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VHL 20 in 20 #14: Buried Treasure


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Buried Treasure

We just recently spoke about some of the most monumental busts in the history of the VHL. However, I think it’s time to turn the tables and talk not about disappointments, but about surprises. Of course, you have all probably figured out by now that I want to talk about VHL draft steals. A steal is when a player from a lower draft position comes, almost out of nowhere, to become an impact player in the Victory Hockey League. As a former GM, I never discounted the later rounds unless there was truly nothing left. A draft steal can accelerate your franchise’s rebuild, or can prolong their stay at the top of the league. A draft steal can go on to win MVP trophies, Continental Cups, and get inducted into the Hall of Fame. All this because the General Manager lucked out and made a good pick when he didn’t think he’d get anything.

Obviously, every VHL Entry Draft is littered with discussion about all the top picks. These are guys who better be superstars, or else face the embarrassment of the dreaded “bust” tag being placed around their deserving shoulders. Coming into the draft as a little-known player, I find, is a more enviable position. You have nothing to lose. If you go inactive, you were expected to do so sooner or later anyway, so it’s not a big deal. If you stay active and become a solid player in the league, then everyone invokes you when they talk about success stories and draft steals. This is why, when I bring players to other leagues, I never hype them up as much as I do here in the VHL. This is because I don’t know how much practice hours I can be present for with a full commitment already placed here, so I definitely want my guy to avoid the “bust” tag, if possible.

Personally, I’ve always described a “steal” as a player who was drafted outside of the 1st round, yet still came out and hit about 350-400 practice hours over the course of his career. Still then, on-ice performance is critical because a player could practice very inconsistently and still work his way up to about 350 hours or so. So, for me, a draft steal needs to combine activity with strong on-ice performance. However, everyone has his or her own interpretation of what qualifies a player as being a draft steal.

”Lot's of people assume that a draft steal is a player taken late in the draft who, unexpectedly, starts tearing shit up. This is indeed true to an extent, but in my eyes, it's also relative to the rest of the draft. Sometimes there's only one round of good, active talent on the surface, and a steal can take place even in the early to mid-second round. The S13 draft, for example, was so bad that I would consider Keyvan Kljk a steal, and he went in the late FIRST round.” – Jardy Bunclewirth

Not the biggest, but perhaps the first draft steal occurred in Season 3, when the Helsinki Titans selected center Lennowitcz Schalkwinzz with the 12th overall selection. Looking at the 4 players drafted just before Schalkwinzz, it is easy to see why he’s a steal. Sexy McSexington, Fernando Garcia, Ned Louvencourt, and Cody Mulcachy all fell short of the expectations placed upon them while Schalkwinzz rose and, eventually switching the defense, became one half of one of the most iconic defense pairings of all time: The Hebrew Hammers. McSexington became a journeyman VHL defenseman, Garcia was stuck behind a goalie logjam in Avangard and would remain stuck in mediocrity throughout his career, Louvencourt became a top sniper…in the VHLM, and Mulcachy fell off the face of the Earth. The Avangard Havoc are beating themselves up over this, as they picked 3 of those players before Schalkwinzz. Even worse, Helsinki uses Avangard’s original pick to pick the Hebrew Hammer. Schalkwinzz would win a Continental Cup in Helsinki and would be a regular at the yearly all-star games.

Lennowitcz Schalkwinzz

The Season 5 VHL Entry draft produced some solid talent, including 4 Hall of Famers: 1st overall selection Jochen Walser, 2nd overall selection Branden Snelheid, 4th overall selection Devon Marlow-Marta, and 22nd overall selection Alex Gegeny. Gegeny, a goaltender from the hockey mad market of Namibia, was seen as an afterthought in the VHL draft as he started out strong with regular practices, but faded away quickly and was basically inactive by the time the draft rolled around. Players who went before him include Patrick Mueller, Storm Larozek, Christoph Walser, and Andrew Ferrin. Gegeny came back in full force to the Toronto Legion and won 2 Tretiak Trophies. He was a regular all-star as he backstopped the Legion to their first ever Continental Cup. Eventually, Gegeny was rightfully inducted into the Hall of Fame. The player picked at 23rd, right after Gegeny, wasn’t half bad either. Ace Lightning spent several years near the top of the VHL scoring leaders, and even led the league in assists one year.

