CHL mean for the Devils going into next season?
“A huge plus is that we don’t have to worry about organising any opposition for the pre-season, that’s already sorted!” joked Kelman. “On a serious note, the Nottingham Panthers winning the Continental Cup was one of the best adverts possible for the British Elite League. They’re a top club in our league, their history shows that, but they didn’t finish in the top three this season, yet went on to win a European wide competition. That just speaks volumes about the steps made by British hockey in the last few years.
“I played in the Superleague era (1996-2003) when the playing standard was so high, but you know, we didn’t have any strength and conditioning coaches back then, or nutritionists or off-ice programs, whereas now, it is the norm. Teams are running with four lines, and just taking everything way more professionally and you see the results on the ice. The players themselves also followed suit, and are just real pros, such athletes now. They train much harder, they watch what they eat and they party less. The top European leagues adopted this professionalism a long time ago, and when they looked at our league, they thought the EIHL was a joke, a terrible league. The times are changing now, and there is no doubt that Nottingham did us a huge favour as a league by winning the Continental Cup, and showing that we can indeed compete against teams from some of the bigger leagues in Europe.”
“You know that when I played in Belfast we beat HC Davos, right?” added the 42-year-old. “I’ll never forget it! We were playing in the Continental-cup Superfinal in Lugano, Switzerland, 2003. One thing I specifically remember is that Davos had one player who made more in a season than our entire roster did combined, and this just shows the gulf between us and most other teams.”
Finally for now, what sort of goals will the Devils be setting for themselves?
“To get a win, no question. As one of the lowest ranking teams, we’ll no doubt draw a powerhouse like Frolunda, right? But we could then of course also draw a team from a league such as Germany’s DEL. We are really not that far off from the DEL right now, and if they travel over to us for the first game, it could be that they’ll take us a little bit for granted,” said Kelman. “Maybe they rest a key player or two, or start their back-up goalie, etc. If we can then take advantage of that, get the home crowd behind us with an early goal and play a good game, you just never know.”