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VHL 40 in 40 #34: Causing a Rift

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Causing A Rift

Scotty Campbell, Leeroy Jenkins, Kevin Brooks. Aidan Shaw, Daisuke Kanou, Sterling Labatte. Almost always the most memorable players of a generation are those who were the best. Yet despite Odin Tordahl's offensive heroics, Remy LeBeau and Tuomas Tukio matching if not exceeding the accomplishments of Kanou and Shaw, and even some defensive dominance from Ryan Sullivan and Conner Low, you could make a strong case that the defining player of this concluding decade was Skylar Rift. Rift was not an untalented player by any means and one of the best goaltenders of his time. He has yet to be inducted into the Hall of Fame though, and is only a dark horse in his fourth season of eligibility and that's because for all his talent, Rift was synonymous with drama and controversy. One off-season in particular made a huge impact on the VHL.

You will have read about Skylar Rift in the earlier pieces of this series. One of the three great S31 goalies alongside Tukio and LeBeau, Rift was also a rookie goaltender for the playoff constants, the New York Americans, in Season 32, the only season during their run that they won a Continental Cup. In between older generational talent Benjamin Glover and the brief but excellent tenure by an all-time great in Alexander Labatte, Rift's one-season stop seemed a bit out of place in the bigger picture of New York's dynasty (or lack thereof), especially with him being the only champion of the three. Indeed, having won the S30 World Cup as back-up, then followed it up with the Founder's Cup with the newly-formed Yukon Rush after expansion in S31, the Cup win meant Rift became the youngest ever member of the Triple Gold Club. It wasn't thought of as much but alongside his immediate impact on a VHLM expansion franchise, it should have been a sign that Rift would make his mark on history.

His move away from New York was an uncommon one but fairly easily explained. Rift's player agent, New York GM Ryan Power wanted to step aside in favour of Chris Miller, agent of Calgary's star defenceman Ryan Sullivan. With Wranglers franchise goaltender Marius Henchoz having just retired, the move suited both sides, with the Americans expected to acquire a short-term fix in net of their own (it ended up being Labatte). Calgary GM Jason Glasser had acquired a goaltender to build for the long-term and though New York would end up defeating Calgary in the playoffs for the third straight season, the Wranglers could afford short-term losses as they were well-positioned for the future, or so it seemed.

The fact that Season 33 was the last year of Rift's entry-level contract didn't really bother anyone, since surely a young goaltender, seen as the long-term solution in a storied franchise with big ambitions, wouldn't just get up and leave. Obviously he did and collaborated with fellow free agent, winger Yuri Grigorenko, who himself had left Calgary a season earlier to sign in Helsinki, to land in Quebec, home of the just three-year-old Meute. The shocking off-season was sealed when the HC Davos Dynamo, under my new management, were in full firesale mode and dealt the young Wesley Kellinger for all of Quebec's picks in the S35 and S36 drafts. In a matter of a day or two, the Quebec City Meute went from zero to hero, or rather the new VHL villains.

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If the whole NHL didn't know about this pair's plans, it would be a comparable situation

“I remember being quite stunned by all of it. As the General Manager of New York, I really wanted to make a play on getting Grigs but this big set of moves really complicated things for myself. As an opposing General Manager it didn't hurt my feelings to see Calgary suffering. Obviously it wasn't the end of the world for Calgary, but they definitely took a hit in the long-term with this move. Davos of course was entering the rebuild that we all knew was coming, and this group of picks would further help that. Meanwhile Quebec finally had a contender after pretty much being a non-factor since their creation. It was a huge move for a team that was able to take advantage of a few things and shake the VHL landscape.” - Chris Miller

“As a GM at the time I really didn't have any respect for the way Quebec City was built. They built their team with three players, the Valiqs, joining the team to give them a huge advantage to play together. They then got lucky again when Rift decided to make up a cheap excuse to leave Calgary through free agency to join them, and then was followed by another free agent Grigorenko. It really was a stroke of luck for Quebec to get two big free agents when most teams never get just one. Since they got all these players for 'free', it basically gave them leverage to just trade all their draft picks for one more player, Kellinger. I quite enjoyed stealing a lottery draft pick from them when I traded Tuomas Tukio to Quebec.” - Mitch Higgins

