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VHL 20 in 20 #19: I am Sam

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I Am Sam

Without a General Manager, the hockey team cannot be. The man upstairs is the one who makes the league tick – he watches over all of us as players, and operates for the sole purpose of improving his team either in the short-term, or in the long-term. Either way, the general manager should always act in his team’s best interest. Throughout VHL history, we have had a multitude of different GMs rise and fall. Some of them were great thinkers, and had the ability to build powerhouse teams almost from scratch. Others, however, simply didn’t have what it took to be a strong manager, and failed miserably in all their endeavors. This episode is titled “I Am Sam” in honor of the legendary former general manager of the Montreal Canadiens, Sam Pollock, who is widely considered as one of the greatest general managers of all-time. It was Pollock’s brilliance that helped breed the powerhouse Montreal Canadiens on the 1970’s – perhaps the greatest hockey team in NHL history. A well-known move of his was when he traded Ralph Backstrom to the Los Angeles Kings, so that they would move out of last place, passing the California Golden Seals, whose 1st round selection belonged to the Canadiens due to a previous trade. Because of this, the Canadiens were able to select the great Guy Lafleur, a catalyst for those powerful Habs teams. Has the VHL ever had someone that brilliant in a front office? Likely not, but today, let’s see who comes the closest to being like the great Sam Pollock.

For as long as the Victory Hockey League has had players, it has had general managers as well. This is common sense, as teams cannot function without someone there to direct it. A general manager is essentially the brain behind any operation, but not all operations occur in a similar manner. Every general manager that has ever ascended to power in the 21-season history of the Victor Hockey League has had a somewhat different way of conducting his business. It’s human nature; we are all different, and we have distinguishing features that make us dissimilar to the people around us. However, a good leader generally requires certain key traits or characteristics to make them as effective as possible. There is a general idea as to which personality traits can lead to someone being a better general manager than others.

”I'd say that a great GM is determined by the moves he makes. Anyone can sell the farm and load up on big name players for a season, but it takes a truly great GM to be able to improve their team through their dealings, while also maintaining their team’s future.” – Joey Clarence

Indeed, a good general manager needs to make moves that put his team in a strong position that will, ideally, deliver both immediate satisfactions while ensuring that the future prospects for the team remain bright. The general manager must also make moves that he believes will work well for the team, even if the players on that team may disagree with him. He needs to stay strong even in the face of adversity – if a general manager allows his opinion to be swayed too easily by other members of a team, then he will likely end up making poor decisions. I’ve always believed that listening to your players is a good idea, but ultimately, you have the final say in all decisions. If you want to make a move, which you truly believe will benefit your organization, then it shouldn’t matter what your players think. Make the move, and prove them wrong. An example of this is when Calgary Wranglers general manager Matt Bentz traded away the newly drafted Adam Blaine and Calgary’s Season 18 1st round pick to New York for Lars Berger, Hiro Renomitsu, and Davos’ Season 18 3rd round pick. Various player in the Calgary locker room criticized Bentz for making the deal – Stormwall included. In hindsight, Berger became a centerpiece on a two-time Continental Cup winning dynasty, Renomitsu was a solid defenseman for the Wranglers as well, and the 3rd round pick became eventual Stolzschweiger Trophy candidate Roman Andreev. Meanwhile, Blaine turned out to be a disappointment, and was traded away from the Americans, while the 1st round pick was Peyton Nydroj, who never played a game for the Americans as Toronto had the pick by the time draft day rolled around. Bentz looks like a genius, and those of us who criticized him look like goats. If Bentz had listened to us, and taken our opinions too much into account, the team would have suffered greatly.

