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VHL 40 in 40 #31: The Three-Headed Goalie

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The Three-Headed Goalie

The VHL's fourth decade started with one massive event: expansion with the Cologne Express and Quebec City Meute beginning play in Season 31. This was also the first season for goaltenders Tuomas Tukio and Remy LeBeau, of Helsinki and Toronto respectively, with a fellow S31 netminder Skylar Rift debuting a season later for the New York Americans. Expansion no doubt player a large part in the progress of the “thirties” but that was expecting: goaltending dominance from so many sources wasn't. With Tukio and LeBeau retiring in Season 38 they featured in almost the whole decade and you could well argue that they stole the show.

Season 31 was also marked by the end of a very brief competitive era for the Toronto Legion. Having missed the playoffs in Season 28, they were unexpected regular season and playoff champions in Season 29, a tightly-knit team which triumphed in no small part due to the S28 second overall pick Alexander Labatte's performances in goal. The son of the great defenceman Sterling, Alexander would prove he was nowhere near as loyal as his famous father, who spent his whole nine-season career with the Calgary Wranglers. At the conclusion of his entry-level contract following a disastrous case of Continental Cup hangover in Season 30, which saw Toronto miss the playoffs and Labatte the All-Star Game (the only such occasion), the franchise goaltenders proceeded to hit free agency in search of greater individual glory.

Glory is what he found as before Tukio, LeBeau, or Rift truly developed into superstars, Labatte was the dominant force in net, achieving remarkable stats on the Riga Reign and the New York Americans, winning three straight Aidan Shaw Trophies and one MVP. In a peculiar career for a goaltender of such stature (1,300 TPE to become the highest TPE earner of all-time at the time), Labatte played for four teams, also making a last-season stop at the family's spiritual home of Calgary. He found success everywhere he went, ultimately having a GAA inferior only to CAL G at the time of retirement, as well as a superior save percentage to the likes of Aidan Shaw, Daisuke Kanou, and Benjamin Glover and the still-standing record for most career shutouts. The one blemish on an outstanding career which, when he retired in Season 35, could only really be matched in terms of regular season performances by the great Shaw and Benoit Devereux (possibly CAL G), was that he never added another cup ring to his sophomore victory in Toronto. Indeed, the bad luck was almost comical at times, especially when, having lost a final with Riga to the underdog New York Americans (with a rookie Skylar Rift in goal no less), Labatte replaced Rift in New York for Season 33 and lost in the final to a Riga Reign featuring the inactive goalie Jehovah.

“Labatte would go from Riga, to New York, to Calgary on very quality teams and fail to win a Cup. So he established his dominance early, but despite being one of the top goalies couldn't reach the success in the playoffs again.” - Ryan Power, player agent of Skylar Rift

“There is always the possibly that more would be achieved by the golden goalies, there were always year were goaltenders like Jehovah actually won a cup. Outsiders have won awards and cups, it wasn't always one of the big three, so there is always a shot for improvement.” - Remy LeBeau

“Labatte was screwed two times in game sevens, otherwise I think he would go down as the best goaltender of all time.” - Sterling Labatte

Alexander Labatte bridged the gap from generation to generation in style

As Labatte entered the twilight of his career, there was great uncertainty over the goaltending position as a whole in the VHL. Could Labatte take his game to yet another level in his final years? Could anyone reach Labatte's level in the future? Most importantly, was there a need in a goaltender of that level if cap-friendly rookies and Jehovahs could win championships? These were the questions which were asked around the league in the middle of the decade and they persisted even as Tuomas Tukio finally broke through with the powerhouse Helsinki Titans to win the S34 Continental Cup. The issue was that the Titans were pushed to a game seven by an offense-heavy Calgary Wranglers, who featured the inactive and depreciated Satan in goal, having already defeated elite opposition in New York's Labatte and Quebec City's Rift. Remy LeBeau, the star of the regular season, claimed his first Aidan Shaw Trophy as the MVP of the Legion – he missed the playoffs, however, which scuppered his chances at the Scotty Campbell Trophy itself.

