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VHL 20 in 20 #20: Re-Opening the Case

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Re-Opening The Case

Throughout the history of the Victory Hockey League, there have been stories of triumph, and stories of tragedy. Teams have risen, and managed to stay on top while others, unfortunately, were stuck on the bottom. Through scandals, arguments, controversies, and various other tactics, this league has certainly encountered some low points in its history, but it has also hit some great highs. Throughout its now 21-year history, there have been players who have ascended to immortal status, and whose names now reside permanently in the hallowed halls of the VHL Hall of Fame. However, now is the time to figure out which of these big names can rise above the rest and lay true claim to the title of the VHL’s greatest ever. Which player has best defined Seasons 1 through 20 in VHL history? Conventional wisdom states that this position still belongs only to the great Scotty Campbell, and while even at the conclusion of this episode, we may only confirm this belief, it will still be interesting to see how The Great One’s stats stack up to some of the other biggest names that this league has ever seen. I saved this episode for last because if there’s one thing that has obviously defined the VHL throughout it’s existence, it would be the VHL players themselves. Some of the things we’ve discussed in previous episodes were temporary events that don’t have a continuous lifespan, but the VHL will, hopefully, always have a continuous inflow of players who are eager to take their shot and see if they can measure up to the all-time greats of old.

To be a truly great player in the Victory Hockey League, the right combination of both internal and external factors needs to come together at the right time for a player to best excel. Few players ascend to a true “superstar” status level, especially now, in a league where parity is far stronger than what it used to be. However, throughout the league’s history, there have consistently been a couple players in each era that have been able to make it to that upper echelon of pure talent that would ensure that people would still be talking about them in clubs and bars around the world for a long time. In order for a player to be great, he needs to be, of course, skilled. If the raw talent is not there, then the player has lost his case even before he got started. However, there is so much more to it than just skill, because while skill is necessary for success, it is not always sufficient for it. To make his skill truly shine in this league, a player needs to be both consistent and persistent in his weekly practices, because regardless of what Allen Iverson may say, practice makes perfect. If a player can hone his craft ever week in the practice arena, then he is in a prime position to beat out his peers. Is this always the case, however? Once again, we find the answer to be a resounding ‘no’.

Unfortunately, and this is rather true for all professional sports leagues, a player’s personal success is amplified when that player is on a winning team. Therefore, there are times when a player could be incredibly talented, dedicated, and motivated, but as long as he plays on a team that is consistently unable to achieve any real success, then his impact is limited. I can relate, as one of my clients spent the vast majority of his career with a struggling Helsinki Titans franchise. I can only wonder how good he truly was, but he was dedicated to his team, and I have to respect that. Still, it was this dedication that may be the major reason why this goaltender is not always mentioned as being among the league’s all-time greatest in his class. Conversely, this is what made Scotty Campbell even stronger – he was fortunate enough to be traded onto teams that were poised to make big cup runs. From Vasteras in Season 1, to Seattle in Seasons 4 and 5, to Helsinki in Season 6, Campbell was able to accumulate 4 Continental Cups in his illustrious career – a record that only one other player (Doug Schneider) has been able to reach. Not only that, but Campbell also has the record for most consecutive Continental Cups with 3.

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Scotty Campbell winning one of several Continental Cups

Enough of the analytical speak, though, as it’s time to measure these guys up. First up is a man who had a wonderful, but short career. Brett Slobodzian, truly, was the league’s first superstar. In fact, it was Slobodzian, and not Campbell, who was poised to be the big man on campus back in the first few years of the league.  In his first 3 seasons of VHL membership, Slobodzian won 2 MVP trophies, and was also a two-time Continental Cup champion with the powerhouse Calgary Wranglers. Armed with a strong support system in teammates Scott Boulet and Sterling Labatte, it seemed all but certain that the first few seasons in the VHL would be the Brett Slobodzian era. Unfortunately, as we all know by now, this would not happen. Brett Slobodzian’s career hit a bad rut in the offseason between Seasons 3 and 4, and while Slobodzian would play 2 more seasons before finally calling it quits, he was only a shadow of his former self.

