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VHL 30 in 30 #21: Minor Makeover

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Minor Makeover

For seasons upon seasons of history, the VHLM was the unwanted child of the VHL and at times wasn't even used as a development league. In the original VHL 20 in 20, the VHL's minor system was described at great depth but the article came out just at the start of S20 and thus only at the beginning one of the biggest changes in VHL history. Then-VHLM Commissioner Terence Fong submitted a proposal to the VHL commissioners offering to completely change up the structure of the minor league. The announcement came in the S19 off-season and the change went by fairly smoothly, essentially changing the VHLM from an after-thought affiliate league to a junior development system. However, while the change is so evident, has the quality improved as well?
 
To begin with, the logical starting point would be the organisation of the VHLM from S2 to S19. The eight VHL teams all had a VHLM affiliate, who after many relocations through the years were the Saskatoon Wild (SEA), Brampton Battalion (TOR), Minot Gladiators (CGY), Ottawa Ice Dogs (NYA), Vasteras IK J20 (VAS, though then it was still Madrid), Kolari Panthers (HSK), Bern Royals (DAV), and the unfortunate Oslo Screaming Seamen (RIG). The VHLM teams were built around the prospects of their parent team, free agents signed by them and by their parent team (as there were a few big VHLM names like Frank Ricard and Keith Robertson who were able to be sent down even if they belonged to a VHL team), and the draftees of the upcoming VHL entry draft, acquired either through the VHLM Dispersal Draft or the waiver system, depending on when they joined. Each minor team's General Manager was appointed by the parent team, which often meant that the GM was not best qualified or most interested in the job, however, their impact on the team's fortunes was limited anyway since VHLM teams could only draft and then trade those draftees, which allowed little wiggle room, especially in weaker VHL draft classes. Despite a few notable exceptions, most of the minor league contenders and thus champions were created by their parent team's ability to send down top prospects and inactive VHLM stars.
 
"While working as the assistant commish at the time, the indifference towards the VHLM was overwhelming. There was a lack of energy and apathy towards new players and the VHLM in general. Essentially players just thought of it as a "tutorial", and rightly so as the VHLM had almost no independent ability of its own. Championships were won by whichever parent team sent down their best prospects and the GMs of the VHLM had little to nothing to do. My idea was to create an affiliate system that did not have to rely on the VHL teams and had its own ongoing sagas." - Terence Fong
 
Terence Fong became the VHLM Commissioner at some point in Season 17 as a breath of fresh air after the consistent letdowns with the likes of Ryley Dawson and Chad Elmy in charge. Straight away, Fong was interested in changing things in the minors, but no one really saw much potential in a big change for the league. Indeed, many people knew that the VHLM was not a smooth-sailing ship but with the lack of new ideas came a lack of interest in changing things and thus the VHLM commish had to do things alone, with a bit of feedback, but overall with simple focus on his goals and vision.
 
"I feel as though it was always in need of a drastic overhaul, but I guess it was never something that a lot of people actively thought about, myself included.  It's easy just to think "Oh, the VHLM is a gong show, it's irrelevant, etc.," and just accept that as a unfortunate fact of life and not do anything about it." - Jardy Bunclewirth
 
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Former VHLM Commissioner Terence Fong (S17-S24)
 
"I asked the question to many people: 'Why do you not care about the VHLM?' From there I looked at real life examples, like how does the CHL work? When asked why the CHL, it's because they are in the exact same position as the VHLM. Major junior teams are watched and the way they are organized gave me ideas on how to re-create the VHLM." - Terence Fong
 
The changes were huge. Going into Season 20, General Managers were changed, activity was surging up and everyone was excited because every single prospect in the VHLM would be re-drafted. Now the men (and at a later point, one woman) in charge of the VHLM had the ability to balance inactive veterans with new draftees and the problem of relying on whether the parent team is rebuilding or not disappeared since the whole system of parent-affiliate team was demolished. Each VHLM team could build its own destiny and the success of teams since that point has been only due to the accomplishments of the hard-working managers and has been reflected in the one- or two-seasons wonders like the Bern Royals or the Vasteras J20 Baby Eagles and the dynasties like the Ottawa Ice Dogs and Saskatoon Wild. Most importantly, the VHLM commissioners can decide whether or not a GM is doing their job well, though generally it never comes to that as one of the big selling points of the current minor situation is that each respective GM is responsible and cares for their team.
 
