One of the most successful players and coaches in the modern era of British ice hockey, John Lawless achieved a stature in Britain that belied his diminutive physical frame.
Born in Orillia Ontario on January 8th 1961, John Lawless qualified in Civil Engineering at Centennial College, Toronto before crossing the Atlantic in the autumn of 1982 to join the newly formed Division Two club, Peterborough Pirates. He led the Pirates to a second place finish in the Southern section of the division and personally scored six of more goals in a game on eight occasions, finishing the season with 100 goals and 71 assists from just 18 games. Over the course of the next three seasons, he took the Pirates to the Division One title and promotion to the Premier Division, accumulating a massive 713 points, 351 goals and 363 assists, in all league and cup games.
During his time in East Anglia, Lawless had joined the managerial team, initially as an assistant rink manager, and he was to move on to mastermind the setting up of the first team in South Wales when the Welsh National Ice Rink was opened in Cardiff in November 1986. With him in the role of player/manager, the fledgling Devils were an instant success. They played to packed houses almost for day one and won their section of Division Two and took the runners-up spot in the post season play-offs.
Moving up a division, the Devils won the title and the play-offs to gain promotion to the Premier Division at the second attempt. Lawless showed himself to be a good judge of the talent available and player chemistry as he brought in quality import players and top class British talent in the shape of the Cooper brothers, Ian and Stephen. Within two years, Lawless proudly led his team onto the Wembley ice for the first of five British Championship Finals appearances in six years. That first appearance saw the Cardiff Devils defeat the Murrayfield Racers in a dramatic penalty shoot-out. The Devils won the Premier Division and Championship titles in 1992/93, adding the Benson & Hedges Autumn Cup to complete the Grand Slam before taking their third league and Wembley titles the following season.
Never one to resist a challenge, in 1995/96 Lawless moved on again to take on arguably the biggest challenge of his career – building a hockey team worthy of a 16,500 seat arena in the football hotbed city of Manchester. With Lawless player/coaching, the Manchester Storm swept through Division One with only two losses in 52 games, and at the first attempt were promoted into the new Ice Hockey Superleague. The instant success in Manchester, which included many five-figure plus crowds and two in excess of 16,000, earned Lawless his third “Coach of the Year” trophy to add to the two he won in Cardiff.
The following season, with the Storm in with the ‘big boys,’ Lawless again put together a squad he felt would be competitive. The squad though largely disappointed and the team finished next to bottom of the initial Superleague table. Lawless never tried to hide from the fact that for once his recruiting had not been strong enough – a refreshing honesty on his own work, which ultimately was to cost him. The Storm did have one magical moment though, as on the final day of the regular season, the ‘Sold Out’ signs were posted outside the then Nynex Arena as 17,245 packed in to watch the Storm thrash Sheffield 6-2, with over two thousand hockey fans unable to gain entry. Hockey had arrived big-time in Manchester and Lawless had been a major factor in the Storm’s meteoric rise.
At his induction into the Hall of Fame during the playoff finals, staged in Manchester at the end of the 1996/97 season, Lawless quipped, “Now, I’ll probably get the sack.” His words proved to be prophetic as barely a month later, the Storm released him from his contract and the diminutive Canadian returned home to Canada.
Many thought that Lawless had had his time in Britain, but after a short period setting up home again, he was tempted back to Britain making yet another playing comeback as he joined the Telford Tigers for one campaign as player/coach before returning again to Canada to take up a position with a company manufacturing and installing ice rink boarding and plexiglass.
John Lawless, as a player also made 12 appearances in a GB shirt, competing in the world championship campaigns of 1990 and 1991 scoring 15 points, 5 goals and 10 assists. As player/manager/coach of the Cardiff Devils, he led the team in three Europa Cup campaigns, with arguably his greatest success coming in 1994 when the Devils amazed hockey fans throughout Europe by achieving victories over two clubs from the former Soviet Union.
At a mere 5’5” tall and weighing 145lb, less than 10½ stone John Lawless was hardly a giant, but what he lacked in inches and pounds, he more than made up for with an intense will-to-win. In fifteen seasons in Britain, he was hugely successful and popular, and always willing to have a post-game chat and drink with the fans.
In a fourteen year playing career in Britain, that included several retirements and comebacks, John Lawless recorded statistics of:- GP 434 Goals 666 Ass 792 Pts 1471 PIM 491
Compiled with research, provided by Martin C.Harris - March 1997 and Andy Costigan - 2000.