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VHL 40 in 40 #37: Mediocrity

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Mediocrity

Most of the focus in history is on the greats, on the history-makers and those involved in memorable events and feats. Yet when someone experiences success, someone out there has to be on the other side of the coin. Given the cyclical nature of the VHL, it is usually that teams swap these roles from generation to generation, but sometimes franchises can get caught up at the bottom or have terrible luck in trying to move up from pretender to contender status. It seems a vicious cycle though in fact breaking out of the downward spiral (or rather stale, mundane reality) is much easier than it looks. For the Seattle Bears and Vasteras Iron Eagles, the hope will be that progress is on the way soon since for these two organisation, the VHL's fourth decade was one to forget.

As it stands with Seattle likely finishing Season 40 bottom of the league and Vasteras quickly descending out of the playoff picture, the two teams' combined playoff records since Season 31 are nine playoff appearances (all in the first round) and just a single series win by the Bears in Season 37. Looking at how this run impacted their overall VHL records is a pretty damning indictment of how damaging this decade has been. The Iron Eagles' history has been dissected considerably but the fact remains that their three-season run from Season 37 to 39 was the longest in modern franchise history, and only beaten by the first four seasons of the league's existence. Since making the finals in Seasons 1 and 2, Vasteras has won three playoff series: one as Madrid en route to a finals loss in Season 18 and two in that famous Season 26 Continental Cup victory. Seattle, a franchise with a very respectable five championships to its name, has often been absolved from the worst team in the league discussion but since their fourth Continental Cup way back in Season 17, the Bears' record has been very Vasteras-esque: one cup in Season 28 and just two other playoff series victories, in Seasons 30 and 37.

How did it come to this, with Seattle and Vasteras being probably the least successful franchises over the VHL's past 20 seasons (maybe even taking into account the ten-year-old Quebec and Cologne)? In Season 31, it could definitely not be foreseen. The Bears were coming off one of their best runs in history (a huge achievement for a powerhouse in the first 15 or so seasons) with five straight playoff appearances and a well-deserved championship spearheaded by the famous Seattle Six: Hall of Famers CAL G, Mitch Higgins, and Jarvis Baldwin, as well as three other big names of the time in Nikolai Lebedev, Felix Peters, and Radislav Mjers. They came within one win of getting another cup in Season 30 before Higgins' retirement and Mjers' loss to the newly-formed Express meant a rebuild was on the cards for the ageing Bears. With the hugely popular Noah Lefevre at the helm though, and multiple assets left to trade, this would surely be one of Seattle's signature quick rebuilds.

Even for the much-maligned Iron Eagles there was hope. The Season 26 victory was not too far back to forget, though going through two GMs in just four season afterwards didn't help a rebuilding effort which was already bound to be slow. Continental Cup champion Tyler Owens' successor in charge of Vasteras, Damien Walec, was more renowned as the agent of the great Tukka Reikkinen, and the draft which was supposed to make him (he had three top four picks in Season 29) turned out to be one of the worst in living memory, but it did bring a key face to the franchise at second overall: center Thomas Corcoran. Corcoran would find a love for his team which few in the VHL harboured by this point and after two seasons in the organisation became its General Manager just before the Season 31 VHL draft. It was always going to be an uphill battle for the rookie GM, with a team which lost its top two offensive stars of Season 30, veteran Lasse Milo and Troy Athera, no franchise goaltender and with his very first draft selection (Samu Heiskaken, famously taken one pick ahead of Remy LeBeau) wanting out straight away. Not afraid of a bold move, Corcoran decided to solve all his problems (no offence, no goalie, and no interested draftees) by trading two first-round picks to, of course, Seattle, for the great but old Jarvis Baldwin and CAL G. It was a heavily-criticised move and a huge gamble, even after signing Klaus Muller in free agency and trading for Vladimir Boomchenko (two defencemen of S30 champions Calgary) the following off-season. Quite predictably however, Vasteras remained the third-best team in Europe during Season 32, begging the question “why?”, especially after eventually losing a hard-fought seven-game series to the young Helsinki Titans. Perhaps there was no choice, but this was ultimately a futile attempt.

