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VHL 30 in 30 #23: Cats and Dogs Redux

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 Cats and Dogs Redux

ri·val n. 1. One who attempts to equal or surpass another, or who pursues the same object as another; a competitor. Everyone knows that rivalries exist, especially within sports. Rivalries are often the driving force behind hard work, the thought of topping the person or team you despise the most is just too tantalizing a want to pass up. It raises the level of competition, energy, and most of all; desire. Rivalries are a centralizing part of the Victory Hockey League, and in the past 10 seasons we've seen new rivalries brew up and come close to the rivalries of old such Riga and Davos. Seattle and Toronto began the rivalries of the 2nd "decade" of the VHL and it could be argued that it was the biggest one of the 3 we are going to cover, making the North America Conference a constant dogfight in the playoffs. However, it wasn't long after that a European Conference rivalry was brewing as well. Davos was once again at the center of another bitter rivalry with the Helsinki Titans meeting in the European Conference more than enough times to brew a hate for each other that almost matched that of Riga and Davos nearly 10 seasons before. Finally, possibly the greatest rivalry in the history of the VHL and almost certainly of the past 10 seasons; the Seattle Bears and the New York Americans. It's the closest thing we've gotten to the Riga-Davos rivalry of old, and it was a good one. The GM's pure hatred for each other certainly rubbed off on their players which led to constant conflicts during games and even off ice issues between the squads as well. We will be covering all 3 rivalries and all 3 have been excellent examples of what really makes up a VHL rivalry.

Seattle Bears v Toronto Legion (Season 20-21)

Greg Harbinson over the past decade has certainly been no stranger to conflict and is often at the center of it when it comes to league matters, especially when it involved his own team. But before Greg became known as the GM who would never step down, he was at the center of a rivalry between his Bears and the Toronto Legion. Toronto was led by league figurehead David Knight and were a favorite nearly every single time they played the Legion. Cam Fowler, David Walcott, James Bencharski, Aidan Shaw, Phil Gerrard, Joey Clarence, Patrick Bergqvist, Max Kroenenburg, Lars Berger, JD Stormwall, Peyton Nydroj, and Markus Strauss were just a few of the superstars that played a role in the rivalry. Possibly the most eye popping stat is that between the 2 teams they had elected 9 Hall of Famers  and 2 more that are on the fence that could be inducted in the next few seasons. Both teams were favorites to win the Continental Cup, and it was a toss up for the North American Conference to see who would be able to play for the championship. Unfortunately for the Bears, it was always the Legion who ended up pulling out the victory in the playoffs when it matter thanks to the heroics of legendary goaltender Aidan Shaw. Although the rivalry between Toronto and Seattle didn't last particularly long, at it's peak the intensity and hate between the players was something that caught the attention of everyone in the league. At the time, Lars Berger was the center of the VHL world and often the target of the attacks of the Seattle Bears.
"They were obnoxious, like any contender, but so were we." - Lars Berger

Season 19: The Brewing

Season 19 was the start of the reign of the Legion where all of their young players were finally coming into their own and looking to take home a Continental Cup after dismal years for the Legion. Toronto was fresh off seeing the failure of Malcolm Kelly, who promptly left for the Legion and retired in order to undertake a management role for the Helsinki Titans. During Kelly's time, the Legion finally thought they were headed in the right direction as a franchise. Unfortunately that wasn't the case and Toronto was in a struggle for multiple seasons. Meanwhile on the other spectrum, Seattle was basking in the success of Emerson Hrynyk who Toronto passed over in order to select Malcolm Kelly. Seattle ended up winning the Continental Cup in Season 17 with Hrynyk only to go into a quick rebuild to prepare themselves going into the future. Meanwhile, during Season 19 the Legion were trying to slug it out with the Continental Cup champions Calgary Wranglers to whom they fell to in 5 games. This would prepare the Legion for the future and going into the offseason Bears would be gearing up to round up their rebuild as well.