“It revealed itself in bits and pieces, but was at least on some level a surprise until the end. First, I assumed I was getting Rift back. He was the goalie, and it was largely unheard of for goalies to do anything like this, plus there was a value tied into the Sullivan trade where it just made sense to me that he was coming back. Then even when he first said he was going to FA, I was told I was one of the teams in contention, and also that if all else stayed the same he was going to return (at that time, I still believed he was returning). Other teams would have to outright improve to get him, which ultimately Quebec did, but it seemed to me like he intended to wait until all moves were made. I ended up making moves to get better as well, but by that point the decision had been made.” - Jason Glasser

“It was about 75 percent through the season once I realized that Jason had no clue that Rift's contract was set to expire that I began to ponder free agency. I made the commitment just before the playoffs started that if he didn't at all acknowledge the situation, I'd test. Whatever I told Jason after the the free agency period started was me milking it, and building drama towards the situation. Including me telling him that I'd like to see what was out there. I had zero intention of returning to Calgary before the playoffs started and I had made my decision.” - Skylar Rift

It is difficult to do the shock of this event justice even with the context. Effectively, Quebec did two things which are frowned upon in the VHL reputation-wise: signed multiple free agents at once and sold their future. It was well worth it as the Meute became instant contenders and ultimately won a Continental Cup in Season 35, the only to date by an expansion team, but in a league where people enjoy assigning certain images to certain teams, the Meute were the obvious bad guys. Whereas the Cologne Express built up from the ground and we seen as unlucky to miss out on both their targets in free agency who could have propelled them to elite status, Quebec quite clearly wanted to win by all means. Even before this off-season they were not much liked for having easy access to the three Valiq brothers (Alexander, Niklas, and Tomas) who all came from elite player agencies and, in the case of Niklas and Tomas, wanted to be drafted by the Meute because Alexander was there as the founding piece of the franchise brought in by his agent, GM Pavel Koradek. Following it up by winning an important draft lottery in S34 and securing the highly-touted Doug Clifford, then signing two star free agents in their prime and splashing assets to land the S33 first overall selection, Quebec looked increasingly like the spoiled and privileged kids on the block, and they loved it.

More importantly, neither Grigorenko, Rift, or Kellinger were really expected to move at this stage in their careers. Rift, as mentioned, appeared to be set as a Wrangler for life and written confirmation wasn't required for the public to think of that: goaltenders simply didn't leave contenders. Kellinger, the first overall pick in a stacked S33 draft, was seen as the lone future piece for a struggling Davos team, not an asset to quickly cash in for draft picks like some veteran with a season or two left. Of course, Kellinger was not all too happy with the Davos situation and would not provide guarantees that he would stick around for a protracted rebuild, which eventually benefited from the draft picks acquired for him. Yet the public didn't know this, much like they didn't know that Grigorenko, having already been a high-profile free agent a season earlier, wouldn't stick around with his second team. It wasn't just any team either; the S33 Helsinki Titans were one of the greatest regular season teams of all-time and were dreadfully unlucky to not make the cup final. Despite that, Helsinki was still expected to compete for a while and it didn't make sense, on the surface, for Grigorenko to jump ship. Perhaps he wouldn't have if Rift and Kellinger (on the trade market) weren't readily available to not simply add to an existing cup contender, but create a new one.