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Klaus Muller was one of several high-profile acquisitions for the failed S32 run

“My expectations when I signed were to compete for a championship, and that seemed to be the general attitude of the organization. The team had made a lot of moves in the offseason, and considering the team that was built, we were all expecting to make some sort of playoff run. I had been expecting that when I signed - the idea of trying to win a cup with a team of the reputation that Vasteras had was attractive to me. So obviously, we were all disappointed when we lost out in the first round.” - Klaus Muller

Where the Iron Eagles flopped, the Bears were expected to prosper. Their rebuilding efforts in Season 31 were not looking overly bright but the major haul acquired for Baldwin and G was a big boost for GM Noah Lefevre. By the Season 33 draft, a stacked one in which Seattle owned three top eleven picks, they looked poised for a big future once older powers like New York and Calgary fell away. There could be the argument that the Bears made the wrong choice at second overall by picking Karsten Olsen almost to spite Toronto, who needed a defenceman and where Odin Tordahl didn't want to go. Having already had two defencemen of their own, Noah's son James Lefevre and perennial Bear Greg Harbinson's new client Zack Sound, Seattle would have definitely been better off with Tordahl, especially since Olsen and Sound eventually made the move up front anyway. Nonetheless, with Olsen looking a very strong prospect and having also drafted Keiji Toriyama and future captain Sebastian Ball Jr., the Bears still looked a formidable young team and had a clear identity, with first-gens like Olsen and Damien Sandow buying into the Bears history and reputation proved first-hand by franchise veterans like Lefevre, Harbinson, and Ball.

“Our spirits were flying high after the S33 VHL Entry Draft. We had just drafted Karsten Olsen, who was second in the draft with close to 200 TPE, Keiji Toriyama, who was a highly touted prospect that fell to us at 8th overall, and myself. We felt like we just got three top 5 first round picks to go along with the reigning rookie of the year Zack Sound and defenseman James Lefevre. As a team, we knew we had something special on our hands and we were excited. We felt that as long as everyone worked hard at bettering themselves every day, the Bears could be the next Davos or New York in terms of success. Sky was the limit in our minds and as a team, we would be damned if anyone stopped us from reaching the pinnacle of the VHL, winning the Continental Cup.” - Sebastian Ball Jr.

The first crack showed at the end of that season when Lefevre stepped down as GM citing a heavy schedule as the reason. He was replaced by his predecessor Greg Harbinson, Season 28 champion and creator of the Seattle Six, but perhaps this blast from the past was a step back, considering Harbinson himself clearly wouldn't be able to hit the activity levels of old. Dwindling activity at the top of the organisation seemed to seep to the players, with Toriyama and Sandow soon disappearing . On an already defence-heavy team, losing two key forwards was a blow and though Harbinson's first few moves brought in highly-touted draftee Mikey Blade and disgrunted Cologne center Sergey Brovalenko, they were cancelled out by selling Toriyama and Sandow to the Riga Reign at the trade deadline. By the end of Season 34, the Bears appeared to be treading water, still a fair way out of the playoffs, though an improvement was being able to secure the services of a young and promising goaltenders, having drafted Steven Smyl in the S34 draft.

Over in Vasteras, the post-S32 rebuild started by securing a goaltender, having been burned when they took their time to find one previously. Corcoran retired to focus fully on management and brought in Eggly Bagelface in net. Alongside their top pick in S34, Willem Janssen, there was some semblance of a core for the Iron Eagles, though they were hurt by trading a supposedly going inactive (in the end, he didn't) David Collier for essentially nothing, and then losing S35 draftee Leon Leitner to inactivity quickly. Collier and Leitner (agent of Vasteras legend Scotty Campbell) could have been positive faces for the franchise and rebuilt its reputation, instead the team more and more became about Bagelface and Janssen, from the very start. In contrast to Seattle, where the likes of Brovalenko, Brennan McQueen and later Mikey Blade asked and got out, and unlike Vasteras' own history, no one actually demanded to not be part of the Iron Eagles – no one seemed to part of the Iron Eagles at all.

“We were expecting to go through a slower rebuild. With younger players like myself and Bagelface, our plans were to build through youth and the draft and not make many aggressive trades until we were sure it was our time to compete. And my individual plans were similar to that. When I was drafted, I set three goals for myself - have multiple seasons with above 100 points, get my number retired by the organization, and win a cup with the Iron Eagles. From my previous experiences with Vasteras, I knew that I wanted to stay with the organization long-term - I wanted to bring this team a cup. And I'm sure Bagelface felt the same way.” - Willem Janssen

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Sebastian Ball Jr's inspirational captaincy was marred by frustrating shortcomings

As is often the case, constant losses led to frustration and then desperation. The Calgary Wranglers of Season 14 almost went down the road of panic buying, before selling off what they had left instead. The Riga Reign in Season 27 didn't show the same constraint, famously trading for Kasey Braun and then for a collection of Vasteras veterans to ultimately and predictably lose in the first round. The Bears were more patient and could afford to be so, yet Season 36 was their sixth season of rebuilding and despite finally having a respectable roster, they barely scrapped into the playoffs against a New York Americans team which didn't intend to be there. The Iron Eagles didn't scrap in over the Cologne Express, despite the Express selling mid-season, including to Vasteras, after the Eagles were in a playoff spot for much of the season. Corcoran was heavily criticised for repeating his old mistakes and trading picks before his team was ready, especially given that the S36 acquisitions, Keiji Toriyama and Cody Inko, were nowhere near the talent level of Baldwin or CAL G. As Vasteras slumped, the first serious calls for relocation since their return from Madrid began to surface as did a VHL rarity: calls for Corcoran to step down or even be fired. Both Corcoran and Vasteras survived this initial turbulence and even navigated their way into the playoffs for the next three seasons, going out in the first round at the hands of Riga every time.