"I had a certain level of hate for them. Why? They were the best team at that time other than us and they had some unlikable figures. They eventually just got to be annoying, like a buzzing fly wanting attention." -David Knight

Markus Strauss was the Offensive Leader for Seattle

Season 20: The Beginning

At the beginning of the 20th season, we saw a massive trade that saw superstar Lars Berger head to the Legion which began the rebuild for the Wranglers who repeated as champions in Season 19. Although Berger was a relative newcomer to the Legion squad, he fit in extremely well with the personalties on the team like fellow youngsters David Walcott and James Bencharski. Both Bencharski and Shaw were an extremely integral part of the rivalry from the Toronto side of things, and when asked about their thoughts on the rivalry the 2 of them certainly didn't mince words.
"He (Greg Harbinson) followed me around all over the rink before games and put his comments in. Greg is a good shit disturber, probably better at that then actually being a General Manager." -James Bencharski

"It was the fact that our rivalry seemed more destined against Davos over Seattle. We just saw Seattle as a stepping stone to the next level. They had a good team but I had faith that my team was better." - Aidan Shaw
Aidan Shaw Could Be the Best Goalie Ever

Toronto was a team that had a lot of confidence, and they had the right to be confident in themselves. They had an obvious franchise goaltender in Aidan Shaw who was poised to become one of the best in the history, everybody knew this before he even began to reach his prime. Walcott and Bencharski were on the blueline and looked excellent, young, and a very high ceiling. With the addition of Lars Berger to the team, it only gave the Legion more confidence that they would be capturing not just 1 title; but multiple. They had depth at all positions, were young, and had the backing of agents who had major success before at the VHL level.

The North America conference seemed wide open for the Legion, but one team planned on giving them competition and that was the Seattle Bears. Seattle was led by a fresh face Greg Harbinson who was looking to put himself on the map by winning a Continental Cup early in his career. Cam Fowler was a player who was becoming a superstar for the Bears and fast, putting himself at the forefront of players who would compete with Lars Berger for the Boulet Trophy year in and out. It wasn't just a team rivalry between the Legion and Bears, it was the players who individually on their own accounts who had a distaste for each other. Although it was short lived, the hate between Seattle and Toronto was border lining to the point where the league considered stepping in. But Season 20 wasn't even the high point of the rivalry, Toronto knew they had the edge over the Bears in Season 20 and some would speculate that the Bears knew it as well. Toronto made short work of the cocky Seattle Bears in the playoffs taking them out in 5 games (all which were relatively close, however) and made their way to the finals like they intended at the beginning of the season. But, much to the happiness of the Bears they fell to the Davos Dynamo and Daisuke Kanou in 7 games in one of the best Continental Cup series of all-time.

Season 21: The Finish

After being swept away by the Legion in 5 games in the playoffs, the Bears and Greg Harbinson realized that if they were to compete with the Legion in Season 21, they needed to make moves. Harbinson decided to jump on the opportunity of a Dynamo team that was looking to move out some of their pieces that were aging off of winning the Season 20 Continental Cup. Seattle made a blockbuster that saw them receive Patrick Bergqvist who was fresh off one of the best season a defenseman has ever had and Geno Esposito who was a crucial part of the Dynamo topping the Legion in the Continental Cup. Seattle gave up 2 1st round picks to get a future free agent in Esposito and a retiring Bergqvist after his season with the Bears. It was an extremely risky deal for Harbinson to make, but it believed it could payoff in the long run for the team if they could manage to topple Toronto. It was a back and forth battle not just through the regular season, but during the playoffs as well. Cam Fowler and Lars Berger were particularly lippy with one another, both were power forwards looking to take their rightful place as the top one in the league.
"They acted like the cup and really winning the North American Conference was their birthright, and we did not take too kindly to it." - Joey Clarence

Once playoffs rolled around, nobody was quite sure who was going to manage to take home the North America conference, some believed Seattle would snatch it back from Toronto and others believed Toronto would once again prove why they were amongst the league's elite. The series went 7 games and after a gruesome battle between the 2 rivals, Toronto once again managed to take home a North American title. Toronto would go on to once again face a younger and less talented Davos squad and claim the Continental Cup in 5 games. Their is little questioning that Seattle also would've won over the Dynamo.

