The Dakota Jackalopes’ financial struggles have been an open secret around the SHL for several seasons now. The team has parted with almost all of its high-salaried players, cutting their payroll to the lowest in the league. Unsurprisingly, the team’s record has declined along with its payroll, and attendance has drooped as well, a vicious cycle for the league’s smallest market.
By and large, Dakota’s players have been quiet about the team’s off-ice troubles. Last season, goalie Christien Adamsson attacked the organization as “cheap” in a postgame rant. (Adamsson wound up signing with Hershey as a free agent in the offseason.) While some of Adamsson’s teammates acknowledged the truth of his gibes off the record, they haven’t publicly expressed any reservations about the team’s situation.
That changed this week, when LW “Jumbo Joe” Freelander – frustrated with the lack of progress on his contract negotiations – spoke bluntly about the Jackalopes’ financial limits. Not only that, he went farther still, calling for the team to be sold and moved.
Freelander spoke to the media after Thursday’s 3-2 loss to Michigan. The winger’s rookie deal expires at the end of next season, and he said that his agent has been trying to discuss an extension with GM Paul Mindegaard. “And what he keeps hearing is, ‘Sure, great, we want to get this done, we’ll get back to you with an offer,’ and nothing happens.” Freelander said that his agent tried proposing a figure to get things moving, only to receive the same polite but noncommittal response from Mindegaard.
“Eventually, I realized that last year they did the same thing to Matt,” said Freelander, referring to ex-teammate Matt Cherner. The Jackalopes stated, publicly and privately, that they wanted to sign Cherner to an extension. But they reportedly never put forth a firm offer, and they ultimately traded him to the Quebec Tigres at the deadline. Cherner signed with the Boston Badgers in the offseason.
“And if that’s the game, they should just say so,” said Freelander. “If the real story is that they can’t find enough change between the couch cushions to re-sign me and they’re going to let me go, then be honest. At least then I know where I stand. But let’s skip the song and dance.”
Freelander went on, “I mean, we all know that this is a tiny market, and the crowds are getting smaller and smaller. We’ve got eyes. But if you’re so broke that you can’t keep key players like Matt and me, then shouldn’t they be looking at moving this team somewhere else? I know nobody wants to say that, and we’re all supposed to pretend it’s going to work out. But at some point, someone needs to tell the truth.”
Mindegaard claimed that Freelander and his agent his misunderstood the situation. “It’s true that Joe’s agent has contacted us about an extension, which I appreciate,” the Jackalopes GM said. “I told him that we were still evaluating our plans, and that we’d get back to him once we had a clearer sense of things. I’m sure Joe was disappointed by that, but it’s just the business.”
The GM argued, as he has in the past, that claims about the team’s financial straits were overblown. “Has attendance been where we’d like it to be this year? No it hasn’t,” said Mindegaard. “We’re in the middle of a rebuild, and we knew that could happen. But it’s irresponsible to claim that this market can’t support a team, or that the team needs to move. I’m fully committed, and ownership is committed, to making it work here in Dakota for the long haul.”
Jackalopes coach Flim Dahlgren, who reportedly considered resigning in the offseason due to concern about the direction of the team’s rebuild, declined to comment on Freelander’s remarks. “Joe is a grown man and is entitled to his opinion,” Dahlgren said. “As for my opinion, I don’t have one. Team finances are not my responsibility, which is fortunate for everyone. I am focused on my coaching, and that’s how I’ll keep it.”