Tukio, however, and crucially his agent and GM, former defenceman Mitch Higgins, believed in the power of an elite goaltender. Having spent his career defending the crease of the phenomenal CAL G in Seattle, who, like Labatte, combined spectacular regular season statistics with a solitary championship, this confidence may seem misplaced, but the Titans benefited greatly in terms of consistency by persevering with a cap-heavy goaltender. Much like CAL G, Tukio's early career featured him being often the butt of many jokes, quite bizarre considering he was in the top echelon of the league's elite and a key member of the best regular season team of the time. The Titans lacked in individual awards during their most successful days as a team, but the career stats were slowly piling up, and Tukio would come to benefit greatly from the under-rated consistency of the first half of his career.

Meanwhile, in Toronto there was enthusiasm but little in terms of results. An active team built almost entirely from the draft had only one well-known name and that was Remy LeBeau. From his rookie season the public's treatment of LeBeau was entirely contrasting to Tukio, with the Frenchman elevated to the status of “LeBest” or even “LeGod”. Much unlike Tukio or especially Skylar Rift, on paper the worst of the generation's goalies, who won his second Continental Cup in S35 in Quebec's fifth season in the league, LeBeau was the face of a franchise which was struggling to keep up and for a considerable amount of time it felt like Labatte's level could simply not be achieved. As a whole, the three heads of this goaltending era had it all: cups, individual prowess and acclaim, and even controversy with Rift spending one season in New York, one in Calgary, and then making the controversial decision to join the Meute in free agency. Not one of them, with the possible exception of Rift in Season 35, could put it all together.

“After Benjamin Glover achieved the highest TPE totals of any goaltender ever and couldn't find a way to win in a cup in the playoffs it looked like some teams were willing to sacrifice an elite goaltender to save cap space for players. When Tukio, LeBeau and Rift came into the VHL they easily became the best goalies in the league as the older ones retired and only Labatte remained. With expansion there was room for two extra goalies in the VHL so it was a position that was desperately needed for six playoff teams. An elite goalie could help bring in free agents, get teammates to sign extensions and anchor a team. A goalie could be the huge difference maker like we saw with LeBeau in Toronto and Tukio in Quebec City.” - Mitch Higgins

“What did I see in LeBeau? Determination. He wanted to be better than everyone else and was willing to work his ass off to get there. Honestly, I'm lucky that Vasteras decided for whatever reason to pass on him. It allowed me to draft Lebedev with my first pick and LeBeau with my second, and then I took Lehtinen with my second round pick. I ended up walking out of the S31 Draft with three of the top four or five TPE earners of that draft I think. It was an unbelievable way to kickstart a rebuild, and incredibly refreshing to bring in a lot of new blood to a locker room that had previously been a bit of an old boy's club, not that there was anything wrong with that.” - Sandro Desaulniers, former Toronto Legion GM (S26-S35)

Artist's depiction of Remy LeBeau

“LeBeau spent his entire career with Toronto and it felt like the story of the best goalie in the league who could never win a Cup with his team. But like all the great stories of these goalies, he finally did win one, and got his happy ending. He basically carried his team in several series/playoffs as well. Then you look at Tukio, who probably has one of the most interesting storylines of all of them. Playing on a fantastic Helsinki team, and even though they did win a Cup his save percentage was all he had that made him appear solid. He was consistently chastised when compared to the other three for his playoff performance. Then after Rift retired, Tukio stepped it into an entire other gear and the last few seasons he broke tons of goalie records and surpassed LeBeau in my eyes as the best goalie of this era. Winning more than just top goalie awards, being so good that he won MVP/Slobo type awards.” - Ryan Power

It all seemed to click in most unexpected fashion. Rift, the youngest ever member of the Triple Gold Club and a two-time champion, as well as the reigning top goaltender, abruptly announced his retirement midway through Season 36. Up to that moment, there was a legitimate case for him entering the conversation of the greatest goaltender of all time, but retirement and spending a season in the VHLM to make room for old starter Benjamin Glover meant Rift's career was only five seasons long. With Labatte retired and Rift now gone too, the stage was set for Tukio and LeBeau to take the initiative.