"It was nice because we didn't really have to think when we saw Fong's proposal, ha ha. The man submitted more than a page of information, leaving no stone unturned.  There were very few kinks/oversights that needed to be dealt with.  It was very obvious he had put in A LOT of time and thought into the whole thing.  It was very Asian of him.  I imagine sterling would have been the only Commissioner whose input was actually needed, though." - Jardy Bunclewirth
 
"Fong was a visionary for the league and it has improved tenfold. The biggest and most influential change was that of the detachment of the VHLM teams from their former affiliations- when teams were affiliated, if the parent team didn't care about the VHLM team, it showed in the results. Kolari was a big example of that at the time, not only due to their now-infamous pass on my player, Lars Intranquilo, but in passing on Chris Hawkins as well, another prospect who showed promise. Minot was fortunate to scoop both players up, but once the independent GMs took over, the league became much more competitive, and looked better from the perspective of a draftee as well as of a league regular." - Jason Glasser
 
More power to the General Managers has also meant a better experience for the players, especially new members and draftees in the VHLM, since they are no longer after-thoughts in a league run by inactive 150-170 TPE goaltenders and snipers. Recruitment has been a major policy in the VHL over the past decade and the changes in the VHLM were the first step towards today's situation, as while new blood started to come in a bit before S20, drafts were still built mainly on re-creates and the league had the risk of becoming stale. However, Fong's innovations changed that due to several factors. Firstly, General Managers caring about their teams' success promoted activity and became more welcoming to new members who would become key cogs on their teams in due time, unlike the situation before where a new draftee would only stick on the team for around a season. Members even starting their careers without carryover get sufficient ice time on today's VHLM squads and are traded if they can't get the opportunity or if the GM feels they would be catered for better elsewhere. Secondly, the new end-of-season bonus system in the league (or achievement tracker as it became called) allows more creativity for player builds and thus more interest for new members, not to mention that more TPE is available than before S20 even if someone's offensive stats aren't absolutely mind-blowing. As the VHLM is a development league, this was really a key factor for Fong's changes and it was felt by guys who just came into the VHLM at the time, like Turd Ferguson.
 
"It definitely felt different.  It felt like there was more focus on the player, like they were more valued.  I don't mean to speak for everyone, but I think that once the VHLM became more independent, players felt like VHLM GMs wanted them on their team, rather than VHL GMs who were more focused on their VHL team and would just pick them up because they could.
 
The changes definitely made me more interested.  Of course, I still didn't have the best knowledge of the league, but I did definitely feel a difference after the change. When I was picked up on waivers in S19, I believe the GM just told me that they'd picked me up off waivers.  After that, there was no discussion about lines, transactions, anything.  Then in S20, when the changes were implemented and my rights went to Minot, I felt much more of a part of the team.  The GM was involved, there was a decent discussion between me and my teammates, and by the time I was called up, I still felt like I was a part of my VHLM team.  I didn't have the full experience of the VHLM before the changes, so I didn't really know what it was like before, but from my experience, I'm sure there was a change."
- Turd Ferguson
 
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Turd Ferguson played four seasons in the VHLM
 
The one possible disadvantage of giving VHLM GMs more authority was the rising change in team names, even during Fong's watch. This was a problem beforehand too, with the main example being Riga GM Dustin Funk changing the well-respected and historically successful Gothenburg Eagles (Riga's old affiliate) to the ridiculous name of the Oslo Screaming Seamen. Although a perfect example of why the VHLM was indeed in need of a change by S20, this is one aspect of the league that still has not really been rectified, as the Screaming Seamen eventually turned into the Naggerwolves and subsequently into the Oslo Storm, definitely an improvement over its predecessors but still not a league favourite and one of the top candidates for relocation today, even after a Founder's Cup championship for the first time since the move from Gothenburg. Another situation causing outcry was the sporadic move of the Minot Gladiators (another well-liked franchise) to become the Syracuse Wolfpack in S24. The relocation papers were seemingly ignored by everyone including Fong, in his last season as commissioner, and to the great disappointment of some, the Gladiators suddenly disappeared from the face of the earth without anyone paying attention.
 
However, for the most part, a decade of VHL and VHLM hockey has passed since the big Fong changes and the general feeling has been positive which is an improvement for our development league. Due to increasing inactivity, Fong became less attached to the VHLM and in S24 he decided to step down for the better of the league. No one has been able to replicate his longevity since, but during brief stints, a solid job has been done to keep up the quality of the minor-league product by various men in charge, from Joey Kendrick and Tyler Edgar to Claudio Martucci and now Jason Glasser and Mitch Higgins. More new rules have been implemented since Fong departed and took a passive role in the VHL as a whole and though the big league remains a watchdog, the VHLM has done well adapting to new circumstances and evolving. It's doubtful any more big changes will be made as long as new members and prospects continue being produced, but various possibilities are still out there.
 
