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VHL 20 in 20 #16: The Famine


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The Famine

In the Victory Hockey League, we are fortunate enough to say that every franchise has won at least one Continental Cup in their lifetime. The Calgary Wranglers lead the way with 5 wins, while Seattle and Davos are not far behind with 4 each. Riga and Helsinki come in after that with 2 championship wins, and Toronto, New York, and Vasteras all round out the group with 1 win. Now, of those bottom 3 teams, it may seem tough to differentiate one franchise as being worse off than the other two. If I had to pick one, I would definitely go with the Vasteras franchise. Not only are they tied for the least amount of Continental Cups, but they also have the longest Continental Cup drought in VHL history. After winning the inaugural Continental Cup, the Iron Eagles have not been able to capture that elusive 2nd title, despite having some strong teams along the way. This episode, we take a closer look at the franchise that has been waiting and waiting to return to championship glory.

Before we talk about the hardships that this franchise has had to endure over 19 seasons, let’s start off on a bright note. There was a time when the Vasteras IK club was the toast of the league: Season 1. Season 1, as you may recall, was actually dominated by Brett Slobodzian and the Calgary Wranglers. It was Calgary, not Vasteras, who was both favoured and expected to take home the Continental Cup. However, Vasteras was able to match Calgary’s firepower. The Wranglers came with Slobodzian, Boulet, and Janssen, but the Black Eagles came back with Campbell, McKelvie, and Clarke. While the Wranglers had Sterling Labatte, the Black Eagles had Ljunggren and Lidstrom. However, the biggest difference was in goal. Calgary’s Drew Barclay was simply no match for Vasteras’s Matthew Pogge, and it was Pogge who shutout the Wranglers in Game 6 to help Vasteras clinch the first ever Continental Cup.

”I think the Season 1 win in Calgary was possible for two reasons: one was Scotty Campbell.  Had Amstel not passed on him in the draft, I really doubt the team gets as far as it did. The second was balance. Lidstrom was a great pickup and Ljunggren had yet to stagnate in his development, so he was on par with good, but not great, VHL defenders for that season. Plus, Matthew Pogge was unbelievable in net. While VIK didn’t quite have the guns to keep up with Calgary's high-octane offense, it had more balance.” – Lucas Tannahill

The Vasteras club went into next season feeling good about their chances again. They drafted a future Hall of Famer in Matt Defosse at 8th overall in the Season 2 VHL Entry Draft, but they also lost Jon Clarke and Markus Lidstrom to Stockholm and Toronto, respectively. However, with their top players continuing to improve, the Vasteras IK were definitely among the favorites to take home the prize for Season 2. In fact, Vasteras took home the Victory Cup for having the league’s best regular season record. Needless to say, there was a strong wave of confidence flowing through many of the Black Eagles players.

”Of course I thought we’d win more cups. In fact, in Season 2, I was hoping for the same. We got to the finals, but Calgary got revenge. However, that was really just the beginning of the end for me, since I still had an old school mindset and even in Season 2, the league was radically changing. My own laziness regarding my player's development really hurt too, since Ljunggren was pretty much the same as the season before, while everyone else was far ahead. Then I dealt with the whole McKelvie issue where he told me he’d re-sign, but then he bolted. Because of my faulty strategy, the team from there on out was pretty much doomed to fail. Unfortunately, at the time, I didn’t see things that way.” – Lucas Tannahill

Vasteras wins the 1st ever Continental Cup

Indeed, the Wranglers and the Black Eagles met again in the Continental Cup finals in Season 2, but this time it was a dominating performance from the Canadian franchise that resulted in Vasteras getting swept, and simply dominated offensively by Calgary’s firepower. Even Pogge, who had the best numbers of all VHL goalies in the postseason, was not able to stop the Wranglers this season. While the series was deemed, at the time, as an upset by many, considering Vasteras had the better regular season record of the two teams, not everyone was overly surprised by the result.