Fast forward to Season 8, and we’ll find an interesting story surrounding the Riga Reign’s selection of Matt Fletcher with their 4th round pick at 26th overall. Fletcher did not have any practice hours at the time, and he seemed to be no different than guys such as Kenneth Samuels, Mike Berg, and Max Harris – other 0 practice hour players who would go undrafted. Because of this, and Fletcher’s sudden re-appearance shortly after the draft’s conclusion, there were rumors circulating the league that reeked of foul play. Though there’s no rule against it, many suspected that Riga conspired with Fletcher to have him remain inactive until after the draft. However, as I just said, there’s no rule against that as GM’s routinely talk to impending draftees prior to the draft. Most of them, however, talk to the big names, and not the nobodies, which is what Matt Fletcher was until he emerged as an active player. He would have a solid, yet unspectacular career, but 450 practice hours from a 4th round player is good enough for me to include Matt Fletcher in this article.

Moving to the dreadful Season 9 draft, we find perhaps the greatest VHL steal of all-time. For all the difficulty Avangard had in that Season 3 Entry Draft, they were the ones laughing in Season 9 as they came out with the only 2 good players of that draft: Jack O’Riley at 1st overall, and Zach Ace at 14th overall.

”I was told to join by Matt Bentz. The concept seemed really cool, so I joined up. I think I was drafted later because I went inactive 2 weeks prior to the draft. It was a weak class, but I think all the GMs were just shooting in the dark after the first three selections.” – Zach Arce

Players selected before Arce included Jared Myers, Kyosuke Ino, Marcus Richter, Riku Iverson, and Marc LeBlanc. There are many GMs who hate themselves for skipping over Zach Arce, and I am one of them. While the majority of these Season 9 draftees would amount to nothing special throughout their careers, Zach Arce took a different route. With 3 Continental Cups, 2 Campbell trophies, 2 Slobodzian trophies, 2 Lemieux trophies, and a Mikita trophy, Zach Arce was rightfully inducted into the Hall of Fame. He is actually the only player from the terrible Season 9 draft to make it in, and it’s unlikely that anyone will join him barring some votes for Jack O’Riley. Many people, myself included, believe that Zach Arce is the greatest draft steal in VHL history. The Hall of Fame induction is simply the exclamation point on a truly great career that makes Arce more than worthy of his spot in the hallowed halls of VHL lore.

Zach Arce

”I'd like to think I’m the best of all-time. I definitely think I am one of the biggest, but the biggest of all time? I like hearing that from people. It just makes me feel like all of my accomplishments meant so much more.” – Zach Arce

We often overlook the Season 10 draft when it comes to draft steals. However, you will find that Greg Harbinson, drafted 19th by the Avangard Havoc. Harbinson would never win a Continental Cup, and he won no Tretiak trophies or other major awards in his career, but he would go on to accumulate over 500 practice hours throughout his career. Despite not going on to achieve much individual or team success throughout his tenure as a goaltender in the Victory Hockey League, Harbinson’s commitment and activity definitely earns him the draft steal status. With goaltenders always in high demand around the league, Harbinson supplied his team with an active presence between the pipes and certainly made the team stronger than they would have been without him. It’s interesting that he gets overlooked, however.

”I would qualify myself as a steal because I had very little practice time or media coverage before the S10 draft, and I didn’t really start practicing until after I was drafted. I started with 9 practice hours, and by the time my career had ended; I had over 500 practice hours. I really don’t know why I’m not talked about more when it comes to steals. Maybe it was because I was a very quiet player in the league. I did what I had to do, talked mainly with my teammates, and moved on to the next week.” – Greg Harbinson

The Season 12 draft was the year of the legendary “big 3”: Matt Bailey, Devon De La Soul, and Geoff Gartner. However, even with these big name players making headlines, when looking back on this draft, we find the penultimate player taken in this draft to have made a big splash as well. Harvey Singh was a diminutive Canadian defenseman who had joined the league, but his inactivity caused him to be passed over by VHLM teams. He didn’t have a team when the New York Americans selected him 23rd overall.

