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VHL 20 in 20 #15: Little League


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Little League

Just like the NHL, the Victory Hockey League has a system where players who are either not ready or not good enough to join the big league can play in a minor league with others of their kind. This league is, unsurprisingly, named the VHLM, for Victory Hockey League Minors. Some of the greatest players in VHL history have had to pay their dues in this minor league for a couple seasons before rising to become the legacies that they left on the league today. However, the VHLM was routinely criticized for its inefficiency and flawed practices for a long time throughout the league’s first 20 seasons. We’ll also look at some of the all-time VHLM greats and why they couldn’t cut it in the big leagues.

The VHLM was founded in Season 2, after a large draft class had teams overflowing with both active and inactive players. Deciding to provide teams with a receptacle for these unneeded or undeveloped individuals, the league brought in the minor league. Each team, like in the NHL, had a VHLM affiliate: the Toledo Scorpions with the Avangard Havoc, the Minot Gladiators with the Calgary Wranglers, the Ottawa Ice Dogs with the Hamilton Canucks, the Jonkoping Warriors with the Helsinki Titans, the Fresno Bulls with the Seattle Bears, the Gothenburg Eagles with the Stockholm Rams, the Brampton Battalion with the Toronto Legion, and the Vasteras IK J20 with the Vasteras IK Black Eagles.  These days, the 8 teams involved are the Bern Royals, the Brampton Battalion, the Saskatoon Wild, the Oslo Screaming Seamen, the Kolari Panthers, the Minot Gladiators, the Ottawa Ice Dogs, and the Vasteras IK J20.

The way it worked for a long time was that all of a team’s players that were not a part of its VHL roster were sent down to the team’s VHLM affiliate to play there for however long they were kept. If needed, they would be called up to the big leagues. Each VHLM team had a General Manager, but their power was limited, and they could only do so much. They were allowed to sign free agents to VHLM contracts, and were responsible for claiming newly declared VHL players on the priority list. However, their trading capacity was not very large.

At the end of each season, all drafted or draft eligible players received bonus practice hours, depending on their level of production in the past league fiscal year. With a maximum of 20 bonus hours, the league found that many players were hitting this rather easily, while others were very close to attaining that. Also, it was found that this type of bonus favored offensive players more so than defensive players. However, this was only one of the items that the VHLM had been long criticized for. Everyone who cared about the VHLM was constantly trying to figure out a way to improve it and make it more tempting for a young, developing player to spend time down there as opposed to rushing up to the VHL. It was the bonus system that seemed to be the most subject to critique, but other suggestions came about as well. I remember one suggestion about contracting the VHLM to 4 teams, with each team being a combination of two VHL teams. This was thrown out because of the cornucopia of available free agents that were out there for VHLM teams to snatch up. There was truly no need for contraction.

VHLM players battle for the puck

Another suggestion that I remember coming up a lot was lowering the maximum amount of practice hours that a player could have and still be in the VHLM. The current maximum is 175. If a player is past that point before the season begins, then he can’t play in the VHLM without going through waivers to get there. Therefore, to avoid this, most general managers keep those players up in the VHL if they truly aren’t worth losing. The suggestion was to lower this to 150 practice hours, but that was also refuted with the thought that it would just bring more under-developed players to the VHL when they could be productive in the minors.

However, not too long ago, the VHLM underwent a massive overhaul that seems to have worked very well. I haven’t paid much attention to the workings of the VHLM in a long time since I haven’t been down there since Season 14. However, I will have to start paying attention very soon as J.D. Stormwall is set to retire at this season’s trade deadline. The gist of the overhaul is that there isn’t really an affiliate system anymore. VHLM teams seem to be completely independent of their VHL counterparts. The VHLM general managers do not have to be from the same VHL team as the affiliation system dictates, and players are now free to move independently of what VHLM team their VHL team is connected to.

