Born through vision and opportunism, this was a venture by Cardiff that would have been unthinkable to many fans just a few years ago.
A week long visit by Kontinental Hockey League team Medveščak Zagreb proved to be a huge success in every way possible.
Hailing from Croatia, the Medveščak organisation could not have been more accommodating to all those connected with the Cardiff Devils.
From involving Andrew Lord in practises and allowing him an insight into their preparations, to staying on the ice with the Devils junior player after finishing their own workout.
Many Cardiff fans will have gone home happy with memories and memento’s alike, including game worn jersey’s, autograph’s and photographs with Zagreb players, who so willingly gave their time.
Mere moments after leaving the ice following the conclusion play on Sunday afternoon, Medveščak’s goaltender Niko Hovinen spent at least ten minutes posing for photos in his full gear, accommodating every last fan who requested a keepsake from an historic weekend.
That just epitomised the attitude of Medveščak organisation who fully embraced their time in Wales and have probably made new friends and fans after representing themselves in such a fine manner.
After a week of practise at Ice Arena, both teams were eager to get down to the real business of playing a competitive game Saturday evening.
History was being made as Medveščak became the first team to play on British soil and were graciously applauded onto the ice by the crowd at Ice Arena Wales.
KHL Vice president George Kobylanski was on hand for the ceremonial puck-drop, which was “contested” by Zagreb Captain Mike Glumac and Cardiff’s Joey Martin.
With the puck dropped for real, the home team held their own for the opening ten minutes and should have scored through Matthew Myers after an error from British born goaltender, Danny Taylor.
Having not been clinical themselves, Cardiff then received a harsh hockey lesson as the visitors punished them for turnovers inside the defensive zone.
Francis Pare and Jiri Smejkal were the beneficiaries, striking in quick succession to put the Bears up 2-0
Joey Haddad almost immediately halved the deficit but Taylor made up for his earlier moment of misjudgement with a fine blocker save.
The first power play of the game was awarded to Medveščak and once again they showed a ruthless streak. Mark Katic finding the net and his team were up 3-0 through twenty minutes of play.
Skilled forward Francis Pare, was a constant threat throughout the game and could have had himself a hat-trick inside the opening two minutes of the second period. That he didn’t was only down to the brilliance of Ben Bowns.
The Devils so nearly repaid their outstanding goaltending but Gullaime Doucet’s bullet shot found the iron instead of twine.
The physical nature of the game led to plenty of penalties and extended periods of 4-on-4 action.
During this time Thomas Larkin and Colby Genoway both went close for Zagreb.
However with ten skaters back on the ice it was Brandon MacMillan who extended the visitors lead.
Far from being downhearted at falling further behind, the home team came agonisingly close to getting themselves on the board again.
Jake Morissette with a terrific backhand effort which forced Taylor into producing his best save of the night.
The shot clock favoured the visitors 29-10 through forty minutes but it was Cardiff who produced the better opportunities inside the opening seven minutes of the final frame.
Layne Ulmer really should have scored with time and space, Gleason Fournier struck iron and Josh Batch orchestrated a fantastic move from inside his own zone that was ultimately only let down by the Devils inability to show the same ruthlessness in front of net as the Bears.
Despite Bowns denying Pare for the umpteenth time from adding his tally, the goaltender could do nothing to stop Yann Sauvé from making it 5-0 with a short-handed marker.
The sextet was completed when Tomas Mertl was left unattended to put home a rebound from Goran Bezina’s initial shot.
A 6-0 final score line that far from told the whole story of a game where Cardiff competed for spells against a far stronger opposition, despite just having a week of practise under their belt.
Medveščak’s Yann Suave was awarded the Man of the Match for his impressive performance including a goal and two assists.
Cardiff’s MOM was Gleason Fournier, who showed the home fans what they could expect from him this season with a fine showing.
If Saturday’s 6-0 score line failed to do justice to Cardiff’s performance, then Sunday provided a little retribution in that respect.
Both teams made changes with Cardiff’s player/coach Andrew Lord suited behind the bench
The visitors rested Captain Mike Glumac, with Mark Katic wearing the “C” and Niko Hovinen replacing Danny Taylor between the pipes.
From the first whistle it was all action and plenty of goal scoring opportunities for both teams.
The Devils almost fell behind inside 15 seconds as Tomas Mertl and Brandon McMillan combined but Ben Bowns was alert to the danger.
Gleason Fournier and Luke Piggott both tested Hovinen but the latter should have done better on a breakaway chance.
Medveščak’s *new* captain would ring an effort off the post after a terrific team move from the Bears and it felt like just a matter of time before the opening goal was scored.
It finally arrived with 6:26 on the clock through Edwin Hedberg.
To Cardiff’s real credit and after much frustration on Saturday, the Devils responded within seconds.
Guillaume Doucet was guilty of not taking a gilt edge chance but Joey Haddad was on hand to dish off to Layne Ulmer, who made no mistake to tie the game up at 1-1.
The relief was palpable and that momentum led to the Devils earning a power play.
However it was almost another short-handed goal for the Bears after a couple of crazy bounces led to Francis Pare skating in alone, only to be robbed by Bowns.
If home fans wanted to see evidence of the skill in the KHL it was no better encapsulated in a tic-tac-toe power play goal with Colby Genoway providing the finishing tough to put his team up 2-1
The difference in class on special teams would tell again early in the second period.
Cardiff failed to take their opportunity while Genoway netted his second power play of the game to make it 3-1
Medveščak appeared to lose some focus after numerous power play opportunities and Cardiff’s best spell of the middle frame came with around seven minutes left.
Doucet was the first to test Hovinen before a piece of sloppy play led to a breakaway for the home team. Scott Hotham and Layne Ulmer presented with glorious chances but both were spurned on the same play.
Medveščak were spurred into action and we witnessed the true gulf in talent between these two teams for the final 100 seconds of the second period.
Tom Zanoski really should have beaten Bowns in tight and the Devils goaltender followed that up with a remarkable stick save from his backside to deny Goran Bezina after a gorgeous piece of rapid puck movement.
Medveščak’s end of period dominance carried over into the opening six minutes of the third but the Devils clung on for dear life to keep the score line close.
For once it was 4-on-4 action that sparked the home team into action with Doucet and Fournier unable to find a way past Hovinen.
A second goal from the home team should have come during this spell of pressure and no more so than when Chris Jones delivered a cross ice feed to Piggott who failed to score when only needing to make contact with a diving attempt.
As the game entered the last five minutes, Cardiff threw the proverbial kitchen sink at Medveščak but were just unable to produce a finishing touch when required. Their endeavours were still loudly applauded at the next stoppage of play, with the home fans appreciating the effort and intensity of those wearing red and green.
Andrew Lord pulled Bowns for the extra attacker with 2:31 remaining but the Devils still failed to produce the goods despite two scrambles in front of Hovinen.
They did earn themselves a power play for a little 6 on 4 action but it proved futile as a misplay from Fournier allowed McMillan to secure a 4-1 Medveščak victory with an empty net goal.
The Man of the Match awards were presented to Medveščak’s Colby Genoway for two power play goals and Cardiff’s Ben Bowns for an outstanding performance between the pipes.
Everyone involved with Cardiff can be hugely proud of putting together such a great weekend and historic occasion, that I‘m sure all that attended thoroughly enjoyed.
The fact that Medveščak Zagreb as a whole spoke so highly of their time in Wales, speaks volumes to the Devils organisation.