From Calgary to Cardiff, two childhood friends have turned a running gag into a business passion and taken an EIHL franchise from the basement to the penthouse.
It started as a joke between two friends, the player and the entrepreneur. One had carved out a pro career in the British League after four years at Bowling Green. The other was a successful businessman back home in Calgary, where the two grew up.
Despite their divergent paths, the career trajectories of native Calgarians Todd Kelman and Steve King led them to the same unlikely place: Cardiff, Wales, where the pair have helped revive a moribund franchise and turn it into one of the Elite Ice Hockey League’s most successful teams in just two years.
Along the way, Kelman and King always kept in touch, playfully mixing business with pleasure when it came to hockey. “Every time I would see Steve, he would always say, ‘Listen, why don’t you find a team, we’ll put some money up, you can run it and we’ll come over and visit. Make sure it’s near a good golf course and an easy airport to get in and out of,’” Kelman said. “It was kind of always a joke.”
Kelman never made it to the NHL, instead landing in the British Superleague, where he played three seasons for the Bracknell Bees before becoming a fan-favorite on the Belfast Giants blueline for seven and a half more. He eventually became their GM after the previous one departed in 2006, and Kelman was summoned to the owner’s house outside of Belfast. “I thought, ‘Jeez, what have I done? I’ve got to be in trouble for something, but I don’t know what it is,’ ” Kelman said. “I thought I was getting fired, but basically (the owner) told me they’d like to give me a crack at running the team.”
King, meanwhile, was getting his feet wet in investment banking before co-founding his own company, Alaris Royalty Corp., which offers financing to private businesses.
The running joke between the two started to get serious in October 2010 when King flew to Belfast to visit Kelman and watch the Giants play the Boston Bruins in an exhibition game. Kelman was by then in his fifth year as Giants GM. “It really surprised me, the passion and knowledge level of the fans,” King said. “If every NHL arena had the passion and fun that these guys have at games, there’d never be an empty seat.”
The conversations about buying a team really picked up closer to 2013, when Kelman called King out of the blue to tell him they had their team. The Cardiff Devils were building a brand-new rink in the city, and the owner was looking to get out and move into a different business.
But Kelman and King couldn’t purchase the team alone.
Craig Shostak, Brian Parker, Kelly Hughes and Steve King
Enter Brian Parker, Kelly Hughes and Craig Shostak, a trio of Calgary businessmen who joined up with King and Kelman to make the Devils purchase a reality. King knew Parker, president and CEO of Acumen Capital Partners, and Hughes, vice-president of Acumen, through past business and had met Shostak, the GM and owner of Porsche Centre Calgary, through minor hockey, where they co-coached their sons. “To be involved in this deal, you had to be a good friend, be passionate about hockey and have enough money to not cry about it if we get a cash call,” King said, laughing.
The new ownership couldn’t have come at a better time for the Devils. The 2013-14 season had been arguably the worst in franchise history. The drop into the league’s basement had been swift, too, so the new owners’ first move was a wise one: they handed Kelman an ownership stake and put him at the helm.
Cardiff has been anything but a laughing stock since he took over. The Devils jumped to third place in 2014-15 and won the Challenge Cup, an EIHL trophy captured through a season-long tournament, just eight months after the quintet had taken over. “It was a fairytale ending to the first season, really, because the actual recruitment process for the team was probably three weeks instead of five months,” Kelman said. “We didn’t sign our first player until July. People started flying in at the beginning of August…It was a real motley crew of guys that we put together, and they just clicked.”
The success of 2014-15 was followed by a second-place finish last season, and the 2016-17 Devils started off as the hottest team in the league, 10 points clear of second place as the holiday season approached.
The ownership group, all of whom besides Kelman remain in Calgary, have made it clear the Devils are more about becoming a sustainable franchise than a profitable one. Not once, Kelman said, can he recall a serious conversation about the team’s finances with anyone from the ownership group, and most of the profit is pumped into growing the game in Cardiff. The owners are local celebrities, welcomed with open arms by the players and fans with each trip to visit their team.
All that’s left now are the elusive regular season and playoff titles, but with the passion Kelman and King, as well as the rest of the group, have for Cardiff, the Devils and the game, there’s a good chance those aren’t far off. “We’ve invested in Cardiff, we love the city,” Kelman said. “We’re two years in, and hopefully the passion (the ownership group) has and the excitement they have sticks with it for the next number of years.”