Igloos Co-Owner Buys Jackalopes, Moving Them to Milwaukee in ’21

Coming into the 2020 offseason, the SHL had one item atop their to-do list: find a buyer for the Dakota Jackalopes.  The league assumed control of the Jackalopes from then-owner Roger Scott at the trading deadline, as the team encountered severe financial distress.  They had no interest in continuing to operate the team next season, so they were eager to find a new owner as soon as possible.  They understood that the new owner was likely to relocate the team.  They didn’t expect, however, that the new owner would already be a member of the SHL family.

Colin Mills, co-owner of the Anchorage Igloos, officially agreed this weekend to purchase the Jackalopes franchise.  Mills had reportedly been in talks with the league for several weeks, and the other owners unanimously approved the sale on Sunday.  Upon taking ownership of the team, Mills announced that he would be moving it to Milwaukee.

“I am pleased to announce that this saga has finally reached its conclusion,” said SHL Commissioner Perry Mitchell.  “We have tried for multiple years to seek an outcome that would allow the Jackalopes to remain in the Dakotas, but it has become painfully clear that the market was not viable.  Now, the franchise has a new lease on life, with an owner who has the means and the track record of success, and in a city that can support it.  I’m excited for great days ahead!”

For Mills, the choice of city was a no-brainer.  “I love Milwaukee,” he said.  “It’s a lively, fun city and a great place for a hockey team.  Honestly, I can’t understand why there hasn’t been a team there from the start.  I can’t wait to bring the Vandy to the shores of Lake Michigan!”

The new owner said that his first priority would be to hire a general manager, and then work with the new GM to hire a coach.  The Jackalopes did not renew the contracts of GM Paul Mindegaard or coach Flim Dahlgren at the end of the season.  Mills said that the new GM would have free rein in shaping the roster – and a healthy budget with which to do so.  Dakota finished the season with the league’s smallest payroll.

“As an owner, I want to find the smartest GM I can, and then trust him to evaluate the talent and build a winning team,” Mills said.  “One thing’s for sure, though: the days of salary dumps and avoiding high-dollar players are over.  I want our team to have a competitive payroll, and we certainly have plenty of room under the cap to go stock up.”

The Jackalopes players reacted positively to news of their new owner.  “I’m going to miss our fans in Dakota,” said LW Ryan Airston.  “They were the best.  But playing in front of bigger crowds, and knowing that we’ll be able to re-sign guys and go after big-name free agents, that’s really exciting!  It’s such a change from the last few years that I’m still a little bit in shock.”

“I’m looking forward to having some stability, finally,” said LW Joe Freelander, who earlier this year called for the Jackalopes to move.  “There’s been so much churn in the locker room, so many questions about what was going to happen.  Now we have some answers and a stable future, and that will allow us to just focus on hockey.”

Mills said that he plans to hold a rally in Milwaukee soon, at which he will unveil the team’s new name and logo.

And what happens to the Igloos?  Mills sold his share of the team to his co-owner, Leslie Mills.  She seems to be looking forward to sole ownership.  “Finally, I have total control!” Leslie Mills said.  “It’s all mine!  Hahahahaha!”

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.

Several New Faces Among SHL Annual Awards

At the SHL’s fourth annual awards banquet, Commissioner Perry Mitchell handed out trophies honoring the league’s best players and coaches.  As usual, the awards were chosen based on votes from SHL players, coaches, and media.

The commissioner also took a moment to reflect on how the league has grown and changed over the five seasons under his leadership.  “The SHL has proven itself over the last five years,” said Commissioner Mitchell.  “We’ve had our challenges and bumps in the road, but we’re established now and we’re here to stay. And we’ve got a lot of exciting young players coming along the way.” As if to underline Mitchell’s words, this year’s crop included a number of first-time winners.

The 2019 award winners are as follows:

Most Valuable Player: LW Steven Alexander, Hamilton Pistols

There was little question who would receive the MVP honor for 2019.  Alexander and the Pistols went on a remarkable journey this season.  Early in the season, the star winger spent a night in jail with several teammates after his 26th birthday celebration ended in a barfight.  Alexander wound up stumbling through an underwhelming first half.

Just before the All-Star break, though, he got married in a ceremony at the Pistols’ arena.  Married life seemed to spark a change in Alexander; he scored 38 of his 52 goals and recorded 70 of his 100 points in a record-setting second half.  With their star leading the way, Hamilton surged to their second playoff berth.  They ultimately capped off their run by winning their first championship.

“Alex is a heart-and-soul player,” said Pistols coach Keith Shields.  “He plays every game like it could be his last, and he always wants to be the first one over the wall when we need a hero.  We never would have won this championship without him leading the way.”

