When it comes to sports, there’s a great deal out there for a person to get involved with. But like so many boys that went to school in the city, a strict diet of rugby or football in the winter and cricket or baseball in the summer was the menu for my sporting education. That said, it’s far from a secret that I have never been (and never will be, for that fact) any good at football. I remember the success of the men’s field hockey team at the 1984 Olympics fired a desire to play that sport, but with no opportunity to try the sport at school, the interest soon faded. So as a much younger Cardiff boy, rugby was my sole sport. I enjoyed it, as it seemed to be ‘for me’. A sport with a good mix of competitiveness and ‘physicality’. And if it wasn’t for a ‘seminal incident’ (aged 16 outside a Llandaff pub – that left me with a fractured jaw and a couple of weeks of soft foods) that knocked my confidence in the national sport I probably would have stuck with it.
The sport held onto me, post playing, as I got rigged into coaching juniors for a while. But for me, rugby was fast becoming a spectator sport. For years, a void steadily opened in my life, creating a space for a new sporting challenge. And a challenge did indeed coming knocking on my door. A challenge that would not only require the use of a stick, but also to learn a skill, which had resulted in so many cuts, bruises and broken lips, courtesy of the childhood walls and pavements of Canton. I had to learn to skate. Hockey was beginning to sneak into my life.
Progress was slow at first. Not least as I had to save for kit (no mean feat, when you’re a twenty something, with an almost religious attendance at the Philly!). First came the stick. A second hand lumber. But it meant I could join in, running around like a mad man, whilst my mates glided almost effortlessly around our training ground (read: the car park attached to a Llanishen office building).
Slowly, but surely, stick was joined by skates and then came my first pair of hockey gloves – a second hand pair of red leather gloves, that were far too big, seemingly manufactured for the Hulk.
The summer was good that year and a nightly pilgrimage to our ‘training ground’ was followed by a return trip, with bloodied knees from over-ambitious skating, or the odd errant stick. It was a tough apprenticeship, but one that was to lead to some great experiences and also some great friendships. Like many other sports, hockey isn’t just about the time on the court, but it’s more about the community. And Cardiff’s hockey community is rich and diverse.
In time, the guys playing in the car park moved indoors, as roller hockey started to experience a renaissance during the late 1990s and informal training sessions, lead to the formation of my first team. Around the same time, a team mate who had been playing on the ice, virtually since the old Welsh National Ice Rink had been opened, suggested that I might enjoy stepping on the ice. I never found the transition was a complete success, but as training sessions were generally followed (and sometimes preceded) by a couple of beers in Kiwis, I stuck with it!
And I’m glad I did. Playing both roller and ice hockey, I’ve been lucky enough to be stood on the blue line and hear Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau played at internationals in Deeside and also at the home of the New York Islanders, in the US.
After a few years, study and career somehow distracted my enjoyment of the sport I loved and I gave up ice hockey, followed soon after by roller hockey. Years passed. I got married, became a dad and the rink was knocked down for the mighty St David’s 2. Despite previous passion, I was blissfully unaware of the building that was to become affectionately known as the Big Blue Tent, being built as a temporary replacement home for the City’s ice sports. During physio for a slipped disc in my back, I was offered tickets to see a Devils game at the Big Blue Tent. Curiously, I accepted.
I hadn’t watched a match for years. The Cardiff greats of Lawless, Hope, McEwan & the Cooper brothers long gone. It was a new barn and it was Elite League hockey. It was all strangely different. But what surprised me, was that it also felt oh so familiar. It felt like home and an unexpected, long dormant feeling stirred in me, urging me to strap on my skates and get out on the ice pad of this unfinished looking building. An old, but familiar face suggested the urge could be fed, by getting touch with a guy who’s known as ‘Big’.
A trawl through the friend’s Facebook friends located the aforementioned ‘Big’ and with the niggling thought of ‘why do they call him Big’, I made it down to a Monday night training session. The 6ft7inch guy I met welcomed me to the team and over the coming weeks, the passion was well and truly re-born.
I can’t even hazard a guess at how long I’ve been back playing – is it four years, five years? Who knows!? – because it feels like I’ve never been away. Sure, I’m older, no doubt much slower (maybe a little wiser!?), and less skilful, but hockey is still my passion. It’s my release from every day stresses. It’s the place I go to be ribbed. It’s the place I go to rib others. It’s my sport.
And what makes ice hockey special is that I play for the Cardiff Ice Hounds. Sure there are other teams playing out of the Big Blue Tent – some bigger, some more established, more successful – but at the end of the day, we play a sport that forces us out of our own city, to play away matches, pulling on our jerseys, representing our home City.
I play for the team, I’ve captained the team, I’ve coached the team and I’ve helped run the club at committee level. We’ve tried to establish the team to offer so much more than just a place for people to get involved in playing competitive ice hockey, but to also provide an opportunity for people to get involved in hockey as a spectator sport – for free. We’ve worked to put Cardiff’s amateur ice hockey on the map.
The City is the home to the sport that we love. We are the Cardiff Ice Hounds and Cardiff is us. And in return, at home and on the road, we are Cardiff.
Lucas Howell currently plays for the Cardiff Ice Hounds as one of their ‘veteran’ defencemen. As far as the old grey matter will allow, he’s been playing hockey (ice and roller), on and off for about 15 years and in that time he’s toured to New York with the Cardiff Titans, represented Wales in roller hockey, captained the Bridgend Bullfrogs & Cardiff Ice Hounds and coached just about every age group in roller hockey, from tiny kids, through to adults. He still misses his two front teeth – lost to hockey. Whilst now living in Splott, his ‘official’ roots make him a passionate Canton boy.
Lucas was photographed in the Big Blue Tent in Cardiff Bay by Doug Nicholls