Think of a player who enters the league (let’s call him Gifford Shock) at the trade deadline. Gifford is claimed on priority by Brampton, where he plays for the remainder of the season. After that, he leaves Brampton and is placed in the VHLM Entry Draft of that year. He is drafted by Saskatoon and plays there for the entire year. Fast-forward to the VHL Entry Draft, and the Helsinki Titans picked him up. If Helsinki decides that Gifford needs more time to develop in the minors, they will send him not to Kolari, but back to Saskatoon, who still hold his VHLM rights. There, Saskatoon decides to trade Gifford to Oslo. Even if Gifford is changing teams in the VHLM, he still remains property of Helsinki throughout the experience. This way, the VHLM seems to be more independent of the VHL, and is almost its own league. The added autonomy should be enough to motivate everyone involved to make sure that the VHLM remains a solid product for a long time to come.

The bonus system was also fixed. Each player is asked to pick two stat categories to base their impending practice hour bonus on. Defensemen have the option of going for goals, assists, or points, but can also choose hits, blocked shots, or plus/minus. This way, it is a far more even system for all types of players involved.

Shifting gears slightly, let’s talk more specifically about the players. As mentioned before, just about every player in VHL history has had to spend at least a little bit of time in the VHLM before making their way up to the big leagues, and becoming a part of VHL lore. However, some players are able to produce in a big way at the VHLM level, but when it comes to making the major league, they can’t seem to achieve a similar result.

   Perhaps the most memorable VHLM superstar was Tyler Vassell. Vassell was drafted 24th overall by the Avangard Havoc in the Season 5 VHL Entry Draft. Naturally, not much was expected of Vassell: if he turned out to be a solid player, then the Havoc had a steal on their hands, but in the more likely scenario, he was a career minor leaguer. All those who proclaimed him as the latter were absolutely correct, but they didn’t anticipate such a grandiose display of production from Vassell. Due to the fact that Avangard was a terrible team back in Season 5, Vassell actually began his career in the VHL, where he recorded 7 points in 72 games. The havoc sent him down to the VHLM for Season 6, and the rest is history.

Tyler Vassell

In Season 6, Vassell finished 4th in VHLM scoring with 79 points, behind Tomas Ziegler, Brandon Best, and Aaron Wilson. In Season 7, he took his first VHLM scoring title, scoring 127 points for the Minot Gladiators. Moving to the Toledo Scorpions in Season 8 didn’t deter the left winger, as he led the league in scoring once again and bested his previous highs with 134 points. Season 9 is where Vassell had a campaign that, at the time, was unheard of. Scoring 123 goals and 81 assists for 204 points, Vassell destroyed the VHLM, outscoring the 2nd placed scorer by over 55 points. Unfortunately for Vassell, he would hit the 175 practice hour limit after that and would be forced to go up to the VHL. The Scorpions wouldn’t dare put him on waivers, knowing another VHLM team would love to claim him. Vassell would play the last 3 years of his VHL career while he was slowly fading into obscurity, his name merely a piece of trivia for hardcore VHL fans. Oddly enough, despite his dominance, Vassell only managed to win one Founder’s Cup in his career.

While Vassell is the most famous example of a purely VHLM superstar, there were certainly others who paced the minor league, but could never crack it in the bigs. Guys like Ned “Up Top” Louvencourt, Derek Evans, and Steve Collins come to mind here. Collins, in fact, had a season where he almost dwarfed Vassell’s legendary totals. Collins hit 229 points last season with Brampton, but he did it in a season where 3 other players eclipsed the 200-point mark. While Collins’ mark stands higher, VHLM scoring has gone way up. Vassell dominated the league far more than any VHLM player that I can think of, and had he been around last season while he was in his prime, he might’ve been able to hit 250 points.

Just as some players can light the lamp with ease in the VHLM, yet fail to ignite a spark in the VHL, other players are unimpressive and unspectacular in the VHLM, but truly shine once they’re promoted to the big league. Tomas Jenskovic, for example, finished Season 9 in the VHLM with an unspectacular 68 points. He would go on to be the 1st overall pick in Season 10 and would ascend to be one of the greatest defensemen in VHL history. A more recent example is Patrick Bergqvist, who only managed 70 points in Season 14 for the Kolari Wolves. However, once again, Bergqvist got his act together and ascended to become a superstar defenseman in the VHL. Simply put, the VHLM is not a perfect indicator of VHL success. Cases as extreme as Tyler Vassell’s are rare, but many players have been big-time producers in the minor leagues, only to fail in the big leagues, or fail to make the big leagues at all. Others stay quiet in the VHLM, but truly begin to make noise once they hit the professional league. It’s tough to tell which case you’re getting when you encounter a VHLM player, and it’s usually luck that plays a factor.