“I wanted to pick one of the two expansion teams. I knew that immediately when I tested. I liked Kendrick and Cologne however they already had a goalie and the "core" in Quebec felt more ready to compete sooner. However as anyone close to the situation knows I left the decision entirely up to Grigs. I had been in talks with both Koradek and Kendrick about doing what it takes to acquire Kellinger, and I was in talks with Victor as well as he was oh so happy about what I was doing because it severely made selling Kellinger a million times easier. Ultimately Grigs decided Quebec. I'm happy he did. Not just because I eventually was able to win a cup with both Kyles [Dowd and Snow, agents of Tomas Valiq and Kellinger respectively], a curse I was happy to break. But because there was no way I was going to stick it out a whole career. I never wanted Quebec to be some long standing run. It was meant to be what it was, a quick few seasons shot at glory with the scumbag goalie and his free agency friend, while trading all the assets for a up and coming elite player in Kellinger. We came, we conquered, we competed one more season and then it all blew up.” - Skylar Rift

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The Meute were rather pleased with themselves

The Quebec City Meute ended up going to the playoffs for three seasons with Rift on board and one more unnecessary push following his typically shocking retirement by acquiring Tuomas Tukio. In Season 35, it all came together and Rift claimed his sole Aidan Shaw Trophy as well as the Daisuke Kanou Trophy as playoff MVP, thus helping both the Yukon Rush and Quebec secure their maiden championships, while taking the post-season plaudits. For Grigorenko and Kellinger, there wasn't much individual glory as the Meute never really found the balance to allow their enormous offensive talents to truly take the league by storm. Grigorenko retired with two Continental Cups but no individual awards and thus no case for the Hall of Fame, while Kellinger got his second cup later when he himself ironically turned his back on Quebec and left for New York in free agency along with Tukio. In another case of “funny how life works”, Kellinger's final season, Season 40, wound up being with the Cologne Express as the Americans could no longer afford his salary.

What is often forgotten is that Season 35 was also when Quebec won their first playoff series. They didn't make the final in Seasons 36 or 37, stymied by a new storyline, Remy LeBeau and the Toronto Legion, but they also didn't make the immediate impact in Season 34 either. No, despite their regular season prowess, Rift, Grigorenko, the Valiqs and co found their antidote in, and it could only be them, the Calgary Wranglers, who refused to die with the departure of their franchise goaltender. Instead, they turned to Davos, who benefited so much from being able to pull off the Kellinger trade, and dealt for the retiring inactive goaltender Satan and their own former captain Alexander Chershenko. While Satan was there merely to fill a gaping hole, though Calgary's playoff success was eerily similar to S33 champions Riga's with the inactive Jehovah, it was Chershenko's rekindled chemistry with Volodymyr Rybak and Clark Marcellin which led a Cinderella run for the Wranglers. Calgary finally found a way past New York and then defeated Quebec in a dramatic Game 7, before finishing off a hat-trick of Game 7s with a loss to, of course, the Helsinki Titans. Both Rift and Grigorenko's former teams finished the season better than the Meute, and while this is largely forgotten due to Quebec's ultimate success, it was still a nice vindicating moment for the rest of the league.

“Continental Cups are great, but a moment that will be remembered in Calgary forever was the final whistle at the end of the season 34 North American Conference Championship. Having Rift leave the team the way he did and then to take him out of the playoffs with our own hands, I mean I don't want to say we were vindicated in that moment because we ultimately did lose to Helsinki in the finals, but don't think for a second that wasn't a motivating factor in that series. The players felt it, the coaches felt it, the fans felt it. We wanted that series, probably more than we wanted the next series and the cup, which is probably why we lost the next round. We had won our cup. We did the job we set out to do and were treated to a hero's welcome back home even without the title.” - Jason Glasser

That effectively covers the events of the bizarre and unexpected S33 off-season. The fall-out was immense, with the Meute forced to defend themselves against an onslaught of aggrieved self-proclaimed victims who couldn't sign free agents. In a league where high-profile free agents are a rarity, seeing two sign for the same team generally doesn't sit well with VHL members and so Rift and Grigorenko got some ire as well. For Rift, this seemed to be his natural habitat, as he donned the moniker of “Two-Face” and made sure to issue nothing close to an apology to Calgary, instead focusing the attention on himself and how revolutionary and dramatic a move he made. If you don't believe me, the man himself has not altered his position six seasons on.

