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VHL 30 in 30 #27: End of the Curse(s)

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End of the Curse(s)

One of the most well-known stories throughout the VHL's history is that of the so-called “Vasteras Curse.” The franchise in the smallest VHL city had the dubious honour of going through the longest Continental Cup drought in the league's history, spanning from the inaugural championship in Season 1 all the way to Season 26. The IK or Black Eagles as the team was originally known, won the league's first ever cup on the backs of future Hall of Famers Scotty Campbell and Matthew Pogge, before failing in their second straight trip to the finals and proceeding to go on a long period of time where they won just three playoff series, two of which came in Season 26. After Campbell and another Hall of Fame forward in Matt Defosse were traded away after Season 3, the IK made the playoffs for a fourth straight time to begin their existence, which was then the best streak in the league; however after missing the post-season in Season 5, Vasteras has never been able to string more than two consecutive playoff berths since. Their struggles to win despite icing fairly strong squads from time to time put an end to the longest-ever GM reign by Lucas Tannahill in Season 13, his successor went on to move the team to Madrid in a failed experiment (though one which did bring the franchise its only finals appearance between Seasons 2 and 26), before a return to Vasteras, now known as the Iron Eagles, was initiated by the infamous Zach Voss. This was Season 21, the “curse” was in full motion for both the VHL and VHLM Vasteras franchise (the IK J20 had only ever won in Season 11) and it was perhaps time to make history.

GM Zach Voss, despite all his faults, spent his last off-season unwittingly setting up a true core for the revived Vasteras franchise. Not only had he returned the historic franchise its Swedish identity, putting an end to the Spanish debacle which lasted just five seasons, he also drafted goaltender Andreas Bjorkman and center R.J. Stafford in the Season 21 VHL draft, who, owned by well-known player agents Tyler Owens and Scotty Campbell, respectively, would become integral parts of Vasteras' eventual success. Voss proceeded to step down as General Manager as well, with Owens replacing him and former commissioner Campbell becoming his unofficial advisor. The managing duo created a refreshing atmosphere in the organisation after the Voss years with a clear vision and began stockpiling picks and prospects to build a youth movement from the Season 20 to Season 23 drafts.

Owens' additions to the team included forwards Cam Merrill and Markus Jenstrom through trade and the reunion of a few of the infamous Stafford brothers in Vasteras under the watchful eye of the most active one: R.J. Despite placing just second-last in the league standings in Season 21, the Iron Eagles were fortunate enough to win the draft lottery for the second straight year, snatching highly-touted defenceman Clint Guite from the hands of the flailing New York Americans just like they did Bjorkman the season prior. Vasteras was the most promising team of that age and though the overall weaknesses of their focal draft classes would become their ultimate downfall, they definitely had the upper hand over those same Americans or newer rebuilders such as Seattle and Riga. Breaking into the top tier of the league would prove a difficult task, but new management was creating a more positive image for the team and a certain sense of pride for being an Iron Eagle.

"I saw in my Season 9 rebuild, and again when we won the cup, that when a team builds a sense of identity and starts identifying the right players, people will want to play for the team.  It's tough to get some old members to get past that, so really it's not a surprise that the core that won the cup was mostly former Vasteras guys (though sterling was a fantastically fitting non-Vasteras addition)." - Lasse Milo

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Lasse Milo followed in the footsteps of his agent and became Mr. Vasteras

The return and potential of the Vasteras franchise brought back its founder; Lucas Tannahill, who had cut all ties with the league after stepping down as GM and soon after witnessing the relocation to Madrid. With Tannahill came his newest protege, German center Lasse Milo, and his draft position in Season 23 as well as wanting to play for Vasteras above all others was playing right into the hands of Owens and Campbell. The Iron Eagles finished last in the VHL in Season 22 but this time lost the draft lottery to Davos, who owned Seattle's pick (Leeroy Jenkins). The loss of this highly-touted prospect didn't scare Vasteras as they had their fair share of luck in the previous two drafts, and they were then able to move down and secure Milo's services in the team's first buying trade in a while which prove to not be overly successful.