This is what they did and the remaining three seasons of the era were no doubt the closest to the Shaw/Kanou domination of the twenties. It is no coincidence that Tukio and LeBeau were the first goaltenders since that famous duo to be first ballot inductees into the Hall of Fame, having made the most of their true greatest chance. Each filled up the missing chunk of their CV. For LeBeau, this was his post-season performance, or lack thereof, and he silenced the critics in style by leading the Legion to three straight finals, including an emphatic, Kanou-like, playoff MVP performance in Season 37 as Toronto swept the HC Davos Dynamo (who won the other two finals). LeBeau almost single-handedly defeated the heavily-favoured New York Americans in his final season and that team featured Tukio, who left Helsinki, which brought him playoff success, for pastures new in pursuit of individual glory.

Of that, the Finnish netminder had aplenty in one-season stops in Quebec (replacing Rift) and New York. Back-to-back Aidan Shaw Trophies, back-to-back Brett Slobodzian Trophies, and back-to-back Scotty Campbell Trophies were unprecedented success for any goaltender in VHL history and that surged Tukio to the very summit of the historic goaltending pyramid. Though career wins were the only key statistic Tukio currently leads, he overtook Labatte in save percentage (.925) and goals-against-average (1.99), while joining Labatte, G, and Glover in the 60+ shutout club. It's performances across the board which catch the eye and Tukio undoubtedly achieved that much.

“The final two seasons swayed the rankings a lot as Tukio went from a solid performer in Helsinki to a multiple MVP, MOP, Aidan Shaw Trophy winner in Quebec and New York. If I had to rate the goalies I would say Tukio edges out LeBeau, who are both ahead of Labatte and Rift.” - Mitch Higgins

“I would probably rank Tukio first followed very closely by LeBeau and then Rift last because his career was shorter and I feel he had an advantage being on better teams, as did Tukio.” - Sterling Labatte

Tuomas Tukio (pictured above) or LeBeau? The new Shaw vs Kanou dilemma

“My ranking would have to go: 1. Tukio 2. LeBeau 3. Labatte 4. Rift. Rift retired early otherwise he could have been higher than that. While Tukio wasn't as consistent as LeBeau, his late run in the last few seasons was pretty much legendary. He broke a ton of goalie records. I felt LeBeau was more consistent than Labatte, which to me influences that difference.” - Ryan Power

“Tukio is the true number one in terms of performance, even though this mostly came later in his career. I was the consistent factor out of the three, being the only goalie of the list only playing for one franchise, while Rift had the potential of being the best out of three in terms of awards and cups if he didn't retire early.” - Remy LeBeau

“Obviously I'm a little biased towards LeBeau and Labatte, seeing as I drafted them. I would probably put Remy on top of that list. It's so close to call, but he was putting up fantastic numbers even when the Legion were having some really rough years before the roster really came together. The guy carried the team and had absurd TPE levels for a first generation player. Obviously Rift helped make Quebec City an absolute powerhouse, and Tukio was phenomenal for a long time in Helsinki. I can't really rank the rest because it's all too close, can they be tied for 2nd?” - Sandro Desaulniers

If there is debate about goaltenders which played in the same league at the same time against each other, you can imagine things get a lot more complicated when trying to compare to what feels like almost ancient legends of the S18 era in Aidan Shaw and Daisuke Kanou. Two goaltenders which dominated some aspects of the VHL to the extend they are now immortalised with trophies named after them, it's hard to say Tukio or LeBeau match up to them in their specialist areas. However, this isn't just about Tukio and LeBeau. Rift added a competitive dimension barely seen in Shaw and Kanou's heyday, with the exception of a great season or two by Jakob Kjeldsen. When combined with the bridge from the past generation which was Alexander Labatte, as well as some of the sheer numbers on show and of course the numerous MVP trophies, the waters get very murky indeed. In a typical tradtion vs innovation argument, this is a discussion which will likely never have a definitive answer, regardless of the amount of revision and thought is put into. Nonetheless, were Tukio, Rift, and LeBeau truly inferior to Shaw and Kanou?