“I essentially screwed Calgary and tested free agency because I was sick of having to help run a team. Going into Calgary, Jason had a reputation as a top flight GM in the VHL. As a friend of his from the site, I figured I'd have a blast playing with Calgary. Once I got there I learned that Chris [Miller] had been doing the lines and helping Jason with some other minor GM things. Throughout my first and only season in Calgary I began to question Jason as a GM. He was smart, savvy, and was excellent at scouting prospects for drafts. However he didn't feel as committed as I thought he would be. He had a busy life, time on multiple sim leagues and it left absences. He wasn't a big contributor in the locker room or from a team spirit perspective and I ended up actually drafting for Calgary the off season after I was traded, as he wasn't able to be present. It is no secret that I was worn out from GMing after stepping down from New York. In order to be a good GM in this league it can take a lot out of you, and while I wouldn't call myself a great GM, I certainly felt I did a capable job in New York. But it was exhausting.

The other reason would be that I saw an opportunity to make it more enjoyable for me to play as a goalie. It did, for a period, although I still retired early. I felt like the drama of a key player bailing on a team, and shaking everything up was interesting. It doesn't happen really that often in the VHL, mostly because it leads to ruined GM/player relations for the future.”
- Skylar Rift

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How Rift saw himself

Grigorenko was quieter and less interested in the limelight; in all likelihood his second defection wouldn't have been thought of as much if he had signed separately from Rift. He didn't though and the collaboration annoyed a sufficient amount of people for the low-profile Yuri Grigorenko, as evidenced here, to forever be tied in VHL history alongside the infamous Skylar Rift. For the Russian winger, a second overall pick and a two-time cup a winner, this was undoubtedly the defining act of his career.

“Grigorenko had said that he wanted to test and potentially look at going elsewhere, and as a fellow pursuer of him, it would be fairly hypocritical of myself to say I was disappointed with him. He had every right to do it and obviously the situation was a pretty nice one in Quebec. Rift is definitely a little more tricky. With that being said, he wasn't offered a contract beforehand and again, when you hit free agency, you have that right. With that being said, I think I would have rather seen him stay in Calgary as I felt a little bad about the fact that Rift stayed there only one year after being traded to the Wranglers for Sullivan.” - Chris Miller

“Grigs never really bothered me, I mean skaters had gone to FA all the time, and with the Kellinger deal it made a lot of sense for him, it was just so unheard of for a goalie to do it that I never really saw it coming until I felt the knife. You don't have your franchise goalie up and leave and then just suddenly get over it. Fortunately, the actions of players in the Devise agency are not necessarily the actions of the agency itself, because its other players (Rauno Pajari and Logan Laich) as well as the agency itself are good guys. Rift, though, was never setting foot in the city of Calgary again. To this day there are fans out there who would throw things at him if he ever tried to attend a Wranglers game, and while I can't officially condone that behaviour, let's just say I might not happen to see it, intentionally.” - Jason Glasser

Was it the defining act of Rift's career though? After three teams in just five seasons, winning all he could, and then abruptly retiring midway through his fifth season, it's obvious that Skylar Rift would not be content with your average VHL career. Even in the rollercoaster that he enjoyed in the league, however, betraying a team and hitting a free agent as a still young franchise goaltender has to be the highlight of a career built upon breeding haters and controversy. Arguably no other player in the same situation would be willing to pull off a move like that, let alone involve another free agent, another team, and directly influence an all-time famous blockbuster trade. Due to the impact on Quebec, Calgary, Davos, to a lesser extent Helsinki, and even ostensibly untouched teams like New York, Riga, and Cologne, Rift's one decision may have well been the most influential of a generation.

