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VHL 30 in 30 #26: Heavy Reign

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Heavy Reign

One of the disappointing stories of the VHL's third decade was the great fall of the Riga Reign. An organisation renowned for success prior to Season 20, everything went downhill fast in Riga for the past ten seasons and the franchise has been mired in mediocrity for so long that the small glimpses of hope at various points during the decade have made little impact to the team's reputation at all. Over the ten seasons from Season 21 to Season 30, the Reign made the playoffs just twice and won four games in total over the two attempts, resulting in one of the worst ten-season records in VHL history. Riga's last championship came in Season 16, which puts them at a cupless drought of 14 seasons, just two seasons less than New York's current longest in the league. Thirteen seasons removed from their last finals appearance in Season 17 is the VHL's longest active streak and statistics like these have of course done no good for the Reign. Other teams have of course benefited from Riga's failures, but how did this once well-respected franchise take such a nose dip?

Indeed, during the VHL's second decade, Riga was perhaps the most successful team in the league. They had won their first Continental Cup in Season 10 during a period of time where they made the playoffs for five consecutive seasons and clinched a finals berth for all but one of those seasons. The streak did wonders for the organisation and essentially erased its reputation as one of the league's laughing stocks during the team's first seven seasons of existence, when they were based in Stockholm. After Season 12, two-time Sam Pollock Memorial Trophy winner Dustin Funk stepped down as the team's GM which caused some doubt about the team's future. However, there was nothing to worry about as Funk's “apprentice” Vladimir Kliment took the Reign through a quick and painless rebuild, resulting in the franchise's second Continental Cup by Season 16 and setting up the team well to compete in the future (eventually going on a then-record of seven straight playoff seasons, since tied by Davos and Toronto, and likely to be beaten by New York this season). The two non-playoff years to start Kliment's tenure would be the only such seasons for Riga during a span of 14 seasons, obviously a huge contrast to the statistics from the third decade mentioned previously.

Just to add to the euphoria surrounding the Reign at the time, Dustin Funk had returned to the franchise with his third player, Olivier Scarlett, through the Season 18 entry draft. With Kliment zoning out of the league at the same time, Funk almost seamlessly took the team back, on an interim basis at first, but as a long-term solution eventually. Riga had been losing players from their Season 16 victory at this point but the addition of the likes of Scarlett, Tarik Saeijs, and Michael Angelo once again reinvigorated the team and they stayed on course as one of the league's top four teams. Ironically though, they never moved further up as soon as Funk took over again and stayed at best the league's third-best team in both the regular season and the playoffs starting in Season 18 and still continuing today. As this drought completely coincides with Kliment's stepping down, could Dustin Funk, the man whose name is synonymous with Riga's success, actually be the catalyst of their largest failure?

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Dustin Funk was the face of Riga's rise and the beginning of their end

"I would say Riga's long-term failure was a result of multiple occurrences.  There were players like Nonu and VanCoughnett going inactive that the franchise depended on, and we could never really find a GM that would stay in the position for a long time.  It was really unfortunate, but that's how the chips fall sometimes.  It was hard to deal with for some of us players, but no matter how hard we tried, we couldn't make ourselves into contenders.  It was definitely frustrating." - Turd Ferguson

"Biggest factor in Riga's long-term failure is a lack of leadership from the top.  Not one single person (up until now) was willing to go through 100% with getting this once proud franchise back to the top of the league. Every team has bad luck, however a good manager can overcome it." - Dustin Funk

The answer is 'of course not'. Funk didn't actually make any horrible mistakes during his second stint as GM (apart from the ill-fated trade of the then-inactive Angelo to Helsinki for the forever-inactive Jonathan Slade), but rather didn't seem to get the extra element of luck that any VHL success requires. Turd Ferguson, having played in Riga during the third decade, knows quite a bit of that bad luck and it's doubtful he would blame Funk for it. As for the lack of leadership, Funk clearly isn't talking about himself, but rather his successors, as during his first few seasons back in charge, he actually did try hard to keep the Reign in the top echelon of the league's contenders.

The problem was ultimately a lack of assets. In Season 20, at the height of Funk's second GM stint, Riga had one of the greatest offensive units in the modern era VHL, a mixture of veterans like J.D. Stormwall, Mikka Virkkunen, and Max Kronenburg with relative youngsters like Tarik Saeijs and Alex Stoyanovich. They turned out a magnificent scoring performance, putting up totals unheard of in today's VHL, and it didn't even take a lot to acquire them. However, the team was let down by a lackluster back end. Scarlett was still young and couldn't carry the very average defence featuring Austin Hickey and Percy Jackson, and in goal, Ma'a Nonu's activity had waned and he was falling behind younger counterparts like Daisuke Kanou and Aidan Shaw. Of course, just two seasons prior the Calgary Wranglers had managed to win the championship with a team similarly unbalanced in favour of scoring, but that is where luck wasn't on Riga's side. The Reign fell in seven games to the HC Davos Dynamo, built on a strong back end instead, and things went completely downhill from there.