”Slobodzian was just as good as Scotty in the early going. He was always either near him in points or above him. Until the injury he sustained, it was kind of like an Orr versus Gretzky type of thing. Gretzky is often considered the greatest of all-time, but you can make an extremely strong case for Bobby Orr. In this case, I think Slobodzian is Bobby Orr and could've been better than Scotty easily, but sometimes it just doesn't work out that way.” – Vadim Volkov

It is for this reason that I dedicated one of these episodes to discuss the somewhat bittersweet tale of Brett Slobodzian – to truly gauge just how good this man really was. In that episode, I differed slightly with the Orr comparison, instead choosing another forward, Mario Lemieux, as a comparison point. Like Slobodzian, Lemieux had tremendous skill, but injuries plagued his career, and ended up costing him dearly. We are left to wonder what could have been had injuries (and cancer, in Mario’s case) not gotten in the way. However, despite the “what” factor, I still cannot, in good faith, name Brett Slobodzian as the VHL’s greatest player ever. He is certainly close to the top, but his true prime was only 3 seasons long, and that sample size is simply too small for me to honor him with this title. However, the league has honored him by inducting him into the Hall of Fame as both a player and a builder, and has also named the award for league MVP as voted by the players after him.

Moving from a player with a tragically short career, we will now focus on a man who has played more games than any other player (who has had an agent) in VHL history. This does not count some of the “default” players who were kicking around the league for the first 11 seasons or so. More impressive than his 648 games was the fact that he, like Slobodzian, spent the entirety of his 9-season career with one team: the Calgary Wranglers. As of now, we are unlikely to ever see another 9-season career in the VHL, as this man was a product of the VHL’s initial Supplemental Draft that took place shortly after the Season 1 Dispersal Draft due to overwhelming residual sign-up. As a result, Supplemental players were not only allowed to re-enter the Season 2 Entry Draft as rookies, but they were also allowed to stick around until Season, meaning that some players could play for all of the VHL’s first 9 seasons. There is only one man who took advantage of this however, and that would be Sterling Labatte. Labatte, for a long time, had been largely considered to be the greatest defenseman that we had ever seen here in the Victory Hockey League, and that may still stand today.

”I can't say enough about the best defenseman of all-time. I find that, at times, the forwards get too much credit. Labatte is the reason that defenseman nowadays continue to earn points. He’s a stand-up character and he also didn't get himself into wars like Scotty Campbell did, at times.” – Joey Kendrick

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Labatte (left) certainly has a case, but in my mind, it’s not strong enough

Labatte is a 3-time winner of the now aptly named Sterling Labatte Trophy, and is a 3-time Continental Cup champion with the Calgary Wranglers. As mentioned above, he is certainly considered by many to be the greatest VHL defenseman in league history, and he most certainly should have a claim to being the VHL’s all-time greatest player. However, I won’t give this to him, and there’s a reason why. The reason is that, while I used to be majorly on board with this thought process, I am now not as convinced that Labatte truly stands the test of time as the all-time greatest as his position. With guys like Jochen Walser, Tomas Jenskovic, David Henman, and even Patrick Bergqvist coming along, Sterling might have been replaced as the king of the blue line.

”The VHL is an offensive league so forwards are bound to get more recognition. I wouldn't give the title of best VHL player to anyone other than a forward at this point, but that doesn't mean I can't look and respect some great defensemen and goaltenders. Sterling Labatte and Tomas Jenskovic are particularly notable for me because they played up to par with forwards and can be easily regarded as the two best defensemen ever. Benoit Devereux was such a great goalie that in his era, offence went down. I think that's linked with him and his opposition, which he beat. A guy like Aidan Shaw or Daisuke Kanou may even be the next Devereux.” – Lars Berger

Perhaps the Scotty Campbell of the Victory Hockey League’s 2nd decade of existence, Grimm Jonsson terrorized players both offensively and physically for 8 long seasons. A 3-time Campbell Trophy winners, and a 2-time Lemieux Trophy winners, Jonsson was certainly able to put his mark on the league when he was still around. With 2 Continental Cups on his resume, including one where he helped bring New York to the franchise’s first ever championship victory, and one where he scored the championship-winning goal – and what would be the last goal of his career – before retiring in the manner all VHL players wish to do: as a champion. Truly, Grimm Jonsson was a player who could achieve strong individual success, but was also able to help his teams reach the Promised Land on multiple occasions. The Icelandic warrior was unanimously voted into the Hall of Fame in just his first year of eligibility, to nobody’s surprise. Not only that, but he is the first – and still the only – player to surpass the 1000 practice hours mark, and was a 4-time Messier Trophy winner, another league record.

