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VHL 40 in 40 #40: Expanding Horizons

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Expanding Horizons

From the very moment I mapped out the rough plan for the ten articles to turn VHL 30 in 30 into VHL 40 in 40, the last one was going to be about expansion. It simply made sense as if any theme defined the VHL's fourth decade, it was expansion. Finishing off the series has taken longer than originally anticipated but the timing still feels right. Season 44 is seen as being very likely the last year of both expansion franchises' second competitive cycles and so it's fitting to recap where we are now. There is much to discuss, from the results of the expansion teams to the impact expansion had on the league, to VHLM expansion and overall whether the whole process was a positive decision.

Prior to Season 30, the topic of expansion was probably on par with trying to find consistency in the VHL's grading system – it was brought up on a regular to semi-regular basis but remained a pipe dream. Although the idea was tempting, the majority opinion was always that the VHL was not ready for such a move and after all, several rosters were still terrible every season even in an eight-team league. Despite this, when the “blue team” at the time – the three commissioners David Knight, Sterling, and Jardy – made the surprise announcement near the start of Season 30, expansion saw little opposition. Even though there was no obvious improvement in draft quality, both in the recent past or in the foreseeable future, the league appeared to trust its higher-ups. Perhaps the general excitement over the fact that expansion was actually finally taking place took over and it was easy to get on board the bandwagon, especially with the well thought-out organisation involved. The GM selection process was transparent, clear and fair, with significant weight given to how straightforward it would be to get the two GMs' players, the highly-rated youngesters Alexander Valiq and Kameron Taylor, onto their respective teams. Picking the location, name, and designing the logos was a process which managed to involve the league and left few disappointed. Finally, there was a clear vision as to how the new teams would be entered into the entry draft and for expansion draft rules, ultimately all resulting in a fairly seamless transition going into Season 31.

The process of getting expansion off the ground, at least on the VHL level, proved to be a good sign for how expansion would eventually play out. Despite having it far from easy early on, the newly-formed Quebec City Meute and Cologne Express have done well to make a name for themselves and have avoided the lower reaches of the league for most of their existence. The first three or four seasons were probably the most challenging but the two original GMs, Pavel Koradek and Joey Kendrick, respectively, proved worthy of the challenge and trust and persevered until both left their franchises in good health at the end of Season 36. Now, both the Meute and Express are on their third General Managers, a fairly average amount in the VHL over 14 seasons. This stability in having competent and responsible people in charge has allowed expansion to look good both on and off the ice.

“The biggest challenge we had was that unlike professional teams, the league didn't really help out expansion teams here. You could say the VHL doesn't know how to do expansion properly. Burning a pick and essentially a shot at landing free agents with a less than stellar roster base cost us a few years. The biggest challenge you have is building the name and trying to install a successful attitude that has the league looking at your franchise as a place to be. You don't have the history to base anything off of or the image of past eras to get people on board with.” - Joey Kendrick, founder of Cologne Express

“Without a doubt the most difficult aspect has been getting over the stigma of lack of franchise history. The issue with attracting people to play for an expansion team is not rely too heavily on the "help build history" aspect. A lot of people are looking for a great locker room and a good time, and just relying on the fact that you have a newer franchise and all of the stuff makes a bigger deal can get you into hot water some times.” - Ryan Power, current GM of Cologne and former agent of former Quebec City goaltender Skylar Rift

The much-discussed expansion draft

The sentiments above go along with Quebec City Meute founder Pavel Koradek's emphasis on “staying patient”, but while there were struggles with building a competitive roster, what of the actual impact on the rest of the VHL? As alluded to previously, the league took a risk by expanding when there was no obvious over-saturation of talent in eight-team Season 30 or before, but it's a decision which as paid off. The balance of the league has changed slightly, but probably for the better, as while some teams have remained in the basement every season, extra playoff spots seem to have added an appeal to try to compete and there are likely one or two more cup contenders these days than before expansion. This seems odd given that there was no obvious influx of talent into the VHL over the post-expansion decade, nor was there a streak of great draft classes (Season 33 and Season 40 stand out but neither really broke the streak of one great class per generation). However, the commissioners did a good job of planning ahead and thinking of how to retain members. Discussed prior to expansion, the [James Platts] Welfare and Pension Plan was unveiled shortly after and has gone on to be a key tool in both attracting a certain demographic as well as getting VHL veterans to stick around. It has proved to be a key factor in allowing a ten-team league to fill out rosters as well as an eight-team one and thus allowing expansion to be a success not just in terms of performances of the expansion teams themselves.