As it has been subtly alluded to, the situation was not perfect for Vasteras to come in and break a long-standing cup drought. Within the organisation there were high expectations of a dynasty to rival the contemporary ones in Toronto and Davos, while scepticism was afloat around other parts of the league, with the truth, as per usual, lying somewhere in the middle. The Iron Eagles' situation was not hopeless, neither by analysis of their current state or their past underwhelming performances, but it also had its flaws which management seemed to turn a blind eye to. Owens and company appeared to have a clear Plan A, but no evident Plan B in the almost inevitable scenario of something going wrong, factors which included prospects being lost to inactivity or free agents not signing as expected. Both took place in Vasteras eventually as the likes of Cam Merrill, J.J. Stafford, Erik Haakonsson, and Troy Thompson never produced the top results in practice expected from them. All four would not make it to the final cup-winning roster, falling off the bandwagon at various points, but they would have had a chance to play for a genuine contender if the Iron Eagles made the playoffs sooner than they did. In Season 24 for instance, the team had high aspirations which were ultimately destroyed by a 0-10 record against rival and eventual cup winner Davos, but more importantly, the team wasn't able to secure another star forward, with highly-touted free agent Evgeni Fyodorov signing in Riga while his team-mate Mathias Chouinard stayed in Calgary.

"We had such a strong core in Bjorkman, Stafford, Jenstrom and Merrill. Then as those guys got older we added a new core with Milo and Reikkinen. Add to that players like Roman Andreev who was a solid role player in Vasteras for quite some time, Erik Haakonsson (who I admit is my biggest mistake as a GM, legit thought he would be a top forward) and Jake Steen who was another big piece we added.  This doesn't even begin to consider Lars Berger and James Bencharski, two sure bet Hall of Fame players who we had on the team. If you take those guys, that's a pretty good roster, and even though they were never all together at once persay, you can see where I am coming from. We had a lot of misfortune and bad luck, but I really thought we had a chance at a dynasty." - Tyler Owens

"I wasn't confident in the team. There was a lot of talk about Vasteras over the past five seasons at that point, but I was willing to go in and help them try to win. It took three seasons, but we did it. Gerrard added a lot to the team that particular season." - James Bencharski

"When I joined the team the idea was that we were really close.  The team was a couple of pieces away and maybe just an experienced player or two away.  The locker room certainly had the mindset that we were going to push for it and that reflected in the moves that were made right away.  I was maybe a little less optimistic, simply because I had been through that 'close' scenario so many times.  All I knew is we were on to something and it was just a matter of when." - Lasse Milo

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Building from the net out is key: where would Vasteras be without Andreas Bjorkman?

Nevertheless, there was no going back now. Season 24 was meant to be the start of a dynasty, and while it became the sixth straight season of the second-longest playoff slump in VHL history, it provided at least some spark of the curse being broken in the near future. Vasteras would proceed to lose star forwards Lars Berger and Jake Steen at the conclusion of the season, but they persevered, despite having missed out on the Season 24 draft and seemingly having fallen behind or failing to overcome other contenders. The talent was still there though, with the ever-improving Jenstrom, R.J. Stafford, Bjorkman, and Milo, as well as veteran defenceman James Bencharski, still with a few seasons left in him. In the Season 25 draft, Owens had the pleasure to select Tukka Reikkinen fourth overall, a move which would pay dividends for the franchise in the long run.

In Season 25, the Iron Eagles finally made the playoffs. It didn't take much, just a retool by the Helsinki Titans and an upgrade of Thompson to journeyman Jesse McGhann and Haakonsson to star sniper Peyton Nydroj. The price were a few future draft picks which at this point was a reasonable return, since the hopes for a dynasty had succumbed to reality. Vasteras pushed the hated Davos Dynamo to seven games but fell in a fashion reminiscent of many Vasteras teams of the past. However, management went in for one last time. Armed by further improvement by their own players, the Iron Eagles bid farewell to roster depth and went all in, replacing retirees Nydroj and Andreev with veterans Phil Gerrard and Kevyn Hesje, as well as bring back Clint Guite to secure their blue line. It wasn't quite the length of success once expected, but it was better than nothing and with the fall of Davos, Vasteras easily won the Victory Cup and earned a berth in the finals, before dismantling their old rebuilding foes from New York in five. At a greater cost than expected, the curse had finally come to an end.