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Matt Bentz being a gangster

”Obviously, the major yardstick for general managers is championships. While plenty of good GMs have never won a championship, the goal of building a team is to win a championship. That's what separates the good ones from the great ones.” – Alex Stoyanovich

According to the record books, only 3 general managers have won more than 1 Continental Cup: Scott Boulet (Calgary, Season 2 & Season 8), Scotty Campbell (Davos, Season 11 & Season 13), and Matt Bentz (Calgary, Season 18 & Season 19). Bentz is the only GM in VHL history to win two consecutive Continental Cups. It’s certainly true that a Continental Cup is often a good way to measure GM success, but I’m not necessarily sure that it’s the most telling statistic. For example, take Derek Harland, who won with the Bears in Season 5. It’s common knowledge that the team he won with was mostly built by the previous general manager, Danny Tremblay. However, it’s Harland’s name that appears on the cup as the general manager. Does this necessarily make Derek Harland a good general manager? It absolutely does not. Therefore, while Continental Cups can certainly show success, it is not an idiot proof measuring stick. Perhaps a more telling sign might be the award for Best General Manager, which just so happens to be named the Sam Pollock Trophy. The only GMs who have won this award more than once are Daric Radmonovic, Dust’n Funk, and Matt Bentz. For me, this is a better may to signify which GMs truly stand above the rest. These three men are always in the mix when it comes to naming the VHL’s equivalent to Sam Pollock – guys like Danny Tremblay, David Knight, and Scott Boulet are not far away either.

” For me, there are two types of great GMs. The first ones are the ones that build a dynasty like early Calgary and the Riga Reign from around Season 10, or what Toronto is looking like today. This makes his team an attractive destination for everyone for many years. The other type is a GM that starts completely from scratch, and turns a struggling or unlucky franchise from pretender to a contender, even a Cup winner or maybe even a dynasty.

To achieve either long-term or sudden success in the VHL, a great GM needs to draft well - without busts and with the occasional steal. He also needs to keep a healthy, active relationship with his core, and make those savvy trades, which help in the short-term and long-term of the team’s future, and help the GM's reputation around the league.”
– Lars Berger

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Playing Scrabble makes you a better leader – fact

Of course, this has all been focused on a GM’s actions. Success and strong move making will obviously make a general manager great – this is the core of what a general manager is here to do. The general manager needs to lead his team to a championship, and if he feels that he isn’t quite in a position to do that, then he needs to make the necessary moves to fix that. It’s quite clear that a GM who excels in these aspects of the managing process will be among the all-time greats. However, what inner traits can really benefit a VHL general manager? Well, a general manager, even in a league like the VHL, is just like any other leader. As a result, the way that any leader can be successful will likely also apply to a VHL general manager.

James M. Burns introduced the theory of transformational leadership back in 1978. He described effective leaders as people who can bring 4 things to their subordinates – in our case, a general manager to his players. Individualized consideration is when a general manager is able to pay attention to the individual needs of each of his players, and address them appropriately. This makes the player feel valued and makes him feel like the GM cares about him. Intellectual stimulation is when a general manager encourages critical thinking and creativity in his players. When players are being challenged, they are more likely to be motivated to perform better. Inspirational motivation is the degree to which a general manager can instill optimism in his players through communication, and positive thinking. This one’s a no-brainer, as players who are motivated will obviously play better. Finally, idealized influence occurs when the general manager sets himself up to be a role model for his players. It’s interesting to note, in the VHL, that players generally take on the behavior of their general managers. You may not notice it right away, but if you take a closer look, you’ll see it at work. Now, the way that these four facets can be transmitted from manager to player is through charisma. A general manager is charismatic when he can not only instill compliance within his players, but also instill a true belief within his players that their boss knows what he’s doing. When players are fully confident in their general manager’s actions, and truly believe in the team’s future in the VHL, then that is when the general manager has successfully gotten through to his players. I’m sure a lot of you don’t actually think that this happens in the VHL, but I urge you all to think back to some of the better general managers that you’ve served under. How were these guys effective? I think that when you think back, you will find that a lot of these things will coincide with your thoughts.