After that season, the Bears franchise had a full on fire sale that saw Cam Fowler, Geno Esposito, Markus Strauss, and Joey Clarence all on the way out of Seattle. Seattle fell into the abyss of the standings for a few seasons after their rivalry with Toronto and for now the rivalry is simmered, but you can never be too sure with the Bears looking competitive this season and the Legion also being the Season 29 Continental Cup champions. Although it's doubtful the rivalry will spark up again anytime soon, it's hard to believe these two hated franchises will forget each other after only 9 seasons.

Helsinki Titans v HC Davos (Season 21-23)

A rivalry that is far less notorious than that of New York vs Seattle or Toronto vs Seattle is Helsinki and Davos. For 3 straight seasons these two European powers butted heads not just off the ice, but on the ice as well. Although it didn't have the intensity or fire of the other two, it can be said that it was the most competitive rivalry of the three.  General Managing the Dynamo was Harvey Singh, who recently stepped in for Miroslav Ladic to get things under control in Davos. In Finland, it was notorious VHL'er Joey Kendrick who was running things for the Titans. He was representing Helsinki goaltender Jakob Kjeldsen and in the hunt for a Continental Cup sooner rather than later.  These 2 general managers were bound to butt heads from the start, Singh was an extremely outspoken manager and Kendrick often was the same way and very opinionated. From the start the two were going after each other, trying to out best one another on the ice and in the VHL media. This rivalry had a lot of push behind it and is an interesting story, but it has never gotten the publicity it truly deserved.

Season 21: Developing Distaste

After Davos was fresh off of a Continental Cup win, they sold their 2 of their best skaters in Patrick Bergqvist and Geno Esposito, because of this Davos fell from Continental Cup winners to favorites to finish in the basement of the league. But with talent like Anton Brekker and Daisuke Kanou in the fold, it was made evident half way through the season that the Dynamo were going to do their best to make sure that wasn't the case. However, a young Titans team was ready to make a name for themselves with players like Ignatius Feltersnatch, Adam Schultz, and Kevin Hesje. Not to mention an extremely talented Riga team that won the European conference pretty handedly in the regular season. But the story of the season was the race for the final playoff spot in the European Conference, Davos and Helsinki were in a tight race all year long to get that 2nd seed in Europe. In the end, the two teams managed to tie in overall point on the season. However, with the Dynamo having the edge in wins by 1 win, they had the opportunity to go to the big dance. When the Dynamo got there, they managed to upset the 1st seeded Riga Reign on the back of Kanou and went on to face the favorites in the Toronto Legion only to fall in 5 games. However, Joey Kendrick had more than a few moves up his sleeves in order to get the Titans in the playoff picture. But fortunately for the Dynamo, Harvey Singh was thinking about next season as well. Both GM's would make themselves amongst the class of the league in Season 22, and the ride would kick up more than a few notches going forward.
Davos Struggled to Beat Helsinki

Season 22: Things Heat Up

A familiar face with rivalries in Cam Fowler joined Helsinki after a fire sale by the Seattle Bears. Fowler again was the center of a rivalry controversy between Davos and the Titans. Although most of the attention and bickering was surrounded around the General Mangers (who still to this day hate each other), Cam Fowler still certainly played a big role in the rivalry. After the slipping of the Riga Reign, the European Conference became a battle between the Titans and the Dynamo. All of Season 22 was a neck and neck race for who would be the first seed, finally being awarded to the Dynamo who were led by legend Daisuke Kanou. Once the playoffs began, Kanou was looking across at perhaps one of the most underrated (and certainly overshadowed) goaltenders of all time in Jakob Kjeldsen. In one of the best 1st rounds in playoff history where Calgary and the Legion went 7 games to decide who would advance to the finals; the same thing happened between the Dynamo and Titans. After Helsinki jumped out to a 3-1 series lead with a dominant performance by Cam Fowler, most assumed that it would be over quickly. But quicker than Helsinki got up 3-1, the Dynamo rallied back to tie the series at 3 a piece and force a Game 7 back in Zurich. Despite their best attempts, the Davos stereotype of having a team of hot heads reared it's ugly head. Davos gave Helsinki power play opportunities for almost a whole period throughout the game; Cam Fowler once again was the hero and had a dominant performance in Game 7 which saw the Titans beat their rivals and avoid the series comeback by the Dynamo. Helsinki would go on to defeat the Toronto Legion in 6 games and win the Continental Cup, giving them bragging rights over the Dynamo at least until next season rolled around. Davos was looking to improve going into next season and they did; but so did the Titans.