”I think the best player of all-time is Grimm Jonsson. You can't just look at the stats and say, 'Yeah, it's definitely Scotty', you have to look at eras and practice hours, and put them all together. In my opinion, had Jonsson played in Campbell's time, he would have absolutely destroyed the opposition. I mean, he even did it in a much more evolved era of the VHL with better defense and goaltending.” – Lars Berger

Before I move on, I want to take this opportunity to salute some of the league’s other greats. These guys, in my opinion, don’t get a sniff at being the best of all-time, but they are certainly worthy of hanging around the top 10. Christian Stolzschweiger was a big, dominant force throughout his career for Seattle, Toronto, Hamilton, Stockholm, and Avangard. Though he has a lack of personal awards in his trophy case, the same can be said for most impact players who played during the first 8 seasons of the VHL. However, it was clear that Stolzschweiger was a special player, and that’s why he sits 2nd in all-time goal scoring with almost 450 goals to his hard-to-spell name. Between the Campbell and Jonsson eras, another man rose to prominence by the name of Kevin Brooks. Brooks, with 2 Campbell and Lemieux trophies each, was no slouch, and it wasn’t just because of fortunate timing that caused him to be the marquee player between two distinct time periods. Finally, a more recent superstar who just called it quits was Mikka Virkkunen. Virkkunen was a seemingly ageless wonder who was routinely scoring over 100 points. In his prime, his dominant numbers were almost reminiscent of the way Scotty Campbell routinely dominated the league back in his hay day. Virkkunen was the main force behind the Wranglers’ march back to glory, and is a sure-fire Hall of Famer.

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Few players were as explosive as Christian Stolzschweiger was in his prime

”The consistent guys are also ones that you really have to admire. Christian Stolzschweiger, Mikka Virkkunen, Kevin Brooks, Layken Heidt, etc. There's a number of these players who didn't win much, but are definite Hall of Famers and they were good from season to season to season. One I like in particular is Carl Jacobs. He didn't win a single individual award but had better career stats than his big counterpart: Grimm Jonsson. That's just unbelievable consistency.” – Lars Berger

Still, to me, there isn’t really any argument. Perhaps this is not the most interesting way to finish off this episode, but it’s certainly the most correct way to do so. In my mind, it is still no contest: Scotty Campbell is the best player that has ever set foot on a Victory Hockey League ice surface, and it very well might stay that way for a long, long time. He won the Lemieux Trophy a mind-boggling 5 times, meaning that for the league’s first 20 seasons, Scotty Campbell led the league in points for one quarter of the time. There was a period from Season 4 to Season 7 that the discussion was not about who would lead the league in points. Instead, people would wonder who would finish 2nd, as Scotty Campbell’s name was essentially engraved onto the trophy before the season began.

”He was simply the best. No one has really been as dominant or as successful for such an extended period of time as he was. He's like the Gretzky of the VHL; sure, arguments could be made for guys like Lemieux (Slobodzian), who was just as good but was hampered by injury, or Bobby Orr (Sterling Labatte), who pissed just as much excellence but Gretzky’s and Campbell's main records will never be touched. They were both too fucking good.” – Jardy Bunclewirth

Indeed, Campbell’s dominance was something that we have not seen since his retirement from the league at the end of Season 8. He is the all-time goals leader with 600, a good 150 goals ahead of the next player on the list (Stolzschweiger). If someone even wants to tie Campbell’s goal mark, they need to score 75 goals per season for a full 8 seasons That type of scoring is not seen often in the VHL anymore, what with the stronger defensive play that has risen to prominence. He is also the only player to surpass 1000 career points, with over 1200 to his name. Again, a player would need to score almost impossible points totals at this day and age in the VHL, and he would need to do it ever year of his career for him to even have a chance at coming close to Campbell’s records.