That said, despite the certain issues faced early on, the results and methods of Quebec and Cologne have done their own part to invigorate the VHL. Both teams finally came into relevance in Season 34 and their early peak was in Season 35, when the Meute won their first championship and the Express made it to the European Conference final. The contrast in how the two franchises reached that stage could not have been more stark. Quebec fully embraced the role of league villain which was definitely a welcome change after having 30 seasons where it seemed every original franchise went through that reputation at various points. Through the accumulation of the three Valiq brothers, Alexander, Niklas, and Tomas, then the free agency coup of signing both highly-rated winger Yuri Grigorenko and goaltender Skylar Rift before Season 34, and finally trading two drafts' worth of picks for former first overall pick Wesley Kellinger, the Meute made few friends, especially with the Express' struggles to attract free agents. There was lots of schadenfreude over Quebec's failure to win a playoff series in Season 34 but they had the last laugh the following season. Cologne, meanwhile, had to make do with a role as the loveable underdogs. Certainly they boosted their reputation by preferring to build a homegrown team defined by the likes of Taylor, Reggie Dunlop, and Evgeni Chekhov. Perhaps even more noticeable was the Express' commitment to reclamation projects like Jim Gow, Gregory Glass (later Chris Raymond), and Abraham Sander (later Conner Low), among others. Results-wise, though, there was a clear leader early on.

“My aim was to get them into contention as soon as possible, without sacrificing too much down the road. I may not have ran away with a ton of cups, but getting a new franchise a title so quickly is something to be proud of. After I stepped down, there were some thing I might have done differently, but they seem to be having some success.” - Pavel Koradek, founder of Quebec City Meute

Quebec City won their first cup in their fifth season

“First and foremost the aim was to provide a place that was fun, exciting and wanted to have a winning mindset from the beginning. Instead of directly building a team from scratch, we wanted to at least gain some quality in our players while our younger players were progressing. I was happy with my tenure, not sure if that is a satisfaction feeling though. I wanted to win a title as GM there and allow the guys who stuck with the team to gain that championship on a new franchise. I'm very happy with the franchise since my tenure has concluded. There was still an adjustment period after leaving for them, but they did come around and have now climbed into a successful era.” - Joey Kendrick

The early spark could have fizzled when the two teams went into their first true rebuilds around Season 37, following the departure of their original GMs. The successors, former Davos GM Frank Chadwick for Quebec and Cologne veteran Alexander Schneider, would only be in charge for the transition into a second era of contention, and both appeared to focus more on building through the draft. However, in Season 40 a huge off-season would allow both franchises to revert to form. It all started with Cologne winning the draft lottery and thus meaning the two teams were set to pick first and second in a superb draft with two generational talents in Thomas O'Malley and Mason Richardson. The Meute decided to cash in on their second overall selection though, and traded it for an impressive package from the Express of all teams, giving Cologne two franchise players but leaving Quebec with lots more assets to make noise in the trade market. That is precisely what they did, acquiring numerous pieces from the rebuilding recent four-time finalists HC Davos Dynamo, thus propelling them into what looked like second place in North America. While the Meute were upset by the Calgary Wranglers that season and the Express' own dreams ended in a sweep by the eventual champions from Riga, the stage was set for an expansion rivalry bigger than ever.

Quebec would consolidate their status as the league's hated team the following off-season, when the appointment of the outspoken Clinton Chevy as GM, coupled with the individual success of Bruno Wolf and Aksel Thomassen, meant the Meute got media coverage akin to their previous Valiq- and free agent-fuelled era of success. Even though Cologne would soon be led by former New York GM Ryan Power, who through Skylar Rift directly led to Quebec's first cup and who had a known track record for avoiding draft picks, it was the Express who were the league's favourites to win when the two franchises finally met in a surprise final in Season 42. The Express prevailed, vindicating the loyalty of the likes of O'Malley, Richardson, Nicolas Caprivi, Logan Laich, and Ron World Peace. A rematch in Season 43 seemed likely but both teams were surprised by ultimate underdog champions Seattle and now in Season 44 we may see one last explosive entry into this highly entertaining second chapter of Quebec and Cologne's history.

“With Cologne, even as co-GM, the moment I came in we had to instantly try to build a team that people would want to come to play at. After having the Kameron Taylor era where the team was simply competitive but couldn't never seem to put anything together, free agents and players we were interested in trading for often asked what our goals were for pushing the team beyond that level. Honestly the fact that we just happened to win the lottery and be at the perfect moment to pick up both O'Malley and Richardson played a huge role in getting the team's identity over that hump. Once Olynick was traded [allowing the acquisition of eventual playoff MVP Martin Brookside] and we had the pieces to be an elite level team suddenly that stigma went away and the team the league embraced Cologne as the "team to finally win".” - Ryan Power

Cologne waited longer but victory was all the sweeter coming against their expansion rivals