Now that we’ve discussed all the things that could make a general manager great, it is time to actually square these gentlemen up against each other, and see who should be recognized as the all-time greatest VHL general manager. If we look at trophies alone, then Matt Bentz’s name has to be at the forefront. He is the only general manager in VHL history to have won multiple Continental Cups, and multiple Pollock trophies. He did them both in the consecutive seasons of Seasons 18 and 19, back when he was able to finally pull the Calgary Wranglers out of the ashes. It took a lot of patience on Matt’s part, but it eventually paid off. Some good drafting (Jardy Bunclewirth in the 3rd round of Season 16), some strong trades (the aforementioned Berger trade), and a bit of luck (Stormwall becoming arguably the best of the Season 14 draftees) all led to Bentz’s success, but a lot of it came from Bentz’s proactive efforts as a general manager.

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Matt Bentz’s meal ticket

”He was a great guy and a long tenured GM, who really made a ton of great moves but ultimately always got screwed over in the end. He spoke to any inactive players he could get ahold of to see if they'd consider coming back, and he would always be encouraging to his prospects. He always did the little things that separate a good GM from a great GM.” – Joey Clarence

Indeed, a lot of Matt Bentz’s drafting talent came from the fact that he was persistent with all of his draftees. He would send them messages to discuss their futures (individualized consideration), he always had suggestions for how his players could improve their games (intellectual stimulation), he was always thinking positively despite often running into bad luck (inspirational motivation), and he was well-liked around the league which led to the Wranglers being well-liked as a whole (idealized influence). Clearly, Matt was an effective general manager, and should not be unwelcome in any discussion of all-time greats.

”I always respected Matt Bentz's loyalty and dedication to his team. He went through so much trouble to get to respectability, and got two Sam Pollocks in the end. Yes, he made some mistakes in the beginning, but getting guys like Virkkunen, Stormwall, Gunnarsson, Bunclewirth, and plenty of other steals late in his tenure, along with making trades for guys like Sauve and I, really went a long way in making the Wranglers strong again.” - Lars Berger

However, Bentz was not the first great Calgary Wranglers general manager. If we go back to the early days of the VHL, we find the two-headed monster of Brett Slobodzian and Scott Boulet. Boulet managed to win 2 Continental Cups and 1 Pollock trophy, while Slobodzian had 1 of each to his name. Together, they built the early dynasty of the Calgary Wranglers. It was Brett Slobodzian who put together one of the most dominating teams of all-time with a strong performance in the VHL’s dispersal and supplemental draft. He also pulled off one of the all-time great draft heists by drafting the great Sterling Labatte not once, but twice. Labatte, who even won the Orr trophy (which was eventually named after him) in season 1, was still passed over by 6 teams before being draft by the Wranglers at 7th overall. It was strong moves like this that made Scott Boulet’s job easier, but you can’t take anything away from the Swiss man, who was able to keep the Wranglers competitive in Season 3, and was able to go through a full re-tool/rebuild cycle by winning the cup again in Season 8.

”He led Calgary to, seemingly, winning season after winning season. He also had a solid grasp of the league, and he knew who to go after. Above all else, he proved that you can win consistently in this league.” – Dustin Funk

”Look at the greats of the past like Scott Boulet in Calgary, Danny Tremblay in Seattle, or Daric Radmonovic in Helsinki. These guys built probably the most well known contenders of the first decade, which were dynasties filled with Hall of Famers and legends. Some of them drafted well, some completely won their trades, and others did a bit of both. There was some luck in it, but they couldn't have been so lucky for so long.” - Lars Berger

Radmonovic and Tremblay both built immensely powerful teams filled to the brim with future Hall of Famers. Coincidentally enough, both of these general managers made trades for Scotty Campbell to help them get over the hump and make it to the grandest stage in the VHL. Despite the fact that he stepped down from the managerial position before the Bears’ Season 5 Continental Cup win, Danny Tremblay is largely credited for that team anyway. Radmonovic built a team that was all but guaranteed victory in Season 6, but the team quickly took a dip in performance after that. Both of these men definitely built strong teams, but were they teams that could remain consistently competitive? No, they were not.