“The team needed to be aggressive earlier, and trades were a part of that. A slow rebuild would have worked if we'd had the pieces, but it was essentially just Bagelface and I - it would have helped if someone like Leitner had stayed active, or if we'd kept some of our early draft picks. But it got to a point where we needed to make trades, and when we ended up doing that, it didn't turn out as well - getting players like Toriyama was great, and Toriyama certainly added a lot to our team. But we needed a star player - we needed someone who could be the face of the franchise. We had the talent, easily, but there just wasn't anyone who could step up and be the top player, nobody who made Vasteras an attractive place to be. We tried to make moves for those players in free agency and in trades, and it just didn't work out. The team never was able to make any major push until Season 39, and that was the point where a lot of us had realized that we wouldn't be able to bring this franchise a cup. If the earlier stages of our rebuild, about S35 and S36, had gone better, or if we'd been able to get that star player earlier on, I think people would be thinking of the Vasteras Iron Eagles a lot differently.” - Willem Janssen

“We expected to struggle in our first couple of seasons. Even with the promising young players scattered amongst our roster, Rome was not built in a day and that was the same for Seattle. If anything, with each disappointing season, we grew more confident that one day we would reign atop the VHL. We were able to draft netminder Steven Smyl, who was a huge piece to our team, and Mikey Blade in the next draft and finally we felt our main core was complete. We continued to struggle but build as a team, so I kept our spirits up, reminding the team just what we had here in Seattle. For every player we lost like a Toriyama and Brennan McQueen, we gain another piece to the puzzle like Sergey Brovalenko and Greg Glass. As long as the core stayed together, we felt confident in our future.” - Sebastian Ball Jr.

Meanwhile, team spirit was not entirely down in Seattle but things had gone stale until Harbinson decided to shake it all up after Season 36. A blockbuster trade followed, reminiscent of his deal for Patrick Bergqvist and others in Season 21, and the result was similar. Despite acquiring the great Ethan Osborne to shore up offense, where Olsen and Sound had already moved, and acquiring the well-regarded Willie Weber to fill defensive holes, the Bears never seemed to click. Much like the previous season, they waited until the last day of the season to clinch the playoffs over New York, despite this time boasting a superior team capable of challenging for the cup. Seattle did show their quality in the post-season, avenging their S36 Game 7 defeat by Quebec by serving up the exact same to the Meute, but were denied by the Remy LeBeau-led Toronto Legion with relative ease in the conference finals. With Osborne retiring as well as, more shockingly, Zack Sound following the surprising step down by Greg Harbinson, it appeared that the Bears had missed their best and only chance to salvage something from a miserable decade.

This would turn out to be true with new GM Tyler Barabash teetering on the edge of a rebuild but never having the market to sell the remainder of the team to. Instead, the Bears had to settle for a position as North America's filler playoff team, always good enough to be there but never good enough to challenge Toronto or new powerhouse New York. After Season 39, with the remaining players having aged or retired, Barabash finally pulled the plug on the ordeal, ending a miserable decade as the worst team of the league, hoping that this will be the start of a journey back to the top. Over in Vasteras, new GM Benoit Prevost did likewise after one more failed run in Season 39 spearheaded by a bunch of Toronto veterans like Niklas Lindberg and Jack Sound in conjunction with, of course, Bagelface and Janssen. Both teams' rebuilds look promising but it is still a while before any of their efforts come to fruition.

“Our expectations really peaked in S37, when Greg Harbinson was able to make a deal and bring the reigning MVP, Ethan Osborne, to the team along with defenseman Willie Weber. We also traded Mikey Blade to the Reign to get a promising young center in Damon Tyrael. With the additions of Osborne, Weber, and Tyrael, we thought it was finally our time to shine. We took the Quebec City Meute, the favorites to win the Cup, to a game 7 the season before, so we knew we could play with the best of the best. We had an instant classic with the Meute and were able to win in 7 games before hitting a brick wall known as Remy LeBeau in the Semi-Finals. For me, we really didn't get down to earth until my last season in S38. I was at wits end after not being able to show up for my teammates when the time was right. After the disappointing defeat at the hands of Toronto, being two games away from the pinnacle of the league, I snapped back to the reality that it just wasn't meant to happen. Long story short, we never stopped believing we could be the best team in the league until it all started to fall apart.