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Perhaps Ma'a Nonu's inactivity was Riga's greatest downfall

Ironically, in the ensuing seasons the focus actually shifted onto defence for the team and they finally built a blue line worthy of a cup contender. Scarlett and Season 19 draftees Kristian Carlsson and Sigmund Olofsson developed into strong two-way defencemen and the promising Jesse McGhann was traded for. The problem was that now Nonu had began to age on top of being inactive and McGhann was one of the pieces acquired when the team's veteran forwards were traded away. During Season 21, the Reign lost Virkkunen, Stormwall, Kronenburg, and Stoyanovich to a mixture of free agency, trade, and retirement, without any immediate replacements available. On the back of what was left from their heyday, Riga managed one more playoff appearance but fell to Davos for a third consecutive time, and with that, their real struggles began.

"Frustration is probably the best way to put it.  There were guys that played for Riga when I was there that weren't accustomed to losing as much as the Reign did, guys that had seemingly always been able to carry their team, and they had trouble dealing with the losses.  There were great team players like Scarlett, Carlsson, and Saeijs, who really deserved to win, especially in Riga, and these were guys that were devoted to the franchise.  It certainly didn't help the feelings of the players that the front office had little to no stability, either." - Turd Ferguson

With a bit more luck, players like Ferguson would be part of a Riga retool rather than rebuild and VHL history would have been much different. Perhaps Riga, instead of Davos, would be the European dynasty for many years and Helsinki would never be able to evolve into a long-term contender. But to an extent, the Reign's time had come and they used up the hockey gods' goodwill during the second decade, although unfortunately, they weren't ready to rebuild. In that sense, Funk is a bit to blame for the team's extended slump. When he briefly stepped down in Season 21 due to personal reasons, Bryan Svec had orchestrated the trades of veteran forward, but it was never a full-scale firesale, and that philosophy, always evident in Funk's management, proved to be potentially disastrous once again. At the same time, Riga's retool also came during a streak of underwhelming drafts and they couldn't renew the team's core properly. Devon Saxter, the sixth overall pick in S21, ended up becoming a cancer and retired soon after being traded around during his rookie season. Derek Boogaard and Dan Jones from the horrific S22 draft proved to be fringe VHL players in the long run, and prior to the S23 draft, Funk traded away his third overall pick (admittedly a failure in itself, being just Wesley Kanaan) and gained little from the draft. There was some talent in the organisation but no depth and no active goaltender, and it was clear the mediocrity just wouldn't cut it.

During his final (this time probably forever) season as GM, Funk finally cut ties with the past and started setting the team up for a full-blown rebuild. Saeijs, Carlsson, and McGhann left the team and Season 24 and 25 draft picks, alongside Season 23 eighth overall Mitch Higgins, were brought in. Funk was also rumoured to be on the hunt for a long-term successor and it was likely to be an external addition, with the hope of bringing the stability he himself had produced for so many years. As we would soon find out, that stability was hard to find and reiterated Funk's earlier point about the lack of leadership, but it did seem for a brief period of time that the S23 off-season was about to change Riga's fortunes and put them back in contention relatively quickly. Quite on the contrary though, the off-season may have been the biggest reason of the Reign's prolonged failure.

"My expectations for the team once I left were the same from when I was in charge: To always put the team's interests first and put together the best team possible under the vision.  However when I stepped aside, shit hit the fan and it has never been the same since." - Dustin Funk

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Evgeni Fyodorov wasn't quite the face of the franchise he was expected to be

The increasing expectations and hope were brought by the trade for Zack Gagnon, the free agent signing of Evgeni Fyodorov, and a draft with three first-round picks, used on new franchise goaltender Mathieu VanCoughnett, defenceman Genghis Khan, and center Rauno Pajari. With the signing of Fyodorov, a recent cup winner and a top sniper just entering his prime, new GM Nick Barretta also entered the scene, and Riga seemed on the right track to be back in the playoffs in a season or two, with yet two more first-rounders in Season 25 to look forward to. But things went sour ridiculously quickly. VanCoughnett and Fyodorov, and with him Barretta, went inactive just a couple weeks into the season, leaving the team without a GM and active goaltender, and while the latter they were now used to, the former was a disheartening novelty. Midway through the season, Gagnon emerged as the new hero, but seemed to cause negative backlash in the locker room, and young players like Higgins and Boogaard were soon on the way out. Gagnon continued to trade older pieces during the remainder of the season and then the off-season, with his own player, Olofsson, Scarlett, and Fyodorov soon being moved out. He seemed to be starting afresh again, adding to Khan, Pajari, and Gunnar Axelson (a piece from the Higgins/Boogaard trade with Seattle) from S24 with Ansgar Snijider and Vladimir Boomchenko in the S25 draft and his own new player, defenceman Radislav Mjers, coming in alongside a S26 draft pick in Season 26.