"The big thing with Davos and Helsinki was the Harvey-Kendrick rivalry. There was a ton of cheap shots coming from both sides, mainly from Harvey which he will freely admit." - Cam Fowler

Season 23: Playing Both Sides

Going into the offseason of Season 22 was certainly one of the most interesting actions to happen within the rivalry. Shortly after winning the Continental Cup with the Titans, Adam Schultz hit free agency. Most expected Schultz to resign with Helsinki but felt as though he was weighing his options in free agency. But then the expected happened, Adam Schultz signed a multi-year deal with Davos to play under Harvey Singh. Joey Kendrick was displeased to say the least and the fire between the two teams went from calm to blazing once again. Shortly after signing with the Dynamo, Davos also locked up now Hall of Famer defenseman Japinder Singh in the same offseason. Davos was projected to take down Helsinki fairly easily in Season 23, but then Joey Kendrick pulled the trigger on a trade that saw Tarik Saeijs round out the Helsinki offense and add a dominant force to put alongside Feltersnatch and Fowler. The fantastic offense of the Titans were set to have a great rivalry with the stout defense of the Davos Dynamo. Not surprisingly, the regular season was once again very competitive between the two rivals and the off ice clashes were as frequent and heated as ever. Japinder Singh was a vocal new addition to the rivalry and Adam Schultz was frequently involved in the clashes with his former team as well. In the most anticipated playoff matchup in the European Conference since Davos versus Riga, the pressure was on both teams; especially Helsinki who had a closing window with their current players. In a battle to reach the Continental Cup finals in a matchup with Calgary, Helsinki once again came out as the victors over the Dynamo winning the series in 6 games. Helsinki's offense and veteran leadership proved to be too much for Davos. However, the Titans would go on to lose in the finals to the Calgary Wranglers.
Schultz Could've Been Considered a Titan Legend, He is Now Considered a Traitor

"I still believe we were the better team, I'm not exactly sure how we lost to them. I guess they just got lucky, they were too confident for their own good and somehow they just managed to come out on top. Kjeldsen played great and so did Fowler. I respect the team, but I still think we should've came out on top in the series." -Vadim Volkov

After Season 23, Helsinki went into a retool that saw them made a trade with the Dynamo for Pavel Koradek and Claudio Martucci in Season 24. Davos continued to compete and would go onto win 2 Continental Cups in Season 24 and 25,  Helsinki won the head to head rivalry; who won in the end?

New York Americans v Seattle Bears (Season 25-28)

It's been 6 seasons since Greg Harbinson began has original rivalry with the Toronto Legion and despite the Legion-Bear rivalry being long over, Greg Harbinson once again found himself in an intense battle with a North American team. In what I believe was the best rivalry since Riga versus Davos, the Seattle Bears and New York Americans duked it out in the North American Conference for 4 straight seasons. Greg Harbinson and Sam Helberg had a hate for each other on the managing level unlike any in the history of the league and it reflected on the players. Future Hall of Famers Daniel Braxton and Jarvis Baldwin were in on the fun since the beginning. New York was consistently one of the top teams in the league throughout the rivalry, but in the end Seattle outnumbered the Americans in Cups by the end of the rivalry.