While we didn't regret anything during our run in Seattle, we had a few blaring chinks in the the armor that led to us coming up short season after season. Our biggest downfall was lack of a superstar in the long term. Besides having Osborne for that one season, we never had a player step up into the spot light and take over the reigns of this team. Ball Jr. never made the next step up in his career and Karsten Olsen didn't become an elite level forward until both Ball Jr. and Zack Sound had retired. Another downfall for the Bears was our complete lack of consistency day in and day out. One day we could come out and beat any team in the league, but the next day, we would lose to teams that shouldn't have even been on the same ice as us. If the offense decided to show up, Steven Smyl had an off game and if Smyl was playing lights out, our offense struggled to put the puck in the net. Consistency was always something we couldn't find throughout the year of our team being together and it proved to be the one thing that held us back from being an elite team. Other than that, I have absolutely zero regrets and would do it all again the same exact way with the same exact team.”
- Sebastian Ball Jr.

Did Seattle or Vasteras deserve better? It's hard to say. Some bad trades were made by both teams but they also both had terrible luck, especially with several important prospects going inactive and some coming back to the league after being traded. In an expanded VHL, there may be more playoff positions but still only two finalists and one champion, so there are bound to be more teams disappointed each decade. The key is not be sucked into constant futility like the Iron Eagles had done for most of their existence after returning from Madrid in Season 21. All VHL franchises have a bad run or more, the difference in the past being that they simply failed to make the playoffs. By enduring several frustrating playoff losses, the Bears and Iron Eagles felt particularly mediocre rather than just bad – neither a tanking team jostling for draft position, nor a championship-calibre team. Seattle and Vasteras always had one or usually two conference rivals who were simply superior and that was their greatest downfall, as was possibly not pulling the plug on their contending efforts earlier.

“It's tough to say what we deserved as a team - on one hand, I feel like we were dedicated to the franchise and a lot of the team's perceived failures were because of some bad luck. On the other hand, I'm not going to lie and say that the franchise didn't make mistakes and that we didn't get punished for that. And I can't speak for the team, but on a personal level I don't think I deserved better. I mean, sure, it's frustrating that I'll never win a cup as a member of the Iron Eagles. But when it comes to a team like Vasteras, you get what you sign up for - you either become the hero who turns around a franchise and goes into history, or you continue the losing tradition that the team is known for - there's no middle ground. If you don't win a cup, people won't care. We didn't win a cup, and that's just the way it works. You have to be willing to accept the negative consequences.” - Willem Janssen

“While I don't feel that I deserved any better, I know for a fact my teammates in Seattle deserved a lot more than they got for their time on the Bears. While I thought that I underperformed for much of my career, I had my share of the limelight during my career. From the playoff magic of S36 to becoming a captain of Seattle to winning a gold medal with the USA, I achieved a lot more than a lot of members would even ask for. But the guys around me who put in so much work and so much effort to try and make the Bears the best team they could be definitely deserved a Continental Cup, or atleast a shot at one. These were quality members of the VHL and it was a shame that I couldn't lead them to the promise land. I got to know these guys and we became close as a team, with the ultimate goal of helping each other win it all. I couldn't ask for more out of my stay in Seattle, but I do wish that we could have been rewarded for all of the hard work we put into the Bears. In the end, it just wasn't meant to be for Seattle and that is that.” - Sebastian Ball Jr.

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The Stockholm Vikings signal a new beginning for the franchise

For the Vasteras Iron Eagles, this decade was the final straw to utterly demolish the camel's already thrice broken back. Today, they have announced that Season 40 will be the last season Vasteras is home to VHL or VHLM hockey, with the much-maligned VHLM version of Vasteras having moved to Moscow several years previously. Prevost and his team will be hoping that a clean slate will mean a more successful and maybe fortunate rebuild in Stockholm, where the Vikings will set sail in Season 41. Given the franchise's turbulent history, it is probably easiest to consider Stockholm an expansion team and give them a fair chance to set things right.

Over in Seattle, inspiration can be taken from history. Mentioned in this article were the S14 Calgary Wranglers who went on to secure back-to-back Continental Cups in Seasons 18 and 19, while the S27 Riga Reign failure allowed Mike Szatkowski to take over and he led Riga to become one of this decade's top teams, a playoff constant and possibly a two-time champion. Their struggling eras were similar to that recently experienced by the Bears and Seattle is a long way off to reaching Vasteras status in terms of their mediocrity. The most likely result will be that both Seattle and Stockholm turn things around in the forties and this space will be left open for another organisation and it will be a place to avoid. Nothing is worse than mediocrity in the VHL and so let this be a cautionary tale for the future.

End of Part 37
Special thanks to Klaus Muller/Willem Janssen and Sebastian Ball Jr.

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