While expansion has been an undisputed success at the VHL level, in all aspects really, the jury is still out in the VHLM. Never a particular hub of activity even before Season 31, many felt it would have been best to pursue alternatives to adding two new teams to the minor league system. In the end, the cynics were sadly proved right. Following a rather rushed entry just before the off-season, with a short application process and little clarification on the drafting and other logistics, a ten-team VHLM saw little improvement on its eight-team version and ultimately the most damning indictment was the decision to contract back to eight teams prior to Season 43. The silver lining of the entire process was that the expansion franchises themselves, the Bratislava Watchmen and Yukon Rush, have been an undisputed success. Rarely missing the playoffs, and always for good reason, featuring great managerial alumni like Vince Wong, Sam Helberg, Jordan Eng, and Austin Gow, the Watchmen and Rush have seen an unprecedented run of success in the VHLM, winning 8 of the 13 post-expansion Founder's Cups, which included two all-expansion finals. That alone meant that VHLM expansion was not a complete waste of time and in the end all four new franchises at both VHL and VHLM level have maintained a certain appeal to players.

“I've always been attracted to the history in the league. Given that I make pretty terrible players not counting Skylar Rift I wanted a chance to push my mark onto league history in some way. I knew I wanted to be involved in both expansion teams first Championship win if I could. Obviously I signed and helped Koradek out with lines and a few other GM tasks with Quebec with Rift and played a big part in their Cup win. Given that I was so close to completing my task I instantly made it my goal to join Cologne with Laich, which happened decently early on his career. I wasn't intending on GMing Cologne at the time but as the opportunity fell into my lap it kind of felt like fate, and I was happy to be able to get them their first Championship as well.” - Ryan Power, who also won the Founder's Cup with Yukon (Skylar Rift in S31) and Bratislava (Logan Laich in S36)

There is not much more to add. At the end of the day, the decision to expand back in S30 was a good one all around and added an extra dimension to the VHL, without fundamentally altering it. It's been a breath of fresh air to see franchises write new storylines and engage in genuine rivalries, which were starting to lack a bit after 30 seasons of the same old franchises all going through peaks and troughs. The trade market has been more interesting as a result of extra teams and the first few off-seasons in particular had quite insane amounts of deals being done. Sixty percent of the league qualifying for the playoffs has also had positive results in terms of keeping more people entertained. To conclude, I wanted to ask a provocative question as to which of the two expansion franchises is “better”. The results were interesting to say the least and that just goes to show that it's good to have two teams in Quebec City and Cologne which VHL members can feel so strongly about.

“As franchises the teams match up pretty evenly. Both teams have won a single championship but will have been home to a decent number of Hall of Fame players as we are about to close a chapter on another era here soon in the VHL. Quebec has a few more names from it's early winning days that were close or still on Hall of Fame ballots whereas Cologne had a sure lock player in Taylor. I think Cologne has been able to attract more super star franchise type players for longer. Although the current era of Wolf and Thomassen somewhat contradicts that point. Still Taylor and O'Malley are pretty big names that thus far have been Cologne boys their entire careers basically.

Even looking beyond the "winning" stuff Quebec due to its nature of being the hated team has less loyal players. I think when all is said and done at the end of Season 50 Cologne will have more jerseys hanging in the rafters from players who made significant impacts or were loyal for a lot of their careers. With the exception of the GM player and one or two of his friends Quebec has always been the ideal destination for a trade target to go for a season or two before they retire, or a free agent pick up to help them win a cup in the last couple seasons of their career. They are kind of like the Leeroy Jenkins of teams. Whereas Cologne to me feels a lot more home grown for a lot of key pieces, whether it's by trade or draft the players tend to stick it out longer. Although it isn't like the edge I'd give Cologne is huge, as I think both franchises are pretty close.”
- Ryan Power

“Cologne is better because although we are tied in cup victories, Cologne hasn't had the shaky front office record. Koradek leaving it to Frank wasn't bad, but Frank leaving it to a kid has somewhat driven their image down. that whole Valiq thing was silly and eventually ended very poorly as well. Not to mention Quebec is an awful place, only the poutine can save it.” - Joey Kendrick

“Quebec is clearly superior since our logo is a wolf, what more can be said?” - Pavel Koradek

That does it for VHL 40 in 40. It took longer than anticipated and I am not sure if I will find the motivation to do ten more for S50 but we shall see. Certainly it has been worthwhile writing these and providing a few more entries to look back on in the Hall of Fame. I would like to extend special thanks to Sterling for helping finish the series, as well as of course everyone who provided quotes, which for this edition were Kendrick, Koradek, and Mr. Power. These articles would not be the same without your contributions. Last but not least, thank you to all the readers and hope you enjoyed.

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