After completing a busy pre-season schedule with Cardiff Devils, head coach Pete Russell will be embarking on his 25th season as a paid coach.
Over that quarter-century his coaching career has seen Russell have 23 different roles with 13 separate organisations.
That, one might think, indicates Russell had a long-held desire to be a coach. In fact, the reverse is true.
Russell, now 48, is possibly the most reluctant coach in professional sport.
He was also a reluctant player, taking up hockey in the first place pretty much by chance.
Russell grew up in the small town of Ayr in southwest Scotland.
“We played football a lot in that town, but there was quite a buzz about hockey at the time,” explained Russell.
“I was about 11 or 12 and some of my buddies were playing hockey, and we just went to the rink to try it one day.
“I couldn’t skate very well. So, I said, ‘I’ll just put the goalie gear on’ and went in goals.
“I took to it pretty quickly. After two years I was playing for the Scottish under-13s national team and then the under-15s and 17s.
Russell went on to play as netminder for a variety of teams in the second tier British Hockey League (BNL), but it was a career that never gained any momentum. Its peak was a call up as emergency keeper for Nottingham Panthers for one game.
Russell reflected: “I got more interested in going for a beer and stuff and I didn’t take it seriously. It was a bit of wasted opportunity because my parents put a lot into it, a lot of sacrifice.”
‘I don’t want to be a hockey coach, that’s the last thing I’d ever do.’
By his mid-20s Russell had ceased playing but the chance to take up coaching came whilst helping the Ayr-based Scottish Eagles at their training sessions as injury cover
It was an opportunity though that really did not appeal to Russell.
“I’d hurt my knee and then they needed someone to coach the kids,” he said.
“They said, ‘We’ll pay you if you coach the under-12s’. I said, ‘I don’t want to be a hockey coach, that’s the last thing I’d ever do, not interested’.
“And they said, ‘But we need somebody and you’re good with the kids’. I said, ‘I’m not coaching, I definitely don’t want to be a hockey coach’.
“I went and did it and two weeks later I was buying books, ordering things and trying to make it right so the kids were getting something out of it and it just took off from there.”
A year later Russell was offered a full-time position overseeing the entire junior ice-skating programme at the rink in Ayr.
Yet he was still reluctant.
https://emp.bbc.com/emp/SMPj/2.50.6/iframe.htmlCardiff Devils’ Joey Martin on their hopes for the upcoming season
“They said, ‘We want you to look over the whole programme’. I said, ‘Ah, I’ve just been coaching the under-12 team for three months. I’ve got no idea’,” recalled Russell.
“And they said, ‘Yeah, but we’ve seen how much they improved and how organised you are and we’ll help you’.”
Days later Russell was on a flight to British Colombia, Canada to spend eight weeks at the renowned Okanagan Hockey Academy to gain some coaching qualifications.
After Okanagan, Russell became Director of Player Development at Cardiff Devils. When that role was closed it forced him to take on the challenge of a leading a team.
The next six years saw Russell have spells in the English Premier Ice Hockey League (EPIHL) with Swindon Wildcats, Bracknell Bees and Slough Jets.
Then it was a return to Okanagan, this time to one of their Europe-based academies in Swindon.
“Okanagan was another big moment that really helped my development,” said Russell.
“My biggest dream was not to just coach in the EPIHL (English Premier Ice Hockey League) two days a week, I wanted to coach every day.
“I had an idea how I wanted my teams to play, but being in a pro job sometimes you can’t gamble like that.
“At Okanagan I had them every day. I had a bunch of ideas and could put them into place for when I got a full-time pro job.
“In the second year we had 12 players from the Okanagan UK Academy in the GB Under-18 team. It was just amazing how much better they got.
“You had a lot of 13 to 16-year-old boys there. Just as many problems as there are in a pro team, and that really taught me a lot about the off-ice part.
“I think that was the best thing I ever did, and hockey just took off for me after that.”
After three years at Okanagan UK, Russell went to Milton Keynes where he coached in Elite League [EIHL] for the first time and was later appointed head coach at Glasgow Clan.
“That was one of the most enjoyable times. The players really helped me, I started to realise I can coach in the Elite League,” he said.
“You need that self-confidence sometimes to take the next step, to take control of a room and to lead people and I felt I grew into that when I was there with those players.”
A surprising thing to hear from Russell perhaps when over the preceding few years, he had coached the Great Britain national team to consecutive promotions in the IIHF (International Ice Hockey Federation) World Championships and in 2019 had avoided relegation from the top tier.
This led to offers of work in Germany, one of Europe’s strongest leagues, but issues at home made taking up a role abroad a difficult decision to make.
“At that time my wife, Kate had breast cancer, and she said to me, ‘Look at what we’re going through. Maybe you should just go because who knows what’s going to happen next?’
“The club knew Kate had breast cancer issues, and they said, ‘Well, come and we’ll help you’. The German medical care and insurance is unbelievable and Frieburg has one of the best cancer hospitals in Germany.
“Frieburg was brilliant, an unbelievable town,
“We were the tipped team to get relegated and we finished third conceding less goals than any other team in the division.
“Everybody said it was a fluke and we did the same thing the next year, we finished third again and lost by a goal in the last game of the play-off semi-finals to a team who went up to the DEL1 (Deutsche Eishockey Liga).
“I remember doing an interview one night, we had just played and I’d got a text saying Kate was clear. The other coach and me were sat together and I said, ‘It’s been a really good day’ and the other coach said, ‘Yeah, for you.’
“I looked at him and said; ‘No, we may have just won a hockey game, but more importantly my wife’s free of breast cancer and that’s why I’m pumped.’ I was just smiling.”
Russell went on to coach at Ravensburg Towerstars where he won the 2023 DEL2 championship.
Kate is someone who Russell credits with being fundamental to his coaching achievements.
“She’s let me go away to coach, she felt I needed to do it. She wanted to see me trying to see where I could go.
“Kate carries the family, she’s kept the house going, doing everything and not once has she said, ‘You need to come back’.
“Without Kate I don’t think we’d be having this conversation.”
‘All it has done is shown us how good this league every night will be’
In May 2023, having guided GB to gold at the 2023 World Championships and securing promotion back to the top division, Russell returned to Cardiff.
He was appointed Devils head coach succeeding Brodie Dupont who left the club after April’s play-off final defeat to Belfast Giants.
Over the summer Russell has overseen the reshaping of Cardiff’s squad and after a heavy pre-season schedule where his side played eight games in three weeks they are now ready for competition to start.
There were a number of close results indicating to Russell his squad will not give up on games easily.
“The only negative was the injuries we picked during the last week and of course missing our captain Mark Richardson for a full the pre-season,” said Russell.
“I think we showed some early good signs against good teams. A season is a process, and we must be patient.
“These were the most competitive pre-season games I have ever been involved in. All the teams were going for it, they were physical and played at high speed. All it has done is shown us how good this league every night will be. It’s up a level in my opinion.”
As Russell starts yet another year as a coach one thing he will impress on his squad is that the 2023-24 season will not be easy.
“I was talking to Joey Martin [in the summer] and I said to him; ‘If you’re comfortable on the ice you’re not going to win’.
“And he smiled and asks, ‘What do you mean? I said, ‘I want the players to be uncomfortable’.
“The one thing I’ve learned is that if you’re comfortable, unless you’re playing a team that’s utterly weaker than you, you can’t win.
“You’ve got to play uncomfortable because that’s when you’re at a level that people don’t think you can hit.
“And this season I hope that we can have a happy uncomfortable bunch of people in the locker room.”
Cardiff Devils open their season on the weekend with two fixtures in the Challenge Cup.