Season 25: Growing Up Together

Season 25 saw the process of rebuilding in both Seattle and New York. Although Seattle was still struggling and New York made the finals in Season 25 (only to lose to Davos in 5 games) both teams were still young and getting better every single season. Although New York was a competitor, they also had a lot of key aging players such as Jukka Hakkinen, Ignatius Feltersnatch, and Keon Henderson. With Seattle rising out of a rebuild it seemed as though the two teams were destined to clash in the near future. During Season 26 things really began to heat up between the two teams and many different personalties on each team played a huge role. With New York making the finals in Season 25, they had plans of doing the same in Season 26 except with a different ending. Seattle however, wanted to make goal a lot tougher than they expected.

Season 26: Seattle Wants to Play

With the retirement of franchise player Jukka Hakkinen, the Americans needed someone to fill the void of a leader on and off the ice. GM Sam Helberg did one better and went out and traded for Adam Schultz and Kristian Carlsson, both who were on top of their game during their time with New York but again, aging. Seattle with their young and improving roster went out and got superstar (at that time) Evgeni Fyodorov in order to keep pace with the Americans. Fyodorov would prove to be an extremely valuable asset for the Bears, scoring 139 points in 72 games and beating out any other Bears player in scoring by 26 points. With Seattle beginning to pose a threat for the Americans, things really began to heat up between the teams. 3rd year player Daniel Braxton was at the center of the conflicts, often having verbal altercations with Felix Peters whenever the two teams faced off with one another. Often it seemed as though other teams were being asked about what they thought of the rivalry between the two teams from an outside perspective.
"In my opinion, they're acting like idiots and not hockey players. They're more worried about chirping each other than getting better. They're both great teams, but I think they need to worry about winning the battle on the scoreboard and not the verbal battles." - Ansgar Snijider

Seattle and New York would go onto face each other in what would be the first of their 3 playoff meetings in the next 3 seasons. Things were high tension and often youngsters Kasey Braun, Jarvis Baldwin, Benjamin Glover, and Daniel Braxton probably played the series with fuses a lot shorter than they should've. For a young team with less talent, Seattle put up the best fight they could've versus a strong Americans team; but in the end the Bears lost to the Americans in 6 games. But to the pleasantry of the Bears players, in the Americans 2nd straight trip to the finals they once again fell to their European counterparts. Iron Eagles of Vasteras beat New York in 6 games and won their first Continental Cup since Season 1. New York was beginning to get frustrated; and Seattle knew they would be better in Season 27.

Seattle and New York Fought Plenty.

"I did hate them. I didn't like how they all seemed to show up to discussions relating to the Bears. I feel like they felt their opinion mattered more than other people's. Any time Greg would open his mouth, they would follow up with some bullshit." - Jarvis Baldwin

Season 27: Shaking It Up

After New York losing two of their best players from last season in Adam Schultz and Kristian Carlsson, they needed a player to round out their defense. Lars Intranquilo was the epitome of a defensive defenseman, which is exactly what the Americans needed at that point in time to stop the now stout Bears offense. But that wasn't the story of the offseason of the two teams, Seattle made a trade with Riga in one of the biggest and most surprising blockbusters in VHL history sending captain Kasey Braun to the Reign in exchange for a slew of picks. Many questioned Seattle's reasoning due to their wanting to compete and Braun being a huge part of that competitiveness. However, Mitch Higgins was quickly becoming one of the best defenseman in the league and filled in the hole beautifully that the Braun trade left. However, on the other end of the spectrum in New York Daniel Braxton established himself as THE best defenseman in the league where he won the Labatte Trophy in Season 27. With both Seattle and New York having 2 players who were neck and neck for the best on the blue line, the competitive nature between the teams continued to rise. Sam Helberg and Greg Harbinson were clashing in the media more than ever and the rivalry was getting ugly both on and off the ice between the two teams. Both teams were looking at winning a Continental Cup and had both the talent to accomplish it, but the problem was they were going to once again be facing each other in the North American Conference finals. In an extremely hard fought series where the Bears dropped 1 or 2 games they could've won, the Americans once again got the best of the Bears in an excellent series that went 7 games. The closeness of the series was almost unbelievable with only 1 game being separated by 2 or more goals, and Game 1 in the series went into 4 overtimes; making it the longest game in VHL history at that point in time. With New York making their 3rd straight trip to the Continental Cup finals, it seemed as though it was destiny for New York to finally win their 2nd Continental Cup. Unfortunately, it just wasn't in the cards once again for the Americans where they lost to an extremely talented Helsinki Titans team led by Pavel Koradek and Leeroy Jenkins. The window for the Americans was closing and fast, they knew they only had one maybe 2 more chances to win their Cup and Seattle was still improving every season.

