John Lawless was one of the most successful players and coaches in this country in the 1980s and early 1990s. His skills on and off the ice helped to create a new hotbed of hockey in Cardiff.
The short centreman – five feet, five inches tall and weighing 145lbs – crossed the Atlantic in the autumn of 1982 to join the new Peterborough Pirates in the early days of three-import hockey.
In his first season he scored an almost unheard-of 100 goals in 18 games, eight times tallying over six goals in one contest, and once hitting 21 (11 and 10) in consecutive outings. He top-scored for four straight seasons as the Pirates rose from Division Two to the Premier Division of the Heineken British League.
Having become part of Peterborough’s management team, when his boss Dennis Adams opened the Wales National Ice Rink in November 1986, he made Lawless player/manager of the new Cardiff Devils. Under his shrewd guidance, the club was an instant success, playing to packed houses almost from day one. As he did with the Pirates, he took them from Division Two to the Premier Division in three seasons.
John was a fine judge of character as well as talent and his teams always enjoyed good chemistry. He brought in not only decent imports but also first-class British players, notably the Cooper brothers, Ian and Stephen, and local goaling prodigy Stevie Lyle, all of whom became Hall of Famers.
In the spring of 1990, he led his men onto the ice at Wembley Arena for what turned out to be first of three appearances in five years in the British Championship final. The memorable first game, which ended in a dramatic penalty shoot-out, was televised, further helping to promote the sport in South Wales.
The best campaign of his coaching career came in 1992-93 when Cardiff won the Grand Slam of Premier Division, Benson & Hedges Autumn Cup and British Championship. The achievement earned him the Coach of the Year award, which he retained the following winter.
Devils won three Premier Division titles, each of which qualified them to enter the prestigious European Cup. In the 1993-94 campaign in Riga, Latvia they amazed fans throughout Europe by beating two clubs from the former Soviet Union.
Lawless made it a hat-trick of new clubs in 1995-96 when Manchester’s Nynex Arena, then the largest in Europe, asked him to build a hockey team worthy of the 16,500-seat building in the football-mad city.
With him juggling three roles as player, manager and coach, the Storm swept through Division One with only two losses in 52 games. He scored 19 goals in 22 contests and earned a record third Coach of the Year trophy from the ice hockey writers.
The Storm were welcomed into the ambitious and high spending new Superleague where, with the backing of a huge publicity campaign, an all-time British record crowd of 17,245 on 23 February 1997 watched them thrash Sheffield Steelers 6-2. Another 2,000 queued outside, too late to gain entry.
Despite the club’s outward success, however, the team did poorly on the ice and John was released at the end of the season. He never complained about the situation and was honest enough to take full responsibility. “I underestimated the standard of play and I hold my hands up,” he said.
After a year at home in Canada with his British wife Debbie he was tempted back to coach Telford Tigers, joining them in mid-season of 1997-98 and taking them to runners-up place in the British National League.
The Tigers were poorly financed, however, and collapsed at the end of the following term, leaving Lawless and many players out of pocket. It was an unfortunate footnote to an otherwise glorious British club career, and once again he freely admitted he had made a poor decision.
By the time the World Championships came to Cardiff in 1990, he had acquired British nationality and scored four times as Great Britain regained some international respectability with promotion into Pool C. He returned again in 1991 and was capped 12 times in all, scoring 15 points (five goals).
His unusual lack of height for a hockey player inevitably led to him being described as ‘diminutive’ and he also endured the unflattering nickname of ‘Little Legs’. Any annoyance he might have felt, however, only intensified his huge will-to-win. Once off-duty, he quickly relaxed and was always willing to have a chat and drink with his adoring fans.
John Lawless was born on 8 January 1961 in Orillia, Ontario, Canada. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1997.