Ice Hockey: Ice and Heavey does it for Cardiff

Andrew Baker talks to the hard man turned boss man who is relishing another big fight
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Fans of the Cardiff Devils ice hockey team will want to congratulate the club's coach, Paul Heavey, for steering the side into next weekend's Benson and Hedges Cup final against Ayr Scottish Eagles. But they should not try to shake his hand. His right fist is heavily bandaged and splinted. A training accident? "Not exactly," Heavey said. "I got a wee bit annoyed and made contact with a solid object."

Those who came across Heavey during his playing career will know how the object felt. During his time with Murrayfield Racers, Solihull Barons, Peterborough Pirates and latterly as captain of the Devils, Heavey acquired a reputation as one of the more robust players in a sport that is celebrated for aggression. His strength earned him the fear of opponents and the respect of his team-mates, which stood him in good stead when he took over as head coach at Cardiff for the 1995-96 season.

"You have to use your strengths in any sport," Heavey said. "And size was one of mine. I had limited skills as a player, but I was a hard worker. I had to work very hard, sometimes, just to get through the games, but I loved it. I was playing a sport that I had loved all my life, and you have to appreciate the good times while you have them."

Heavey was speaking in the tiny manager's office underneath the grandstand at Cardiff's small but atmospheric Ice House on Thursday evening. He had just watched his players grind out a 1-0 victory over the Newcastle Cobras in the Express Cup, ice hockey's equivalent of the Coca-Cola Cup. Not a result of tremendous import, but significant in rebuilding the Devils' confidence for the B & H final.

The boost was much-needed: their previous match had been an 8-0 drubbing by the Sheffield Steelers. "We had to get a win tonight," Heavey declared. "Obviously it's only the one game, but we have to try to build on it, to get some consistency. We need to put a wee run of results together."

Heavey's Scottish accent marks him out as that rarest of creatures, the home-grown coach. Indeed, he is at present the only British coach of an Ice Hockey Superleague side, a fact which might give those who complain about foreign managers in football food for thought. But Heavey himself doesn't waste too much time on the notion. "I don't think about it that way. I just work as hard as I can to gain the respect of my players."

This involves hours after games studying videos and analysing statistics. And in the close season Heavey travels to Canada to attend coaching seminars and raid hockey libraries in pursuit of the elusive tactical edge. "Paul never stops," according to Andy French, the Devils' manager. "He's constantly at work behind the scenes, revising the drill books, taking practice sessions. He took his wife to Canada for their honeymoon and sneaked off to the Hall of Fame library in Toronto to look up some plays."

Heavey clearly relishes everything about the sport. On the sideline during the game against Newcastle he was never still, hopping around on the bench, kicking his players on the rear when it was time for them to take to the ice, yelling advice to them and also, occasionally, to the officials. Sometimes, the urge to get involved can be overpowering: Devils' fans relish the tale of Heavey, in blazer, slacks and city shoes, slithering across the ice to join in a particularly juicy punch-up.

"Of course I'd rather be on the ice than on the bench," Heavey admitted. "Playing the sport is something that you would never give up by choice. And the transition from player to coach was terrible - almost traumatic."

But he made it - and now finds himself charged with adding to the Devils' already formidable roll of honour. "Cardiff have been around longer than almost any team now playing," Heavey said. "And in that time we have won just about everything there is to win. There is a tradition of winning here. But we've not been in the B & H final for two or three years now, and it would be great to win the cup again."

Heavey rates the opponents, the Eagles, very highly, pointing out that in a hugely competitive season all the top teams have strong line-ups. "Ayr are very good," he said. "They are a similar side to us, with speedy, skilful forwards and solid goal- tending. From the first line right through the side, they can all put the puck in the net."

Despite his Glaswegian origins, Heavey will have no problems with divided loyalties. He lives with his wife and daughter about 12 miles outside Cardiff, and has become something of a folk hero in the Welsh capital. "We've been here a long time now," he said. "And we'd like to stay a lot longer." Given success against Ayr at the weekend, there should be no need to house-hunt. Would he care to make a prediction of the final result? "I think it will go right down to the wire," he said. "I think it will be a really good scrap." Paul Heavey likes those.