” The biggest steal in VHL history has got to be Harvey Singh. He was the 2nd to last pick in a really crappy draft.” – Zach Voss

Singh would only make his VHL debut in Season 14, after two seasons in the VHLM to work on his craft. He showed up just in time to help the Americans win their 1st ever Continental Cup, and then moved to forward and joined the Riga Reign just in time for their cup run in Season 16, where he was the team’s leading scorer. He’d end his career in Toronto and while it was a short career for the Canadian player, he managed to win 2 Continental Cups and have 2 90 points seasons – not bad for a guy who was very close to not being drafted at all.

Zach Voss

2 seasons after Singh’s draft was the Season 14 VHL Entry Draft where, once again, all the talk was about the players at the top of the pack: Malcolm Kelly and Emerson Hrynyk. The Season 14 draft was generally regarded as being a strong one, but a guy who definitely should have gone earlier than he did, in hindsight, was Zach Voss. Being selected after players like Jamie Nathanson, Brandon Maxwell, and Optimus Prime, Voss definitely should be considered a mini steal. Certainly not the biggest, but he was definitely up there. He certainly outplayed his goaltending counterpart, Alex Young, throughout their respective careers.

”I don't think anyone talks about me because it took so long for me to become an all-star. I was an early 2nd round pick too, so it's not like I was picked dead last or anything. Maybe people just don't want to give Lucas Tannahill credit where credit is due.” – Zach Voss

It did take a while before Voss became a superstar in the league, but with 2 consecutive Tretiak trophies, and a Continental Cup victory, he certainly enjoyed a very successful career both on an individual level, and on a team-related level. Only 3 other goalies were able to win the Tretiak trophy in consecutive seasons: Adrian McCreath, Alex Gegeny, and Benoit Devereux. All 3 of these men find themselves immortalized in the VHL Hall of Fame. Whether or not Voss will join them remains to be seen. Another player from that draft class that enjoyed a strong career was Mason Dixon, who Riga picked 17th overall. Again, it was an unspectacular career for the American winger, but over 400 practice hours in a short amount of time is nothing to sneeze at.

”I certainly wouldn't consider myself to be as much of a steal as a guy like Harvey Singh was, but I think I was definitely a steal. A goalie that won 2 Tretiak trophies in a row is well worth a first round pick.” – Zach Voss

In my eyes, there is only one man who has the potential to challenge Zach Arce for the title of biggest VHL steal of all-time. The man I speak of was drafted 18th overall in the Season 16 VHL Entry Draft by the Calgary Wranglers. By now, I’m sure, you realize that I am talking about Jardy Bunclewirth, whose meteoric rise to fame, prominence, and power is perhaps unparalleled by anyone in VHL history.

”General Managers see players like that all the time. They'll join the league, talk about how pleasant it is, mingle with the crowd and do the bare minimum. It's just all too often that these kinds of players never actually do become active and instead end up disappearing forever. I went six whole weeks without doing an effective practice, so I can't blame GMs for passing me over in favor of people who actually did their practices.” – Jardy Bunclewirth

Still, General Manager Matt Bentz saw something in Jardy Bunclewirth and made the effort to draft him and reach out to him to try and rope him back in to the league activity scene. It would be a long road for Bunclewirth, as he would spend 2 seasons in the VHLM before getting his first taste of action in the big leagues, but Bunclewirth says that this was instrumental to his current success.

Jardy Bunclewirth

” I loved it, actually. In fact, Matt had tentatively planned on me being up with the Wranglers in S17, but I pretty much told him to fuck off. Even after a full season of activity, I wasn't the most developed prospect in the world, and I knew that. I knew I wasn't going to do well playing in the VHL for a non-playoff team, so I just figured that instead of putting myself in purgatory, why not have a successful season in Minot, get my 28 extra practice hours in, then maybe have a legitimate shot at Rookie of the Year next season? So that's exactly what I did.” – Jardy Bunclewirth

Sure enough, Jardy became a star in the VHL. He easily won the Stolzschweiger Trophy in his rookie season, and helped the Calgary Wranglers win a Continental Cup. However, he shocked everyone by going out and winning the Campbell, Slobodzian, and Lemieux trophies while helping the Wranglers win their 2nd consecutive cup. In a short time, Jardy has certainly made an impact on the league not just on the ice, but off the ice also. He is now the general manager of the Wranglers as he hopes to rebuild the team in search of more Continental Cups. He also became a VHL Commissioner after less than a year of membership in the league.

