Typically, at the trading deadline, the highlight is the big deals that have been made, as teams pick up the missing pieces for a playoff run. This season in the SHL, however, the story was the deals that weren’t made, as the league took the unprecedented step of vetoing a pair of trades by the Dakota Jackalopes, leading to a chaotic series of events that ended with the league taking control of the franchise.
The Jackalopes’ financial problems have been an open secret around the league for several years. They play in the smallest market in the league, and their attendance has dwindled considerably as the team’s record has declined; as a result, the team has traded away almost all of its high-salary players. Rumors have periodically swirled that Dakota cannot make payroll or is on the verge of folding. Jackalopes officials have consistently denied rumors false.
But at Wednesday’s trading deadline, Dakota struck a pair of deals moving their highest-salary players remaining. One deal sent LW “Flyin’ Ryan” Airston, the team’s longtime star, to the Kansas City Smoke in exchange for LW Veikko Sikanen and a 1st-round draft pick. The other sent RW Arkady Golynin to the Hershey Bliss in exchange for C Yegor Nestorov and a 1st-round pick.
Several teams, including the Jackalopes, have made salary-shedding trades in the past. But this pair of deals raised a red flag with the league office. Dakota’s total payroll is just $15.3 million – already the league’s lowest – and the combined salaries of Airston and Golynin are nearly half that total. In addition, both deals reported involved millions in cash being sent to the Jackalopes; this kind of direct cash transfer has never happened before in the SHL.
“As a rule, I’m very reluctant to get involved made between consenting teams,” said SHL Commissioner Perry Mitchell. “But when a team cuts its payroll to the point that it they can’t ice a competitive squad, that’s a problem. If a team essentially tells its fanbase that it’s not going to even try to compete, that’s a problem.”
The Jackalopes, as well as their trading partners, reacted to the vetoed deals with outrage.
“We don’t think the league has any business getting involved in our deals,” said Jackalopes GM Paul Mindegaard. “We’ve made no secret of the fact that we’re in a rebuilding phase, and for the league to step in and prevent us from acquiring assets, well, that’s hurting our ability to compete in the long term.”
“From our perspective, [the veto] really wrecked our shot at completing a deadline deal,” said Bliss GM Scott Lawrence. “We had a deal that both sides agreed to, that gave our team the upgrade we needed. Then suddenly, we find out the deal’s a no-go, and we don’t have time before the deadline to execute a Plan B. So that really kneecapped us.”
“Acquiring Ryan would have been a game-changer for us,” said Smoke GM Garth Melvin. “We were excited, our fans were excited, and we felt like we had the firepower to be competitive in the West. But the league ripped that away from us, and it really feels unfair.”
The players involved weren’t too happy either. “Honestly, I’ve got whiplash from the whole thing,” said Airston. “I’ve played my whole career here, and I signed an extension this off-season because I wanted to stay. Then with no warning, I’m gone. And then I’m not. And now I’m here, wondering if the team can afford to pay me for the rest of the season.”
Mindegaard and owner Roger Scott argued that the Jackalopes needed to make the deals for financial reasons. They argued that without the payroll savings and the cash payments, they would not be able to make payroll at month’s end. This led the league to take a closer look at the team’s financial situation, and by week’s end, they had taken control of the franchise from Scott.
“Obviously, this is not a situation we wanted to find ourselves in,” said Commissioner Mitchell. “But it was clear after examining the books that the Dakota franchise was at a very real risk of folding in midseason, so we had to act.”
The commissioner said that the league would plan to sell the team to another owner after the season. He added that the team would almost certainly be moved to another city, but that they will finish the season in Dakota.