”It was tough to see what was coming, but I wasn't too sure of our chances. We didn't really add much to our team after Season 1 while other teams were really starting to acquire some depth. I knew that would be a big issue for us, and obviously things didn't quite work out.” – Scotty Campbell

In Season 3, Vasteras wouldn’t even make it to the Continental Cup finals, thanks to a brilliant goaltending clinic put on by legendary goaltender, Maxim Desny. Really, this only marked the beginning of the long, painful turmoil that awaited the loyal Vasteras fans. Just before the start of Season 4, Vasteras and Seattle completed what was, at the time (and still may be), the biggest trade in VHL history when the IK sent Scotty Campbell and Matt Defosse to Seattle in exchange for Mike Szatkowski, Brannan Anthony, a Season 5 1st round pick (Luciano Marjamaki), and Cody Banks. A total of four Hall of Famers were involved in this deal, and this is the trade that really propelled the Seattle Bears to their 2-season dynasty in Seasons 4 and 5.

”The Scotty trade was definitely a move to shake up the franchise. At that point, I began to realize that I simply couldn’t win with just two good players (Scotty and Pogge), and the team needed depth. Earlier in the season, Scotty and I almost negotiated a deal that would have sent him to Stockholm for Robert Sharpe and multiple first round picks - Pogge was also verbally traded to Seattle - because of the mess the Rams were in at the time. I decided not to, and then I watched things blow up in my face, traded a 1st for Brett Noiles, and watched Maxim Desny almost single-handedly defeat us.

Eventually, Seattle came to me and we worked things out. I definitely think I got fair value for Scotty. Mike Szatkowski and Brannan Anthony are both Hall of Fame players and were top youngsters at the time. It ended up being about the same value as what I would have gotten from Stockholm, but once again, the problem wasn’t with the value I got back, it was what I did to build around them. Just like when I had Scotty, Brannan and Mike were all I had, and that was bad.”
– Lucas Tannahill

After Season 2, it would be quite a while before the franchise would return to the Continental Cup finals to even get a chance at ending the drought and winning a 2nd Continental Cup. As time went on, the league went under some major changes. Every other team in the VHL won the Continental Cup, with some teams winning as many as 4 while Vasteras fans continued to wait for their turn. Eventually, GM Lucas Tannahill stepped down, and Zach Arce was brought in to replace him. It was Arce who decided to move the team to Madrid in Season 16, hoping the aura of failure that seemed to permanently hover around the team would die along with the Vasteras team name.

Madrid, Spain

After a couple difficult seasons in Madrid, Arce was able to get a strong group of players together. For only the 2nd time in franchise history, the Madrid Thunder captured the Victory Cup for the league’s best regular season record. With a strong core built from the net out, the Thunder and their fans definitely thought that the cup drought was coming to an end. The eventual Tretiak trophy winner for that year, Zach Voss, was hungry for his first ever Continental Cup, as were defenders David Henman and Frans Spelman. Veterans Ryley Dawson and Cameron Stephens were also back there to provide more depth, and Carl Jacobs, Marek Schultz, Jesse Jussal, and Mason Dixon led the attack.

Once again, however, the wind would quickly deflate out of the sails for Thunder fans. The Thunder ran into a difficult opponent in the form of the upstart Calgary Wranglers, led by Mikka Virkkunen, Alexandre Sauve, and Demetrjusz Dudek. The series was very close, but the Wranglers were able to close it out in 6 games, and send the Thunder franchise back to Madrid, still without that seemingly impossible 2nd Continental Cup. After this, Zach Arce would step down as the team’s general manager, and proclaimed his tenure as a failure. Once again, the Thunder were in turmoil.