”If his natural ability to play hockey, dominate the scoreboards, and lead his team isn't enough for you, consider the community that work Campbell did for the VHL. He was one of the commissioners and helped organize the league schedule, he oversaw most of the games played, and he introduced quite a few policies that still stand today. However, going back to focus strictly on the performance part - he still, to this day, holds the most goals and most points in a regular season and it's a record that looks to be untouchable. Every team that he skated for seemed to instantly be a different, better club. He brought his skill, leadership, and winning attitude to the teams and will forever be embedded in the VHL as its one true legend.” – Phil Gerrard

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Campbell would do this just about every year

Not only was Campbell a great player, but he was successful too. As I mentioned earlier, only one other player has won as many Continental Cups as Scotty Campbell has. Instantly, Campbell’s mere presence on a team somehow brought out the best in all the team’s players. Indeed, he has never missed the playoffs in his entire 8-year career, and he was a champion for half of those years. Admittedly, Campbell’s 4 Cups could definitely be a record that can be beaten, as some players have come very close to tying it. However, if you name an offensive record, the chances are that Campbell’s name is not far form the top, if not at the top. Take World Cup scoring: Campbell sits 3rd behind Matt Bailey and Grimm Jonsson, but take into account the fact that Campbell’s 57 points came in only 18 games, and there’s no doubt who would have been on top if everyone played the same amount. In fact, in Season 6, Campbell was able to guide the surprising Team Switzerland to its first VHL Gold Medal: another notch in Campbell’s legendary repertoire.

”Although he dominated in an era where his draft class was the talent ceiling, Scotty was still able to consistently be among the top players in the league for 8 seasons. Statistically, his dominance speaks for itself. He made every team he played for a winner. He never missed the playoffs. Whoever was lucky enough to sign him instantly earned credibility, as other players would flock to play on his wings. For the first 8 seasons of the league, if you had Scotty on your team, you were a contender. I can't name another player who had that type of presence and success for their whole careers.” – Thor Ljunggren

A comparison between Grimm Jonsson and Scotty Campbell is still a no contest for me. Sure, Campbell played in an era that was far more favorable for offensive production than Jonsson’s era was. Also, Campbell entered the league on equal footing with everyone else in terms of practice hours as he was in the league’s inaugural season. Jonsson, however, entered the league while many players had already been earning practice hours for seasons before him, and he had to work his way to the top. Even then, however, I still have to give it to Campbell. Maybe his numbers are inflated, but Campbell would not only lead the league in scoring, he would dominate it. He often finished very far ahead of his peers, enough to make up for the accentuated offense of that era. Not only that, but Jonsson was not quite the winner that Campbell was – Campbell’s winning resume is incomparable, and while Jonsson has an impressive career, he might just have to settle with being 2nd best, because in my eyes (and clearly, in the eyes of several others), there is still nobody that stands up to the immortal Scotty Campbell.

As a bit of a post-mortem, I just want to wrap everything up here. I got this idea from watching ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, unsurprisingly, and to be honest, I didn’t actually think I’d see this all the way through. This was certainly quite the fun project to undertake, though at times, it certainly became a chore, and in a way, I’m quite glad that this is my last episode. I want to thank everyone who contributed to these episodes, and even those who didn’t. It is likely that without many of you, I wouldn’t have anything to write about. To the older members: never forget the good old days, but remember that just because we have a new era upon us in the VHL, it doesn’t mean that what once was is now gone forever. For thos guys who aren’t quite old, but are certainly not new either, you guys were my target audience. I hope that some of you guys had the patience and interest to read through some, if not most of all of these, and learned something. As for the newer members, this is where I pass the torch to you guys. We oldsters are still going to be around, but it’s you new guys who have the greatest potential at becoming the next big story in the VHL. Throughout all these legends, and all these powerhouse teams, every player whom I have ever profiled started out just like you, and you can do what these guys did if you really try to get there. In sum, I just want to thank you all for reading, and thanks to the graders for putting up with these massive media spots. Hopefully, at the end of Season 40, I’ll have the ability and the desire to write 20 more of these, but don’t hold your breath. You guys need to go out there and give me something to write about.

End of Part 20

 

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