A piece of history shall be made during the second weekend of August, when the Elite League’s Cardiff Devils entertain Croatian team Medveščak Zagreb, in a pair of pre-season games.
It’s a huge coup for Cardiff and for all those involved who made this happen.
This will be the first time a team from the Kontinental Hockey League has played in Britain and will give fans this side of the ocean their first real taste of what’s considered the best standard of hockey outside the NHL.
It’ll signal the beginning of an exciting pre-season schedule for Cardiff, who will also entertain Slovakian team Banska Bystrica the following weekend. The Devils will wrap up their pre-season campaign by hosting Dutch team Tilburg Trappers and Coventry Blaze.
Medveščak Zagreb, nicknamed the Bears, will hold a week long training camp in the Welsh capital prior to the weekend but their pre-season preparations will be well underway by the time they arrive.
A pair of 1-0 victories against Avanguard Omsk (KHL) and HC Litvinov (Czech Extraliga) have been attained on the road and training camp was underway late in July.
After departing Cardiff, the Bears will fly to Slovan and head into the regular season campaign after a final game with Graz 99ers.
Medveščak are relative newcomers to the KHL, despite having been around for 55 years.
This will be their fourth season in the league and they compete in the Bobrov Division.
They were a fairytale story in their inaugural season, making the post-season thanks to standout performances from the likes of Jonathan Cheechoo, Matt Murley, Ryan Vesce, Bill Thomas and the two goaltenders, Barry Brust and Mark Dekanich.
Having lost a plethora of key players and head coach Mark French, it’s been a struggle since, having recorded two losing seasons and going through a further three coaches.
Geordie Dwyer took the reigns during 2015/16 and despite recording just 19 victories, the team were more competitive than the season before.
Zagreb have retained his services to instil some stability in the club but have made some other changes.
Dwyer will have essentially a new coaching team around him with only Dylan Beston retained as assistant/video coach.
Connor Cameron will join the staff having been an assistant coach with the Charlottetown Islanders the past three seasons, including the first two under Dwyer.
If the name sounds familiar it’s not unsurprising as Connor is the son of former Ottawa head coach (now Calgary assistant) Dave Cameron.
Alex Westlund has been hired as goaltending coach in what will only be his second year in the profession after a season with German team Augsburger Panther.
The American native has a vast experience of European hockey from his playing days, including some time in Russia.
It’s been a summer of change also on the playing side, with 14 players returning from last season and ten new additions to the roster.
The acquisitions of forwards Francis Paré, Alexandre Giroux, and defenseman Derek Smith are the standouts but no doubt Gordie Dwyer will be equally delighted to have retained the services of Danny Taylor, Thomas Larkin, Tomas Mertl and Gilbert Brulé.
Gilbert Brule (image courtesy of “Igor Šoban/MDV Press”)
These two games in Wales will be a homecoming of sorts for Danny Taylor and Thomas Larkin, both of whom were born in the United Kingdom.
The pair went on to live in Canada and Italy respectively and this shall be their first time playing professionally on these shores.
Mike Glumac was Captain of the Bears last season and looks set to once again take on that role.
Both of Medveščak’s pre-season victories were gained courtesy of short-handed goals and the amount of penalties taken so far might well be a cause of concern for Gordie Dwyer.
The Bears were the second worst offenders in times short-handed last season and it’s an area they’ll look to vastly improve upon if they are to achieve success.
Though being a skilled team, Medveščak play a very North American brand of hockey due to the playing staff and coach, which should lead upto an interesting match-up with the Cardiff Devils.
Formed in 1986, Cardiff had success in their formative years but have been through a lull in recent history since.
Cardiff have enjoyed a resurgence of late but all involved with the club will be looking to push on after finishing runners up in the League and Challenge Cup respectively last season.
Taken over by a Canadian consortium in 2014, the team won the Challenge Cup title, the first major trophy for the Devils in 9 years. A move to a brand new arena, Ice Arena Wales, has also taken place and 2015/16 shall be their first full season in their new home.
Andrew Lord is the head coach and still performs to a very high level on the ice.
This will be his third season at the helm and his fourth involved with the club.
A Vancouver native, Lord played four years of NCAA before spending the majority of his North American career with ECHL side Wheeling Nailers. He had stints in the AHL for Rochester, Milwaukee and Oklahoma before arriving at Cardiff via a season in Germany.
Lord will have the assistance of Jamie Elson and Neil Francis behind the bench, with the pair having ten years experience at the Devils between them.
Very much like their visitors, Cardiff have made wholesale changes during the summer.
Matthew Myers returns to his home town team whilst the additions of other forwards Patrick Asselin, David Brine, Sean Bentivoglio and Layne Ulmer will add crucial firepower.
On the backend, Scott Hotham will join his brother Andrew, while the adding of Mark Louis will bring strength and solidity on the blue line.
With Tyson Marsh retiring, Cardiff are without their captain from last year and Mark Richardson must be a strong candidate to wear the “C” this coming season.
There is little doubt that there is a disparity in talent between the two rosters and Medveščak also have the benefit of some playing time under their belt already.
That being said, it should be a weekend of exciting, skilled hockey on show with both teams looking to experiment with different players, lines and special teams.
I’ll be in Cardiff throughout the weekend, providing thorough coverage including post game reports.
If you would like to be there as well, there are still tickets available which you can purchase from the Cardiff Devils website here: http://www.cardiffdevils.com/tickets/match-tickets/
Sat 13th August 2016 Cardiff Devils v Medveščak Zagreb 7:00pm
Sun 14th August 2016 Cardiff Devils v Medveščak Zagreb 6:00pm