”The past year has almost been a blur for me. As I said earlier, I had very low expectations for myself coming into the league, so my swift rise to prominence was a tad unexpected. I would definitely say I managed to accomplish what I did because of my positive, upbeat attitude, and because of the good working relationship I hold with most the people in the league. I'm notorious for talking a lot, but I think that had a lot to do with my rise to power. In addition, I genuinely did care about the league, and actively showed that I wanted to do everything I could to help. League higher-ups obviously saw this, and were happy to afford me the opportunities they did as a result.” – Jardy Bunclewirth

The final draft we’ll be looking at is the fabled “Freak Draft” that has lost some of its steam with a few players, including 2nd overall selection Cedric Pollack, going inactive. However, we can certainly see some steal potential in guys like Joey Clarence, Mathias Chouinard, Roman Andreev, Abdullah Jabir, and Vadim Volkov. All of these guys should be big name players in the VHL for a long time if they continue to show up to practice and remain active. Andreev made a strong case for the Stolzschweiger trophy, but was beaten out by fellow S18 draftee Michael Angelo, who might deserve a mention as well. In the end, even a draft as deep as the Season 18 draft could harbor some steals if the designated players play their cards right.

Steals are very hard to predict in the VHL draft, and it takes a truly strong GM to identify one and choose one based on savvy and privately held information. Most of the steals in VHL history have come from pure dumb luck. There are times when, for whatever reason, a low-ranked player will simply re-appear and return to activity for no reason at all, but this doesn’t happen as often as we’d like to see it happen. However, there are a few ways that GMs can maximize their chances of getting a late round steal.

”When I'm online, I try to watch the "who's online" section, and find who is online a lot, whether they are posting or not. I myself have yet to find a "steal" but one of these days I will.” – Zach Voss

Keep an eye out for those steals!

Simply paying attention to who’s hanging around the league can sometimes find a steal for a GM. A player who may not be active, yet is constantly checking in to the league may be willing to be active, but lost, intimidated, or lazy. If a GM can pinpoint these guys and draft them, then that serves as quite a bit of inspiration for that player. Then, after the draft, it takes some diligence on the part of the GM to try and motivate these players to be active.

”Some players might just need a kick in the pants to get going and to show up every week. I know that I had help from the legends Scotty Campbell and Lucas Tannahill early in my career. GM's that talk to their prospects will get more out of them and it’s no difference with later picks. If a GM is always talking to them and telling them to show up to practices, they might just do so.” – Greg Harbinson

”The prospect of being able to become a star in the league could serve as motivation in itself, but it does seem pretty unattainable at first with all the "second generation" veterans. When I joined the league, I simply had hilariously low expectations, as I figured it was impossible to surpass these people. I was pretty much active in practicing because I enjoyed doing it, and I figured I could eventually be a pretty solid player down the line. Obviously, not everyone has the patience or immediate enjoyment like I did, so those people could use some sort of push.” – Jardy Bunclewirth

In my opinion, I think a good way to motivate new members to remain active is players like Bunclewirth, Arce, Singh, and the rest of the guys mentioned in this article. If someone doesn’t believe that their work could pay off in the league, we can show them that all it takes is to continue showing up, and to allow yourself to truly enjoy the VHL experience. With this, one can go farther than they ever expected to go. They could be an MVP, win a Continental Cup, make the Hall of Fame, or even become a Commissioner if they stay the course and don’t give up.

”My story should show that it doesn't matter how late you are drafted. It is actually better, and it’s a more inspiring story to be an underdog player. It should also show that a first generation player could be just as good as any other if he puts the effort into it.” – Zach Arce

”When I was at that point in my career, there weren't too many prominent "first-generation" players who were top stars, except maybe Vase Trikamaki, but he was a goalie so I didn't care anyway. My hope nowadays is that guys like Tarik Saeijs, and myself and maybe soon Cam Fowler and Joey Clarence, can show fresh faces that anything is possible with a little work. Then maybe we can take that lesson and make it into an educational video to show the kids at school!” – Jardy Bunclewirth

End of Part 14
Special thanks to Zach Voss, Greg Harbinson, Zach Arce, and Jardy Bunclewirth


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