”Well, Arce did a great job getting us there. Honestly, I don't know why we lost. In fact, I still think we should have won that game. We were the better team. – Zach Voss

Enter Zach Voss. Voss, a long-time goaltender for the franchise, had shown high levels of dedication throughout his time in the league. It seemed like a very logical choice for him to receive this title. One of his first moves as general manager was to trade himself to the Calgary Wranglers, who were easily the favourites to win the Continental Cup in Season 19. This way, Voss was playing for the Wranglers, while managing the Thunder. Meanwhile, he also brought in Jake Steen as his newest client. Steen, and American forward, would develop in the minors for a little while before making the big leagues.

”Just like any other GM, I wanted a cup. I had planned to build around defense, and use Oslig as my sole goal-scorer, but that didn't work out the way I wanted.” – Zach Voss

Unfortunately, things certainly didn’t go according to plan for Voss, and the Madrid Thunder were once again in the toilet for the next two seasons. Voss certainly gave it a good shot, and made some decent moves to try and salvage the team, but things just weren’t working out for him. He would eventually step down, but just before doing so, he moved the team back to Vasteras as the Vasteras IK Iron Eagles, as a slight change to the previous team’s name: the Black Eagles.

”It's really hard to pinpoint the source of our drought. Obviously, many people talk about the curse of Tannahill, but I'm not that superstitious. I think we need a GM that can get us there, which, after Arce, we haven't. I was one of the worst GMs in VHL history, and that's why I stepped down. The franchise deserves better.” – Zach Voss

Zach Voss as a player

Voss handed the team over to the most recent 1st overall selection in the Season 21 VHL Entry Draft, goaltender Andres Bjorkman. Bjorkman and agent Tyler Owens have no past VHL GM experience, but Owens has been around the league for a good amount of time, and has certainly paid his dues. He has certainly earned a turn as a VHL General Manager, but the jury is still out when it comes to determining how well he’ll do in that position. While he’s a longtime member of the league, he is certainly not the most popular person in the VHL. This is another issue that the franchise has had: Tannahill, Voss, and Owens were not the most well liked people. However, even when Zach Arce, a highly liked member of the VHL, was in charge of the team, they still encountered no real success, though they did make the finals. In fact, Lucas Tannahill offers some advice for the new GM.

”Owens just has to be patient, bring in the right people, and not settle for anything less than the best, unless it’s the move that guarantees you the cup. The best VHL teams have always had good players behind them - guys who weren’t just skilled, but also respected and hard working. These were guys that projected a positive image of the team. If he sends the right message and brings in the right guys, more will follow. I learned that myself with Sean Costello, Brandon Lapham, and Matt Fletcher. Once I had Costello in the fold, the other two really wanted to come along. Just doing things like that could help establish a new team identity.” – Lucas Tannahill

So why has Vasteras had so much difficulty in reclaiming the Continental Cup? Well, for whatever reason, players just don’t want to play for that franchise. Perhaps the most well known example is Kevin Brooks, who has publicly come out as being anti-Vasteras on several occasions. People like Alex McNeil have followed suit. This definitely gives the Vasteras organization a poor reputation amongst other players in the league. Despite not exactly knowing what problem Brooks has with the team, they are still not as excited to go to Vasteras knowing that he disapproves of them. It’s a silly thought, but it’s also quite true.

Despite some players being stubbornly opposed to playing in Vasteras, the team has still been able to attract some notable players to the team. Scotty Campbell, Matthew Pogge, Mike Szatkowski, Matt Defosse, Brannan Anthony, Ginzou Fujiwara, Anton Ingberg, Carl Jacobs, David Henman, and many other players have called Vasteras their home team at one point or another. Still, despite the highly popular theory of a cyclical league, they simply haven’t been able to make it back to the finals very often – only 3 times in the entire history of the VHL.