"There's no doubt that there was some brash arrogance on the squad. I guess you could say all good teams that have the confidence, but New York had never won anything. I will say, their general manager is a very smart guy, and he knows it." - Jarvis Baldwin

Season 28: Same Teams, Different Round

In one of the biggest restructures in the history of the VHL, the Commissioners made the decision to allow the teams with the 4 best records in the entire league to make the playoffs and have a crossover, as opposed to a playoff matchup versus teams in the same conference. Everyone knew what this meant, a Continental Cup matchup between the Bears and the Americans was well on its way to happening. For the 4th season in a row, Sam Helberg and Greg Harbinson were at each other's throats at every opportunity possible. Knowing the stakes that Season 28 brought with the Toronto Legion, Davos Dynamo, and Calgary Wranglers all young and on the rise extremely quickly. Despite these rising teams, the only real teams considered to win the Continental Cup were Seattle and the Americans. That's what ended up being the finals like everyone expected, once again for the 3rd season in a row the two league powerhouses met in the playoffs for what would be the last time. After the Calgary Wranglers gave the Bears a 7 game scare in the opening rounds, they eventually pulled out the series in the 7th game ready to face the Americans who beat the Davos Dynamo in 6 games. It had finally happened, one of the two teams were about to capture the a Continental Cup and likely have bragging rights for who came out on top in the end between the two teams. In a series were Calliou Gifford had one of the best goaltending performances in recent history, the Seattle Bears won their first playoff series against their rivals when it mattered the most. Seattle had done it, and New York for the 4th straight season fell to their competitors in the Continental Cup Finals. Greg Harbinson had waited a long time for his first Continental Cup, winning it against their bitter rivals in the end must have made it all the sweeter for the long tenured general manager.

Seattle finally won it all.

"The three series we played against one another were the peak of it. The first two being conference finals where we were able to dominated and then upset the Bears in back to back years spawned some of the most interesting game discussion I've ever seen. The next season, when the crossover was introduced, we met in the finals, where the Bears were able to dispatch of us in 6 games." -Daniel Braxton

Although the Bears and Americans remained competitive in Season 29, the stepping down of Greg Harbinson after their Continental Cup win settled the fire of the rivalry between the two teams. The hostility was gone and it was hardly the same between New York and Seattle. Both Seattle and New York made the playoffs once again in Season 29, but only to lose to the youngsters in Davos and Toronto in the 1st round. After Season 29, Sam Helberg stepped down in New York as well; thus putting the end to the Seattle-New York rivalry all together. One of the most genuine hate filled and competitive rivalries this league has ever seen lasted over 4 seasons. The rivalry between Seattle and New York was exciting not just for those involved but from outside spectators as well. For teams who didn't compete, the playoffs were always and exciting time to see which team would come out on top.

What makes rivalries so special in this league is the excitement and intrigue it puts in for the entire league. Some may hate the constant attacking between two hated teams in seemingly every thread; but where is the fun in agreeing and congratulating each other every single game? Hockey is a game of passion, their is no passion in being friends with the opposing team. Despite us having no rivalries currently in the VHL, I believe their will be one sooner rather than later. Although none of the rivalries in the 20's matched that of Riga versus Davos, we were certainly a lucky bunch to see 3 rivalries all with their own characteristics.

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