Perhaps all would have ended well with Gagnon in charge of a rising franchise and he would have eventually found a goaltender as well to replace VanCoughnett and complete the promising core. However, it doesn't seem like the Reign would be able to enjoy even that much as during the S25 off-season, Gagnon too stepped down and left the team completely, without any compensation for the loss of Mjers, the eventual second overall pick in the draft. Kyle Dowd (agent of Snijider) was next up in the revolving door of Riga GMs and by this point, the team's reputation in the eyes of other VHL members had hit an all-time low. In his first season, Dowd didn't do much to improve the team, though he did sell some older players to each of the league's four playoff teams. The deals eventually proved to have minimal impact for Riga and yet time was ticking for the team's small core of Snijider, Pajari, Axelson, and Boomchenko.

"I would say the trade for Kasey Braun is probably where they went wrong.. But more importantly I would say it was the fact I wouldn't give up my Season 26 and 27 1sts and Khan for CAL G and the 2nd overall pick (Radislav Mjers). The situation would've been a lot different had I not tried to play hardball with Jason." - Kyle Dowd

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Kasey Braun's time in Riga was short-lived, but was he a curse or a blessing?

The S26 off-season would become the hopefully final off-season of mistakes for Riga. In two moves with Seattle and Vasteras, Dowd brought in forward Kevyn Hesje, defencemen Kasey Braun, RJ Stafford, and Clint Guite, as well as goaltender Andreas Bjorkman, which propelled the Reign to the playoffs to replace the Iron Eagles, but only for the season that most of these players stayed with the team. As it turns out, Kyle did not actually give up a lot to acquire all these players, with most of the draft picks and prospects traded from Riga not reaching their potential. However, the image created for the team was not quite as positive as was intended and the Reign appeared doomed for another decade of failure following Season 27. Winning it all that season also proved to be a task a bit too difficult for a team quickly built over one off-season, and Riga went down in six to the eventual champions, the Helsinki Titans, in the European Conference finals.

Dowd stepped down after the underwhelming playoff performance and in came Mike Szatkowski, who had just returned to the league after an almost 15-season hiatus from the VHL. Amidst retirements, the free agency departures of Braun and Boomchenko, relatively weak trade returns for Snijider, Axelson, and Pajari, and a fourth GM in five seasons, it all seemed like Dowd had just dug an even deeper hole for the Reign. As we can now see, Szatkowski was finally the man with a vision Riga needed all those years ago and since Season 27, the franchise has finally gotten back on track.

"Making the trade for Kasey Braun at the time was something I thought would benefit the team at the time and going forward. Obviously that was the opposite and Braun left via free agency and gave our locker room a poisonous vibe and that resulted in Boomchenko and Pajari wanting out as well. Because of this I eventually had to trade my own player and step down because we were in such a tough situation with no assets to trade at all. It was tough." - Kyle Dowd

The struggles generally linked to the Reign over the past decade have continued over the past three seasons but the team finally went through a true rebuild and seems to finally be back on track. The S30 off-season played a huge part in improving the product in Riga as Mike filled numerous holes with the signing of goaltender Alexander Labatte and the return of Snijider, a trade for defencemen Elijah Incognito and Nic Riopel (bringing the Funk brothers back to the organisation) as well as adding Josef Heiss Jr. to the list of homegrown talent alongside Michal Wozniak and Miles Larsson. It no longer seems to be a stretch to see Riga as long-term playoff contender starting in Season 31 and perhaps the finals and cup droughts are about to be broken. It has been a massive challenge for the Reign for ten or so seasons, depending on when you think the struggles truly began, but like other cases in VHL history, they appear to have finally fought through.

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Riga is now looking to relive the glory days of Layken Heidt and co.

"While I hold that franchise first in my heart, I can say that the losing that has happened in recent seasons is deserved.  You get what you put out, and the output hasn't been playoff worthy.  With Mike in charge, I feel that things are moving the right way, his off-season reminds me of the Blue Jays off-season with the big changes so hopefully for the team (and now me) it works out." - Dustin Funk

There is reason to believe the dark times in Riga's history are over. The team is set up to win now and in the future and the experience of the past decade will hopefully stop future General Managers from repeating the mistakes of the past. If the element of luck is key, then there is a nice precedent for the Reign to look to. The Calgary Wranglers were, like Riga from S8 to S20, probably the healthiest franchise of the VHL's first decade. With three cups and eight playoff appearances from Seasons 1 to 9, they were just like the Reign in that they were really the class of the league for everyone to look up to. During the second decade when Riga enjoyed their most success, Calgary was in the league's basement for a long time, with no light at the end of the tunnel. They eventually won a fourth Continental Cup in Season 18, finally, after ten seasons of not being any close and have since gone on to win three more and reclaim their lead in championships. Is something similar in the books for the Reign? That has to be the hope, as the franchise was messed around with for far too long.

End of Part 26
Special thanks to Kyle Dowd, Dustin Funk, and Turd Ferguson

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