Deadline Chaos: League Takes Control of Jackalopes After Vetoing Trades

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.

Smoke, Jackalopes Make Trade, Raise Questions

Ordinarily, a trade between two of the SHL’s worst teams wouldn’t attract much attention.  Just shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic, a cynic might say.  But this week’s deal between the Dakota Jackalopes and Kansas City Smoke raised eyebrows around the league, and prompted the persistent whispers about the Jackalopes’ financial stability to grow a bit louder.

On its face, the deal looks like an old-fashioned challenge trade.  The Smoke shipped G Brooks Copeland and D Geoff Moultrie to Dakota in exchange for backup netminder Dennis Wampler and reserve D Terry “T-Rex” Hendricks.  There’s a case to be made that the parties involved could use a change of scenery.

Geoff Moultrie
Brooks Copeland

The 24-year-old Copeland began the season as KC’s starting goalie, and the team hoped the former Michigan draft pick would seize the opportunity.  However, he quickly lost the job to rookie Jim Fleetwood; he was later banished to the minors after compiling an 0-5-0 record with an unsightly 5.00 GAA and an .843 save percentage.

Kansas City acquired the 22-year-old Moultrie from Quebec last season, but struggled to find a spot in the Smoke’s blueline rotation.  Like Copeland, he was demoted to Omaha after recording a single goal and a -6 rating in 8 games with KC this season.  He had reportedly asked for a trade.

Like Copeland and Moultrie, the players KC received had worn out their welcome with their former team.

Dennis Wampler
Terry Hendricks

The 24-year-old Wampler has underwhelmed for Dakota this season, going 1-4-0 with a 4.50 GAA and an .865 save percentage.  According to sources within the organization, the Jackalopes were considering sending him to the minors before working out the trade.

The 24-year-old Hendricks was drafted by Dakota in 2016 and became a fan favorite due to his hard-hitting style.  However, his ice time has steadily decreased from season to season, and he seemed virtually certain to leave in free agency this offseason.  He appeared in 7 games for the Jackalopes this season, recording 2 assists.

So why the fuss about the deal?  In a word, money.  Dakota is the SHL’s smallest market, and their financial troubles have been an open secret for several years.  The organization has pared payroll sharply in the last couple seasons, causing fan discontent to grow and attendance to shrink.  It’s a negative spiral that may ultimately force the team to relocate.

This year, according to rival GMs, Dakota has been trying to dump its few remaining high-salary players.  They’ve aggressively shopped their top defensive pairing of Matt Cherner and Rusty Anderson, both of whom are on expiring deals.  They haven’t directly shopped star winger “Flyin’ Ryan” Airston, but they’ve said to be listening to trade proposals.  Dakota’s payroll is among the league’s lowest; if those players (especially Airston) are traded, they’d be well under $10 million, an alarming figure in a league with a $25 million salary cap.

Given that, it’s hard to ignore that the trade saves the Jackalopes $650,000 in salary.  While it’s not certain that this motivated the deal, it did raise some red flags around the league.

Trading Wampler, in particular, seems curious.  The Jackalopes signed him to a three-year deal worth $750,000 per season.  The contract was intended in part to reassure skeptical fans that Dakota was willing to spend.  Could the organization really have soured on him after less than half a season?

Wampler seemed perplexed by the trade.  “When I signed on with [the Jackalopes], I thought we were making a long-term commitment to each other,” the goalie told reporters.  “I knew it was going to be a long season, but I thought we were building toward the future.  A month later, I’m packing my bags.  Go figure.  But hey, I like barbecue, so KC should be fun!”

As if to prove his value to his new club, Wampler debuted on Thursday, stopping 24 of 25 shots to lead the Smoke to a 2-1 win over Quebec.

Jackalopes GM Paul Mindegaard vigorously denied that he’d made the trade for financial reasons.  “I know everyone thinks we’re passing the hat in the stands to keep the lights on, but it isn’t true,” Mindegaard said at the press conference.  “We made this deal for hockey reasons.  Brooks Copeland is a promising young netminder; we’ve had our eye on him for a while.  In the right environment, he can thrive.  Geoff Moultrie is a rugged two-way defenseman who fits right in with the corps of young, talented blueliners we’re trying to create.  That’s what matters to us.  We didn’t make this trade just to make payroll.”

The deal didn’t seem to trouble the team.  In their first game post-trade, the Jackalopes tied New York 2-2, snapping their 11-game losing streak.

Smoke GM Garth Melvin, meanwhile, likes his team’s return in the trade.  “We’re real glad to have Wamp on board,” Melvin said.  “He’s a rising young player, and I look forwarded to seeing what he and Fleet can do together.  And T-Rex is a great young D-man.  Our fans are going to love him!  We might not win the Vandy this year, but we’re in for a fun season.”

KC Expansion Team Unveils Name, Staff

The SHL expansion team taking the ice in Kansas City next season officially has a name: the Smoke.  The team also now has a president and a general manager, whom owner Hal Messinger introduced at a ceremony at the KC Live! event pavilion in the city’s downtown Power and Light District on Wednesday.

“We’re taking our first steps toward building a great organization that the whole Kansas City community can get behind,” said Messinger.

The team’s name was chosen from over 1,000 possibilities submitted by the fans.  Smoke won out over four other finalists: Crowns, Burnt Ends, Cougars, and Bluesmen.  The name “Smoke” obviously references Kansas City’s history as a barbecue mecca, but Messinger hopes the name will have a double meaning.  “We hope our players will be like smoke: elusive and hard to get hold of,” the owner said.

In addition to unveiling the team’s logo and distributing free merch to hundreds of excited fans, Messinger also introduced the team’s newly-hired general manager and president.

Garth Melvin

The Smoke’s GM will be veteran hockey executive Garth Melvin.  The 62-year-old Melvin has held various coaching and front-office positions for the last two decades, dating back to a stint as head coach of the ABA’s Long Beach Leopards back in the late ’90s.  Most recently, Melvin has been working in the league office as executive vice president of hockey operations, so he has a good sense of the league and its talent pool.

“I love jazz, blues, and ‘cue, so KC is my kind of town,” said Melvin, to wild applause from the crowd.  “I can’t wait to get to work putting together a team that can bring us home a trophy.”

Eddie Whitmore

Messinger’s choice for team president will make SHL history.  Eddie Whitmore is a Kansas City native who has been working as a vice president for Messinger’s basketball team, the Knights.  With his new position, he becomes the first African-American front-office executive in the SHL.

“When I was a kid growing up in Blue Hills, I never imagined that I would wind up doing something like this,” said Whitmore.  “I can’t even say it’s a dream come true, ’cause I never dreamed this was possible.”

Whitmore hopes to draw a diverse fan base to Smoke games.  “I want to smash the image of hockey as a white man’s sport,” said Whitmore.  “Kansas City is a wonderfully diverse place, and I want to draw all kinds of fans to our games.  I’ve got some ideas how to do that.  But the biggest thing we can do is create a team and experience that’s a lot of fun.  I want to make this team a happening in our community.”

The Smoke’s home arena, Heartland Telecom Center, is located right across the street from KC Live! in the heart of downtown.  “I can’t wait for next year when I can get off work, head over over to the Power and Light District, get a couple drinks and some great food, then go see a Smoke game,” said 33-year-old Billy Rockwell of nearby Independence.  “It’s going to be epic.”