”With a few teams having sustained success, someone is going to miss out. I think the team just spiraled into a bit of a tailspin, and while there have been some good seasons here and there, the team just hasn't been able to get its feet underneath them for a consistent period of time.” – Scotty Campbell

Lucas Tannahill managed the Vasteras IK Black Eagles, when they used that name, for a long time. If I’m not mistaken, nobody has been a Victory Hockey League GM for more consecutive seasons than he has. Still, he was unable to achieve success. Even he will tell you that the only year that he did win the Continental Cup was when he was barely active with his player, Thor Ljunggren. The rest of the time was consistent failures on his behalf, and many people were clamoring for him to step down many seasons before he finally did. We’re left to wonder why Tannahill couldn’t achieve more success during his long tenure with the franchise, and we also wonder why he stuck around for so long as the general manager.

Lucas Tannahill at a press conference

”Well, it certainly wasn’t due to a lack of trying. I really tried my best to always make the best choices for the team. A lot of people would say that I cared too much. Ultimately, I think the biggest problem was that I was always behind the curve in the league. At first, I didn’t have a good first line, and then when I made moves to rectify that situation, the league was becoming a two-line league. One deal that I’d love to take back was the Jochen Walser trade. I can’t remember exactly what happened, but Mike Szatkowski and I both negotiated the trade. It was so short sighted of us to think that we would build around one amazing defenseman. The cost to move up four spots in that draft was the pick that became Kevin Brooks in the next draft, and the pick in the Season Five draft was Cole Hagstrom.” – Lucas Tannahill

Looking to the future, we wonder if Tyler Owens is the right man for the job of bringing Vasteras back to the Continental Cup finals and winning, which is something that the fans have waited a very long time for. In all likelihood, it won’t happen for another couple seasons at the very least, meaning that the drought will surpass 20 seasons before it ends. However, with the right strategy and tactics, the Cup will make its long-awaited return to Vasteras.

”They're going to need to go through a proper rebuild. I think Zach Voss wanted to make the playoffs, which is fine, but this team doesn't have the pieces to be a cup contender right now. Making the playoffs would almost be counterproductive in that regard.

The team has managed to acquire some solid pieces, and recover their draft picks. I think there's going to be some more changes on the horizon. Tyler has a good conception of where he wants to see this team in two seasons, and I think if everything plays out, you'll see Vasteras as a legitimate threat by S23.”
– Scotty Campbell

For some final thoughts, we go back to the former Vasteras GM. He offers his insight on why the Vasteras franchise, not just under his direction, but in general, has been so unsuccessful in producing a meaningful Continental Cup threat more often.

”I don’t think anyone has managed to do it right in Vasteras. I continuously made poor decisions, and when I did make good ones, they were poorly timed. I left the team in the worst possible state. Moving the team to Madrid, for one, was a mistake. Plus, reusing the logo of a putrid VHL franchise (Stockholm Thunder) was also bad, but those are aesthetic issues. I think that in the VHL, success breeds success. You have to create a winning program, a winning attitude, and bring in people who want to be there. I had that going on my last cycle, but tried to move it along too quickly. I think the team needs to establish an identity, bring in the right people, and make smart, prudent decisions. There is no easy formula, especially in the VHL. In the VHL, players love to stick together, there’s a lack of parity, and the Free Agent season is an annual joke. It can be hard for a team with a bad reputation to overcome that.  Maybe they also need a bit of luck. New York went from a joke to a respected team by drafting Grimm Jonsson back in the day, and I think that’s what Vasteras needs. Just like we had Scotty Campbell in the beginning, the team needs a big name guy to lead the way.

I’m also becoming increasingly convinced that Vasteras can’t win another title without me.”
– Lucas Tannahill

These are very strong words from the man known as “Pens Fan”. To conclude this piece, we see that Vasteras has had quite the difficult time in returning to the big stage where they can be in a position to win a 2nd Continental Cup. Think of Vasteras as the Toronto Maple Leafs of the VHL. They have a pretty good history, but nobody can look past the massive cup drought, because during that cup drought is a long reign of failure and disappointment. However, one cup win, or even one very successful season that leaves good impressions for the next one will be able to help fix that poor reputation and return these franchises to glory.

End of Part 16
Special thanks to Zach Voss, Scotty Campbell, and Lucas Tannahill


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