“This was one of the pieces that defined it, I wouldn't say the single defining act because Rift made a career out of being a goalie that a team couldn't rely on in the long term and the Wranglers weren't the only team he did it to. Retiring early and leaving Quebec in a scramble (albeit one which they managed a solution to) was probably a bigger defining act as far as the league on the whole. Also, lest we forget the fact that Rift was with New York prior to the trade as a designated player, linked to then-GM Ryan Power, and was looked at as a long term solution there. He ultimately failed on three separate occasions to be reliable for multiple seasons for any team. That trend, more than any of the individual acts on any of the individual teams, defines the career of Skylar Rift.” - Jason Glasser

Where to end this? The only logical place would be with some final thoughts from the two people whose failure to have contract talks in advance caused one of the most dramatic off-seasons in VHL history. Are there any lingering regrets over their actions leading up to and during that off-season? Before asking them the questions, I figured that it wasn't likely. Turns out I wasn't far wrong.

“I would do something differently, but that thing would be not trading for him in the first place. I'd have kept Sullivan, maybe still dealt him if New York still needed a GM because it would be hard to want to deny an opportunity but I'd figure out some different piece to get. If anything, it would have possibly shortened the career of Clark Marcellin, and maybe hastened the arrival of Martin Brookside, if a goalie could be acquired by no other means. I know that some blame lies with me, Rift had mentioned extensions a few times, but I've always been a GM who separates the season from the business, and even now I negotiate that sort of thing when we're not in the midst of games. It's too much of a distraction to the franchise to be dealing with multiple fronts, and it doesn't allow for the full focus to be put on results where it belongs.” - Jason Glasser

“As much as I want to sell members on playing with me and having a good experience in the league, and team first and yada yada. Fuck all that shit. This league is about one thing. Your own enjoyment. If anything I feel BETTER having done what I did. There was a time when I was on Calgary that Jason was under some grand illusion that he would GM the Wranglers and keep them competing/relevant for an extreme amount of time. If anything, I feel my actions led Jason down a darker path, a path which, spoiler alert, could see his time with the Wranglers as GM be up sooner than later. Does it suck when a player does something like that to you? Sure. But a good GM works through it. I feel my actions proved Jason has been worn out from the position, and he scrambled, built a team to compete for a couple more season and then hasn't been able to get any real semblance together since. Even losing ANOTHER player to free agency after he traded for them.” - Skylar Rift

Don't leave these two alone in the same room. History-makers on opposite sides of the barricades rarely make for happy reconciliation stories.

End of Part 34
Special thanks to Chris Miller, Mitch Higgins, Skylar Rift, and Jason Glasser

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On 8/17/2015 at 8:57 AM, HOF said:

Effectively, Quebec did two things which are frowned upon in the VHL reputation-wise: signed multiple free agents at once and sold their future.

Basically modern day Toronto...

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On 8/16/2019 at 9:38 PM, Matt_O said:

Basically modern day Toronto...

Who are led by the same guy who was behind Rift ;)

We're both well past this and @Devise is probably one of the people I'm closest to on the site, but he certainly likes to do things in a particular way...

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14 minutes ago, diamond_ace said:

Who are led by the same guy who was behind Rift ;)

We're both well past this and @Devise is probably one of the people I'm closest to on the site, but he certainly likes to do things in a particular way...

 

To be fair I had leaned into the two-face gimmick for fun because of how drab being goalie was. I feel like this run hasn't really been as dramatic. That said as evidence to being past this you were just on the Legion to close the career. 

 

I still feel bad about screwing you though, and you know with more expansion teams coming I probably owe you a career player for the bucket list.

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4 minutes ago, Devise said:

 

To be fair I had leaned into the two-face gimmick for fun because of how drab being goalie was. I feel like this run hasn't really been as dramatic. That said as evidence to being past this you were just on the Legion to close the career. 

 

I still feel bad about screwing you though, and you know with more expansion teams coming I probably owe you a career player for the bucket list.

Don't feel bad about it - like @Victor said in his article, it gives me something to prove this time around (not that I'd really even considered that at the time I decided to take this team). I think it was pretty clear evidence that this whole thing has had 0 effect on us going forward, when I was around for so much of the 24 hour livestream you guys did on youtube.

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