Jackalopes Dismiss GM Mindegaard, Coach Dahlgren

The Dakota Jackalopes are likely in for an offseason of change.  After the league assumed control of the team in midseason, they will have a new owner next year.  They will almost certainly be playing in a new city under a new name.  Many of the team’s players might be headed elsewhere.  It’s hard to know exactly what the Jackalopes look like when they take the ice in 2021.  But on Saturday, the organization took their first steps toward a fresh start, parting ways with GM Paul Mindegaard and coach Flim Dahlgren.  Both GM and coach were at the end of their contracts, and the organization put out a press release calling the departures a “mutual decison.”

Mindegaard, a South Dakota native, has been in charge of the Dakota franchise since the SHL’s beginning.  He won some plaudits in the early years for constructing a competitive team that, while not quite as strong as the reigning powers in Anchorage and Michigan, played entertaining hockey.  According to team sources, however, those years were marred by a power struggle between Mindegaard and then-coach Harold Engellund.  Mindegaard prevailed when Engellund was fired after the 2017 season.  In the long run, however, the winner may have been Engellund; the coach was hired by the Seattle Sailors (now the Portland Bluebacks), and is about to make his second straight postseason trip.

The Jackalopes, meanwhile, slowly disintegrated as then-owner Roger Scott grew tired of the team’s mounting losses and directed a reduction in payroll.  Mindegaard wound up presiding over a series of trades that sent virtually all of the team’s high-salaried players packing, and Dakota sank from a promising would-be contender to a rebuilding basket case.  According to team sources, the primary reasons that Mindegaard kept his job were his close relationship with Scott and his willingness to avoid speaking publicly about the team’s financial issues.

“It’s been an honor to be GM here for as long as I have,” Mindegaard said.  “I’m sorry that we were never able to bring a Vandy here, but this has been a great experience.”

Flim Dahlgren

Dahlgren became coach of the Jackalopes in 2018, succeeding Engellund.  In three seasons with the team, he compiled an 63-110-19 record.  In spite of Dakota’s undistinguished performance, Dahlgren earned praise for mentoring his young players, insulating the team from the off-ice distractions regarding financial woes, and for his philosophical musings in post-game press conferences.  He managed to keep the team competitive even after the craziness around this year’s trading deadline, when the Jackalopes attempted to trade stars Ryan Airston and Arkady Golynin and saw the league veto the deals.

At the end of last season, there was a wave of rumors that Dahlgren was considering resignation due to the team’s seemingly endless salary-slashing trades.  But both team and coach vehemently denied those rumors, and he stayed with the team.

“With all the craziness going on around the team and all the changes on the roster, things could have really gone south in the locker room,” said Airston.  “But that didn’t happen, and Coach Dahlgren really deserves the credit for that.”

It is considered likely that Dahlgren will be considered for most or all of the coaching openings this offseason.  Other teams that will be seeking new bench bosses include the Michigan Gray Wolves (after Ron Wright resigned in the middle of the season) and the New York Night (who fired Nick Foster last month).  The Washington Galaxy are reportedly considering whether to dismiss Peter James; for now, the team says that it is “in the evaluation process.”

At this time, the Jackalopes are the only team with an opening in the GM’s office.

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.

Jackalopes Player Says Team Should Move

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.

Joe Freelander

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.”

Did Jackalopes Coach Nearly Walk Away?

The Dakota Jackalopes have had a tough season in every respect.  An early injury to star winger “Flyin’ Ryan” Airston undermined any hope that the Jackalopes had of producing a respectable season; at the same time, the flailing performance of the Kansas City Smoke kept Dakota from earning the top draft pick.  The team continued to bleed payroll and talent, trading their two top defensemen and even dealing their recently-acquired free agent goalie just weeks after signing him.  In the wake of the latter deal, starting netminder Christien Andersson slammed the organization as “cheap.”

This week, a surprising and discouraging rumor made the rounds: after only two seasons on the job, head coach Flim Dahlgren allegedly had to be talked out of resigning.  According to the rumor, Dahlgren was deeply concerned that the team’s alleged rebuilding effort had no end in sight, further fueling speculation that the team is in serious financial trouble.

Flim Dahlgren

With Dakota, Dahlgren has compiled a record of 43-76-9.  Coaching the Jackalopes, a young team whose roster has been in constant flux the last several seasons, is no easy task.  However, Dahlgren has generally earned positive reviews during his tenure.  He is regarded as a good teacher for young players, and has maintained a generally positive clubhouse atmosphere despite the losing records and salary-saving trades.

“If Flim can’t make things work over there, I don’t know who can,” said one SHL coach.

Given that, it would be a deeply distressing sign if Dahlgren were to walk away, especially without another job in mind.  (He is not reported to be in the running for the Boston Badgers’ newly vacant coaching position.)  Team sources say that the coach only agreed to stay after several lengthy conversations with GM Paul Mindegaard, during which they talked about the team’s payroll, its commitment to re-signing its own young players, and whether Dakota plans to trade away more high-salary players (of whom there is really only one left: Airston).

Dahlgren has often been eloquent in his postgame interviews – at the end of last season, he turned a state-of-the-team press conference into a philosophical musing on winning and losing – and he spoke thoughtfully in response to questions about his rumored resignation.

Asked whether he had planned to resign, the coach replied, “I can tell you that I intend to honor my contract [which runs through next season], and that I plan to return next season.”  Responding to a question about the Jackalopes’ finances, Dahlgren said, “There’s a lot of talk about that, and a lot of foolish rumors.  Certainly, I’ve gotten all my paychecks on time, and so have our players.  This is a small market, so we cannot expect to run New York-size payrolls.  But that does not mean we’re out panhandling for bus fare.”

He went on to discuss the team’s future.  “When I signed up for this job, I was aware the team was moving into a rebuilding phase and that there might not be a lot of wins in the near future,” Dahlgren said.  “There is a difference between rebuilding and perpetual destruction, to be sure.  The last couple of years have been challenging for the fans and the players both, but it’s a worthwhile pain as long as we are building to something.  I have spoken with Paul and the front office about their vision for the future, and I am confident that we have a core from which we can build.”

Mindegaard, who also declined to confirm or deny the rumors, praised Dahlgren to reporters.  “Speaking on behalf of the organization, we’ve been more than satisfied with Flim’s performance,” the GM said.  “I’ve talked with him, and we’re on the same page about where we’re headed.  I’m grateful for what he’s done the last couple of seasons, and I think the future will be even better.”