"I was extremely happy with how the VHLM was structured before I stepped down. I figured the way I had things set up would always keep the VHLM in relevance and most importantly, make new players feel important and that they are a part of something bigger." - Terence Fong
 
"There was a lot added by the changes.  There was definitely more excitement and relevance for me, as the GM was more invested in their VHLM team rather than the VHLM team just being a second priority after their VHL team.  I personally felt like I was valued more as a player and as a member. Before, people were more focused on the players who had already developed.  Now the upcoming draftees seemed like they were more important." - Turd Ferguson

"I feel like the GMs took to the changes well, and at least in the short term, it created some buzz about the league. Since then, it's died down somewhat, but even now, there's no arguing that the league isn't better off than it was before the changes took place. While many people argue that the VHLM isn't an attention-getter (and they would be somewhat right) there are still several people in the league who follow it on a regular basis. Granted, most of them came through one of the better pipelines (early-20s Ottawa or Saskatoon, mostly) but the fact of the matter is there is a significant portion of the VHL population that now regularly follows the VHLM. Would that have happened at this point, without the S20 changes? It's impossible to know for sure, but probably not." - Jason Glasser
 
Is there more room for improvement? Of course. Since Fong's resignation, as mentioned, many VHLM Commissioners have come and gone and that has left a bit of a negative mark on the league, with a gaining reputation of inconsistency and failure to see through a vision like he did in his time. Criticisms of the league becoming stagnant have arisen, in particular from newer members, and suggestions to even return to the pre-S20 system, though that has largely been crushed by the majority of the population who still remembered the gloomy days of the old VHLM. However, these calls do seem to suggest that perhaps the evolution has stalled, and if so, too soon, as the minors are not yet a perfect facet of the VHL and not enough attention is given to them in terms of responding to complaints and just general activity. It is on Higgins and Glasser to move forward with the league and possibly devote more time to running and communicating with the league, as that has been stressed as a big reason for the stale nature of the current VHLM. Nevertheless, most people inside and outside the minors don't like to bury the minor league because its progress seems to have peaked in S20, but rather insist that it is because of the changes back then that radical makeovers aren't necessary now.
 
"The VHLM has changed in a positive way for all those involved.  Players in the minors now have access to the same potential experiences in the VHLM as they would be subjected to in the VHL, particularly regarding being potentially traded at ANY point of their VHLM career.  The GMs job certainly got a lot harder, and I'm sure that it's a much more fun experience for them.  Not to mention that it opened up the pool of potential GMs a significant amount.  To outsiders, I'm sure the process of the VHLM is more appealing now than it was before as well. Admittedly, I can't say I haven't noticed that its popularity has been on a downswing the past couple seasons, but I can't even imagine how awful a state it would be in under the old system.  With the influx of new members recently, though, and some fresh blood in the VHLM department, I would be willing to bet that we'll see a spike in the VHLM's popularity for a little while at least." - Jardy Bunclewirth
 
"Sadly, it seems the current set of commishes have been unable to replicate the success I had with the previous system. I look at it partially because the current ones do not spend anywhere near the same amount of time I spent monitoring the league while I was in power. While my core elements still remain, I've seen in many cases they have been changed for the convinience of the newer GMs and commishes but no consideration was given as to why I had things in place as they were before and their intended purposes.
 
If I had time to go back and fix everything I would, sadly I don't have the time anymore so all I can hope is that the VHLM commishes can get it together again and prevent the league from going back into stagnation."
- Terence Fong
 
"I was on the S26 Vasteras team, and that time was great.  There was a lot of discussion in the locker room, we had a ton of active members, and the VHLM at that time was just fun.  That was a good effect of the changes that Fong made, but it didn't really matter who the commish was at the time." - Klaus Muller
 
Though the general view remains positive and optimistic, those are some harsh words of criticism coming from Fong, who will forever remain a highly respected figure in VHLM circles. Glasser, however, defends his job so far and into the future.
 
"No league is perfect, there are always areas of improvement, it's just a matter of finding what isn't working and making the necessary changes. One thing I want to change, for example, is the rule instituted by then-commissioner Kendrick wherein a team is only allowed 6 draft picks in the first two rounds of a given draft. The premise behind the rule was understandable, but I feel it's a little too restrictive. However, there's no question that given where the league was before S20, then-commissioner Fong did the majority of the heavy lifting to get the league to where it is now, and should be remembered as a legend of the league for his efforts. Compared to how it was, the issues that remain are nothing but minor tune-ups. I'd also like to thank then-commissioners Edgar, Kendrick, and Claudio for their efforts to maintain the image built by Fong. Hopefully my era proves to be worthy of their lineage, and we don't see a regress in the great league built by those changes." - Jason Glasser
 
Despite taking place in Season 20, the “minor makeover” in the VHL had a greater impact on the league afterwards and and was probably the first event which hugely affected the VHL and VHLM's third decades. For that reason, this was one of the first topics covered in the VHL's 30 in 30 and hopefully further progress in ten seasons' time will make the Victory Hockey League Minors a talking point yet again in a potential “40 in 40”.
 
End of Part 21
Special thanks to Terence Fong, Turd Ferguson, Jardy Bunclewirth, and Jason Glasser

 

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