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David Knight: All VHL GM’s a good-looking – fact

I almost forgot about David Knight of Toronto, who has been in charge of the Toronto Legion for a long time. There is a highly publicized “curse” that seems to be circulating around Knight, and it has rendered the poor man seemingly unable to capture a championship. That, thankfully, ended just recently as his Toronto Legion finally broke through to capture the Continental Cup. Knight is also a front-runner for what would be his second Pollock Memorial trophy. Despite some difficult times, Knight has been able to keep his teams steered in the right direction, whether they were on the verge of contending, or heading towards a rebuild.

”You can tell he has a good grasp of what is going on, he makes smart deals and he’s managed to take advantage of a very good draft to create what could be the next VHL dynasty.” – Dustin Funk

”I can't help but respect David Knight, my current GM, who really deserves all the recognition he’s been getting as of late. He had some bad luck when he first took over Toronto, but now he's been GM for as long as Bentz was, and he will probably get a dynasty that will be remembered for many seasons out of this team.” – Lars Berger

Still, even David Knight might not come up to par with this next man. There’s only one man who was able to achieve the consistent competitiveness that VHL GMs have been trying to achieve for a long time, and he is my pick for the VHL’s all-time greatest general manager. Since Season 8, the Riga Reign have only missed the playoffs twice, which is amazing considering the logistics of the VHL. The Reign have been able to remain in the playoffs picture year after year, and while they were only able to win 2 championships over that same span, one can’t help but be in awe of how they’re always in the mix. The man at the helm for most of this time was Dustin Funk. Funk is an intelligent person, who was able to take all of the qualities and skills that make up a great GM and put them together. Truly, this man was almost destined to be a general manager in the VHL.

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Dustin Funk has another trade idea

”For the two-plus seasons I played on his team, I never looked at a move he made and thought: "Now why did he do that?" We never made it over the hump, but he made so many good moves through both trades and the draft that it's hard to compete with him.” – Alex Stoyanovich

”The fact that Dustin Funk was able to rebuild Riga's defense while remaining a contender was nothing short of incredible, and thus, I believe that he is the best GM of, at least, my time in the VHL.” – Joey Clarence

”Funk had a really aggressive style which got him what he wanted in trades and in the draft, and Riga was one of the top teams for a record-tying 5 seasons.” – Lars Berger

”As one of two people to win the top GM award twice during this era, I created Riga and it's winning tradition, but only managed one cup out of it. Consider this; when Chris Julien stepped down, no one wanted any part of Stockholm. Ray took over for a year, and then I took over and completely revamped everything about that franchise to make it feel fresh.” – Dustin Funk

Truly, Dustin Funk was the total package when it came to directing a team properly, and if GMs had to pick one men to model themselves after, they certainly wouldn’t go wrong by peering into Riga’s business. Having only played for one of Funk’s teams for one season of VHL history, I can say that I agree with what everyone above me has been saying. Funk had a way of really getting the best out of his players, whether they were superstars like Tarik Saeijs, or role players like Olivier Scarlett. He makes the right moves at the right time, and is able to create a competitive atmosphere while still being mindful of the future, and as mentioned, he’s been able to keep Riga in the playoffs picture more often than not.

The Sam Pollock Memorial Trophy, in my opinion, is one of the most impressive accomplishments that any VHL member could ever be honored with. To win that trophy is a true sign of your dedication, intelligence, and tactfulness in the VHL history books. It’s one thing to be a great player in the VHL, but it’s another thing entirely to be a great manager, and it’s not a job that everyone can do. That’s why guys like the ones written about in here are not only among the league’s top managers, but are also among the league’s most respected members of all-time. Dustin Funk, congratulations. You are our Sam.

End of part 19
Special thanks to Lars Berger, Joey Clarence, Alex Stoyanovich, and Dustin Funk

 

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