"I definitely think there was the potential for more than one cup.  But between how long it took for the team to get to that championship, and then the activity levels of various players and graduations after the cup, it didn't come together.  I thought Season 25 was going to be our season for sure, and I still wonder if, had we kept everyone together for Season 27, if a repeat was possible.  Given how good Reikkinen and Milo would become together, that might have been enough to outscore everyone with the rest of the aging core around them." - Lasse Milo

Or had it? A quick firesale of the remaining cup-winning squad pushed Vasteras back out of the playoffs, a place where they have now remained for five seasons again. It appears the past continues to haunt the Iron Eagles and mistakes made late by Owens and then by his numerous successors have laid the foundation for a possible new cup drought. This does not begin to mention the similar misfortune of the Vasteras IK J20, once the IK's VHLM affiliate and now an independent team with its own history of shortcomings. Despite effectively cutting ties with their parent team once they moved to Madrid, the IK J20 have not been able to let go of the history which goes side by side with being a team from Vasteras. Now nicknamed the Baby Eagles, a reference to the Eagles in the VHL team's name, Vasteras' success in the Founder's Cup remains underwhelming compared to other VHLM franchises, but they did go out of their way to break some curses of their own in Season 26. The IK J20 GM, another Tyler, though Edgar rather than Owens, stockpiled the top 16 picks and then some of the Season 26 VHLM Dispersal Draft. This was an impressive feat no matter the circumstances but especially considering that this was the VHLM draft involving prospects for the Season 27 VHL Entry Draft, a draft considered at the time to be the best since Season 18 (which may or may not be the case after the test of time).

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The Season 26 IK J20 were like the Top Prospects Team

With a core of future VHL All-Stars and several probable Hall of Famers, with Alexander Chershenko, Phil Rafter, David Smalling, Satan, Nic Riopel, Elijah Incognito, Emerson Byer, and Marius Henchoz not covering even half the big names of the roster, Vasteras seemed set to steamroll their opponents en route to a Founder's Cup. In typical Vasteras luck though, things did now work out and although they ironed out their minor problems in the regular season, they went down 3-1 to underdog Brampton Blades in the finals and eventually lost in Game 7. As many stars graduated to the VHL, the likes of Ying Qin, Klaus Muller, and Henchoz remained, and together with additional talent such as Volodymyr Rybak, the IK J20 finally broke their own cup drought, a season later than expected.

"After the Season 26 draft, I truly thought that nothing could go wrong.  A Founder's Cup was basically a sure thing.  I even drafted both Satan and Henchoz that way no one would have a comparable goalie to me.  My thought process was that after obliterating the VHLM, and finally winning a Founder's Cup, I could retire as a GM and being a player agent. Obviously, I was kinda disappointed when I had lost the championship.  I still fully blame Smalling for everything that went wrong with VIK J20.  What a chode.

As for Season 27, I realized that a couple of key players were remaining in the VHLM for a season, and that sparked me to make one more run; my last run.  I was prepared to run my team's potential at winning a cup in the following season, I did however want to leave some players that could be traded for picks to make the team competitive in Season 29.   During this season, I knew it was my last shot at a cup, and to be honest, I genuinely believed I was the second best team in the league.  Luckily, our team found the chemistry during the playoffs to come out on top."
- Tyler Edgar

As a result, the VHL's third decade was home to two straight monumental season resulting in the breaking of the “Vasteras Curse”. Whether or not it is fully broken or if it even existed remains up for debate and a full answer may not be available for quite some time (perhaps as long 25 more seasons, or just 15 in the VHLM). Despite this lack of playoff, or even particular regular season, success and calls for relocation of at least one Vasteras franchise, the league's unique original organisation(s) have stood pat and continued their uphill battle against popular opinion. There remain few members of the league who really want to be the face of the Iron Eagles, even when they play for them, and so it appears it will always be difficult to create a dynasty in Vasteras. It would have to start with a vision like Owens and Campbell had and then hope for some better draft years to build from. As for the VHLM, it is always difficult to build a consistent contender in the minors and the Season 26 J20 proved that absolutely nothing in the VHLM is set in stone. Despite this shortcoming, does little Vasteras' better playoff performance since the great VHLM change of Season 20 make them the better team in the Swedish city?