Other MVP finalists included Alexander’s teammate Calvin Frye, Seattle’s Vince Mango, and Hershey’s Justin Valentine.

Rookie of the Year: D Bastien Chouinard, Kansas City Smoke

In a surprising upset, Chouinard received the Rookie of the Year nod over C Alain Beauchesne of the Boston Badgers.  Ironically, the two of them have been competing for a long time: the 20-year-old Chouinard and the 21-year-old Beauchesne both grew up near Montreal, and they often played against each other in youth leagues around Quebec.

“I think this is the first team I ever beat him at anything,” quipped Chouinard.

The young blueliner was chosen third overall by the Smoke in this year’s draft, and he proved to be one of the few bright spots in a tough year in KC.  Chouinard had a better-than-expected year offensively, notching 38 points (5 goals, 33 assists).  But it was his ferocious, hard-hitting defensive work that earned the most notice.  Chouinard, nicknamed “Bastard” for his relentless and unforgiving style, led all SHL players with 119 penalty minutes on the season.

“We didn’t have a lot to feel good about this season,” said Smoke coach Randy Bergner, “but watching Bastien thrive has been a real treat.  If he can build on what he showed us this season, and some of the other guys can do the same, I might not need to chug Pepto-Bismol every night next season.”

Chouinard got the nod over Beauchesne, Anchorage’s Rudolf Kerasov, Saskatchewan’s Blake Blacklett, and Dakota’s Calle Markstrom.

Coach of the Year: Harold Engellund, Seattle Sailors

2019 marked the Sailors’ final season in Seattle, but they went out on a high note: they were the most improved team since 2018 (going from 58 points to 80) despite featuring a roster little different from the previous year, and securing their first-ever trip to the postseason.  The voters honored the Sailors’ improvement by selecting Engellund as Coach of the Year.  For the veteran bench boss, who endured a rocky tenure in Dakota before coming to the Pacific Northwest, the award represents sweet redemption.

“Coach Engellund deserves this award more than anyone,” said Sailors RW Vince Mango.  “He’s taken a ragtag group of individual talents and molded us into a team.  He even got me to start passing, which is an accomplishment all its own.”

Engellund was chosen over Hamilton’s Keith Shields, Hershey’s Chip Barber, and Anchorage’s Sam Castor to receive the award.

Sharp Shooter Award: RW Rick “The Stick” Nelson, New York Night

The Sharp Shooter Award is one of two awards that is not given out base on the outcome of a vote.  Instead, the honor is awarded to the player who finishes the season with the highest goal total.  This year, the award went to Nelson, who finished the 2019 season with 54 goals, placing him two ahead of Hamilton’s Alexander and Frye.

It’s the first time that the high-scoring winger has captured the award, and the second time that a Night player has won (C Brock Manning earned the honor in 2016).  This award received a tepid reaction, as Nelson is not widely popular in league circles.

“I know nobody wanted me to win, because they can’t acknowledge my greatness,” said Nelson.  “But the numbers don’t lie.  And they can boo me all they want, but they can’t deny that I’m an award winner, yo. Call me whatever you want, but you got to bend the knee.”

Commissioner’s Trophy: LW Steven Alexander, Hamilton Pistols and LW Chase Winchester, New York Night

Similar to the Sharp Shooter Award, the Commissioner’s Trophy is not awarded based on the result of a vote.  Instead, the award goes to the player who finishes with the highest point total.  For the first time ever, this award was split between two players.

Alexander, whose eventful season was detailed above, finished with a career high in assists (48), which allowed him to reach the century mark in points for the first time his career.  The Commissioner’s Trophy joins the MVP and the Vandy on Alexander’s suddenly crowded award shelf.

“I love the fact that he’s finally getting the recognition he deserves,” said Pistols RW Claude Lafayette of his teammate and longtime friend.  “He never stops working, and he earned this.”

Winchester, meanwhile, remains one of the league’s top passers.  Thanks to a strong offensive year from linemates Nelson and Brock Manning, Winchester managed to record a league-leading 86 assists, which made up the bulk of his 100 points on the season.  This is his second Commissioner’s Trophy; he also won it three years ago.

“Chase doesn’t get a lot of play when we’re talking about the top players in the league, and that’s not fair,” said Night coach Nick Foster.  “Maybe when we win the Vandy next year, he’ll finally get the respect he deserves.  Probably not, though.”

Goalie of the Year: Dirk Lundquist, Michigan Gray Wolves

Last season, this award went to Quebec’s Riki Tiktuunen in a stunning upset.  This time, however, the award went to the only other person ever to win it: Lundquist.  The Wolves had a very disappointing season, finishing fourth in the West, but Lundquist put up his usual excellent numbers.  The goalie known as “The Bear” went 29-19-6 with a 1.71 goals-against average and a .937 save percentage.  Despite Michigan’s subpar performance, Lundquist tied for the league lead in wins, and as usual he led in GAA and save percentage.