“In terms of awards? Probably, yeah. I feel like LeBeau should have won an MVP award or two and deserved another Continental Cup with the Legion. The back-to-back-to-back series against Davos were pretty insane. There were some incredible forwards at the same time as these incredible goaltenders though, moreso than when Shaw and Kanou were in their prime I think. Those two took center stage in a way that wasn't possible for the quartet of Tukio, LeBeau, Rift, and Labatte.” - Sandro Desaulniers

“Out of the goalies currently in the league, there is no one one left that comes close to a Kanou/Shaw level, the duo Tukio/LeBeau was close to their level though. Rift has been excluded there due to his early retirement.” - Remy LeBeau

“I honestly think that LeBeau and Tukio are on the same level as Shaw and Kanou if not better. The goaltender position gained a lot of attention in the league when Tukio, LeBeau, Rift and Labatte were in nets and there always seemed to be an extremely close race for the top goaltender award. These four goalies shaped the Season 30 era as much as any other player and were always talked about.” - Mitch Higgins

Daisuke Kanou (above) and Aidan Shaw are tough to knock from their perch

“I think it's tough to compare this recent era of goalie dominance to the Shaw/Kanou era. Shaw and Kanou pretty much tore it up by themselves, with some other supporting players showing up here and there. Really all four of these goalies bested each other in different seasons, different playoff series. Overall I think this era was simply a more compelling story because it wasn't just one goalie vs the other for supremacy. It literally felt like a 4 man battle every season, with only the best surviving.” - Ryan Power

“When you look at the stats in some of the awards that these goalies won (that's including Labatte), I don't think much more could've been accomplished. You had four elite goalies, although I would say Labatte was a generation before the [other] three so it isn't really fair to categorize him in this section. With these three I think you have a class that were evidently better than the two season 18 era goalies.” - Sterling Labatte

It is increasingly difficult to cap off such a monumental piece on the importance and impact of great goaltenders over this decade. As alluded to at the start, it is fitting that these S31 goalies coincided with expansion and the start of the fourth decade, as they might have been the prevalent forces in the VHL and the ones which will be best remembered in decades to come. There were a large number of star skaters in Labatte's prime which he had to compete with but as he and they retired in Seasons 34 and 35, goaltenders really took centre stage. I leave you with a few more quotes to truly emphasise this point.

“I think the goalies took a very large role in shaping the fourth decade of the VHL . Because most of the top TPE earners in the league happened to be goalies during that time and you saw quite a number of goalies winning the MVP trophy which was pretty unprecedented for its time so I think it was a period of elite goaltending and of lot more elite talent in the league.” - Sterling Labatte

“I really loved being able to be a goalie in this era. It really helped me power through as long as I did. The neat thing to me is that each goalie had a very compelling story to them for their career path. Labatte won a Cup early in the Toronto run, then Toronto failed to make the playoffs the season after and instantly rebuilt. I won a Cup early, like Labatte, going to Calgary and then pulling the "two face" to go to Quebec where I would win another Cup and be the goalie for a season or two. Even the early retirement created drama.” - Skylar Rift

“I came into this league as a big unknown factor and I left it as a legend. I'm glad to be part of the league's history. I think I have proven the ones that doubted me wrong, making them regret not selecting me with an earlier pick in the draft. I'm happy it happened though, Toronto was a great part of my life.” - Remy LeBeau

“I think the goalies may have been the most prominent position the VHL's fourth decade. Seeing how Rift could go from one team to another and instantly turn them into a Continental Cup contender says something. Of course Tukio and LeBeau constantly battled for top honours, and Labatte was sort of the elder statesman of the bunch. I have nothing but praise for both Labatte and LeBeau, goalies that I drafted and that carried the Legion to championships.” - Sandro Desaulniers

“I truly think that the era that featured Labatte, Tukio, Rift and LeBeau was one of the most interesting goalie eras in the VHL. Every one of those goalies had a moment where they were the top goalie in the league, and viewed as "the goalie" to beat. All of them won cups. All of them won Shaws. All of them were the cornerstone goalie on a quality team. I think it's no surprise that the league scoring overall seemed to go down as Labatte got to his veteran years and the rest hit their prime.” - Ryan Power

End of Part 31
Special thanks to Ryan Power/Skylar Rift, Remy LeBeau, Sterling Labatte, Mitch Higgins, and Sandro Desaulniers

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