"I would rank the VHLM Vasteras more successful.  I say this because VIK has always had control over who they could draft and how they wanted to develop their team, which they were awful at.  The VIK J20 was stuck with the plague of bad draftees that VIK GMs selected to build there teams with, meaning VIK J20 GMs never really had the chance to make a championship team with their own vision in mind, or that was the case until recently.  I believe proportionately, if you track VIK J20's record since the VHLM became no longer affiliated with the VHL, we have more cups, if only by a fraction." - Tyler Edgar

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The Scotty Campbell years remain Vasteras' greatest

Of course as also mentioned, the end of one curse may lead to its continuation or even the start of a new one. The members of the Vasteras teams which finally won a championship, both on the ice and in the front office, don't believe in curses as most sane people do, but the peculiar history of the IK/Iron Eagles/J20/Black Eagles seems to keep on repeating itself and at one point you have to ask: did Lucas Tannahill really upset the hockey gods at some point when he traded away Scotty Campbell or even drafted him at the unexpected second overall position?

"Not a curse, just some bad General Managing and some terrible luck. I think Corcoran is a pretty smart guy, he should be able to build a winner with the proper rebuild in place. Helsinki looks stronger now though. Curses don't exist... or do they?" - James Bencharski

"It was a combination of bad luck and bad management. The idea of a curse was always a bit of a joke to me and I don't think anyone took it seriously, at least not on Vasteras. It was clearly just a running gag so to speak. I think, if anything, the stigma around the team hurt us a lot because it was hard to get people to come play for the losers of the VHL. It ended well, but the dislike for Vasteras, even to this day by some very important members, is obviously just silly." - Tyler Owens

"Curses are ridiculous.  The two reasons the curse happened were 1) because of members around the league not wanting to play for Vasteras, for buying into this ridiculous stigma, and for thinking that we were somehow bad or less worthy than other teams.  This is especially true in big name VHL free agents, which as it ties into point 2, was something Vasteras banked on too often. The second was of course terrible management and overconfidence, which Tyler almost fell victim to in ending the curse." - Lasse Milo

"No, there was never a curse; there was just a bad GM who could not effectively use the STHS program.  There was also a guy named Diamond Ace who made any other team attempting a cup run during an odd numbered season pointless.  What a dick." - Tyler Edgar

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The new man in charge: Thomas Corcoran

Since Tyler Owens stepped down as finally a champion and a Sam Pollock Memorial Trophy winner, Vasteras has gone through almost as many GMs as they had prior to Season 26, with incumbent Thomas Corcoran being their third in five seasons. Corcoran has been considered by many as the new “Pensfan” or Tannahill in that he embodied the Iron Eagles' tradition and truly hopes to lead them to glory. As the second overall pick in Season 29, Corcoran has now been in the organisation for three non-playoff years to go along with the two before and rest assured, the team is getting a bit frustrated with the unpleasant ratio of non-playoff years against playoff ones. Corcoran at first seemed to be following the patient approach which had worked once before and this led to hope that a Continental Cup would be won during his career to end the talks of a “curse” once and for all.

"I highly doubt it will be 25 seasons between cups again.  It really just depends right now on how patient Corcoran is and how willing he is to build a core from the ground up again.  It sucks how long it takes but to win it all it's often the only solution, then adding to the core once it's mature enough.  Quick fixes just don't seem to work out in the league.  The rebuild in the truest sense is still just beginning, and that's mostly my fault, and what happens when you've got two prime players and nothing else to play with.  But now the pieces are in place and despite a few stumbling blocks with failed draft picks, there's hope on the horizon. " - Lasse Milo

"I admit I don't know a whole lot, but I do know that their GM is a smart guy and will make smart decisions in order to win. Some guys get lucky and can win right away, but it takes time to build a team most of the time, and that's what it seems he is doing. They have a good mix of old and young right now, but a few good prospects waiting to get their shot too. I think they will be a playoff team pretty soon and hopefully a championship contender very, very soon." - Tyler Owens

However, during Season 31, a huge move giving up two first-round picks, including an almost definite top four selection in Season 32, was made nearing the trade deadline to land Vasteras two aging superstars in Jarvis Baldwin and CAL G. This is by no means an article to analyse or criticise that move, but it will be interesting to see how things play out for the Iron Eagles and if they will be able to become a contending force in the tough European Conference. In Vasteras it seems there will always be goals to achieve and the first one should be making the playoffs for more than two seasons in a row. Although even before that, making the playoffs without large gaps in between would be a promising start.

End of Part 27
Special thanks to Tyler Owens, Tyler Edgar, Lasse Milo, and James Bencharski

 

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