Jardy Bunclewirth in the VHLM

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the VHLM is useless. In fact, that is not at all true. Players such as current VHL superstar, Jardy Bunclewirth, have come out on record saying that the extended time that they spent in the VHLM has only been beneficial for their careers. Stormwall, my client, was rushed into the VHL right after he was drafted in Season 14, and it didn’t work out well at all. After finishing the season in the VHLM, he came back in Season 15 and stuck with the team, becoming the captain of the Calgary Wranglers, a winner of several Boulet trophies, and a 2-time Continental Cup champion. Clearly, with these two examples and many more unnamed stories, the VHLM definitely plays a large role in player development in the VHL. Without it, we’d have players, who were clearly and visibly not ready for VHL action, be thrust onto the big stage and fail miserably. This would result in a lowered morale, and a lowered confidence within the player, and the negative impact of that could cost the individual, the team, and the entire league. Imagine if Bunclewirth had been made to stay in the VHL right after he was drafted – he’d be terrible. Not only that, but the agent behind the player would get discouraged due to poor performance and might leave. To sum this up, yes, the VHLM is a most necessary part of the Victory Hockey League.

To cap things off on a lighter note, let’s take a look at which VHLM franchise has been the most successful in the first 19 seasons of its existence. After counting the Founder’s Cups, it appears that both Ottawa and Brampton have 4 Founder’s Cup victories. Both franchises have had some notable alumni who have gone on to become VHL stars. Coming in with 3 Founder’s Cups are Gothenburg/Oslo, Toledo/Bern, and Minot. All three of these franchises have also been quite successful during their time in the VHLM and should not be out of place in this discussion either. With 1 Founder’s Cup each, Jonkoping/Kolari and Vasteras are not overly successful in their time as franchises. Despite having some solid players grace their rosters, they haven’t been able to put it together very often and have usually been a stepping-stone for several of the aforementioned teams. However, the team with absolutely no Founder’s Cups to speak of is the Fresno/Buffalo/Saskatoon franchise. They are the only franchise in either the VHL or the VHLM that has never captured the league’s championship. This team has been affiliated with one of the more successful VHL franchises, the Seattle Bears. The fact that such a successful VHL team can have such a pathetic VHLM team is very confusing, but that is the way things are right now.

The Marcel Dionne trophy is given out to the league’s top scorer. In 19 seasons of VHLM history, we’ve had 16 different winners – Zach Parise won the award twice, and Tyler Vassell, as we know, won it 3 times. However, Vassell only won 2 Sakic trophies, which are awarded to the league’s MVP. In Season 8, goaltender Marek Van Urho topped Vassell for the award. Zach Parise, meanwhile, also won this award two times. The Bourque trophy goes to the league’s best defenseman, and while we have no players who have won this award more than once, it is an impressive collection of names engraved around this trophy’s base that makes it so notable. Names like Jochen Walser, Kyle McLeod, Vladimir Kliment, Mike Kloepfer, and Emerson Hrynyk have definitely made this award a ‘must-win’ for any young defenseman. Winning the Bourque trophy would certainly put any player among elite company. The Sawchuk trophy is awarded to the best goalie, and while we see Adrian McCreath, Marek Van Urho, Benoit Devereux, Daisuke Kanou, and Aiden Shaw all with their names engraved on the trophy, Pavle Buric has his name on there twice. Could this make Buric the best VHLM goalie of all-time? It seems most arguable.

Pavle Buric

With that last paragraph being a slight history lesson, hopefully you now understand the true impact of the VHLM. It is a league where legends are made, and where the stories, accomplishments, and players can be quite impressive. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a VHL player who tells you that he cares too much about the VHLM, but rest assured that his general manager will tell you the exact opposite. The VHLM is important, but we often don’t realize it.

End of Part 15


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