“We’ve got a lot of soul-searching to do after the season we had,” said Wolves coach Ron Wright.  “But that’s not true for The Bear.  He’s been Mr. Reliable time and again, and he saved our bacon in plenty of games we didn’t deserve to win.”

Other finalists for the award included Tiktuunen, Hamilton’s Lasse Koskinen, and Anchorage’s Ty Worthington.

Defenseman of the Year: Clayton Risch, Hamilton Pistols

Voting for this award was surprisingly scattered.  Michigan’s top defensemen, Fritz Kronstein and Max Madison, have won the last two times, but the Wolves’ disappointing season knocked them out of contention.  Some thought that Hershey’s Reese Milton – a regular runner-up for this award – might finally break through.

Instead, the award went to Hamilton’s Risch, who beat Milton in a close contest.  The voting took place before the playoffs, so the Pistols’ title was not taken into consideration.  It’s believed that Risch struck voters as a balanced two-way player, providing offense (7 goals, 34 assists) and defense (72 penalty minutes, +20 rating, and a highlight reel full of devastating checks) in equal measure.

“It’s nice to see Crusher get some love,” said Shields, using Risch’s nickname.  “He’s a real quality two-way player, and he’s been an underrated factor in our success.”

In addition to Milton, other finalists included Seattle’s Benny Lambert, Saskatchewan’s Wyatt Barnes, and Chouinard.

2019 SHL Finals – Game 6

HAMILTON PISTOLS 5, ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 3

(Hamilton wins, 4-2)

In the locker room before the third period of today’s Game 6, Hamilton Pistols coach Keith Shields looked for the right words to inspire his struggling team.  After forty minutes of play, the defending champions Anchorage Igloos led the Pistols 3-1.  The Igloos were just a period away from erasing Hamilton’s 3-1 series lead in the SHL Finals, setting up a winner-take-all Game 7 in Anchorage tomorrow.  The momentum was firmly on the side of the champs, and the Pistols’ hopes for the Vandy were rapidly slipping away.

“I knew I didn’t want it to go to seven,” said Shields.  “I knew our best chance to win was today, even having to come from behind.”

And so the coach, who is a devout Christian, talked to his players about the story of David and Goliath.  “The Israelites were saved because one man was brave enough to take on this giant on the other side,” the coach said.  “And with God’s strength behind him, David killed Goliath.  Who among you is brave enough to defeat our enemy?  If that’s you, step forward like David did.”

One by one, the Pistols stepped forward.  Then they went out and staged the biggest comeback in Finals history, scoring four unanswered goals to take a 5-3 win and clinch their first-ever SHL title.

The first player to answer Shields’ challenge was, unsurprisingly, LW Steven Alexander.  The winger has been Hamilton’s unquestioned leader since the beginning, a brave and ambitious player who discovered a new level to his game after tying the knot in mid-season.  He got the team going in the right direction right from the opening faceoff of the third, marching down the ice and scoring just 16 seconds into the frame.

“Coach Shields had gotten us fired up with his speech, but someone needed to get our comeback started,” said D Hercules Mulligan.  “And of course it was Alex.  That guy knows no fear.”

Alexander got things rolling, but Hamilton needed another hero.  Up stepped one of their oldest players.  33-year-old RW Kenny Patterson considered retiring after last season, before signing an extension with the Pistols to fill a hole on the second line.  And when his team needed him most today, he came through with the tying and (ultimately) winning goals.

The tying tally came on a power play, as Igloos D Tony Citrone was penalized for tripping.  Patterson stationed himself in front of the Anchorage net, absorbing hacks and slashes from defenders.  And when D Raymond Smyth fired a shot toward the net, Patterson deflected it just beyond the reach of Igloos goalie Ty Worthington and just under the crossbar.

The go-ahead goal came on a similar tip play on 5-on-5 just over two minutes after the previous one.  This time, it was D Clayton Risch firing from the blue line while Patterson stood in the slot.  The puck bounced off Patterson’s stick and knuckled past a stunned Worthington.  The Igloos protested, arguing that Patterson’s stick had been above the crossbar when it struck the puck.  Upon review, though, it was deemed a good goal.  The fans at Arctic Circle Arena booed, while the Igloos sagged on the bench.

“They couldn’t believe it,” Patterson said.  “They’d been so sure they had this one in the bag, and then we came back and they didn’t know what to do.”

RW Claude Lafayette has been a close friend of Alexander’s since childhood and shares a line with the star.  So it only seems fitting that he gave Hamilton an insurance goal with less than seven minutes left, finishing off an odd-man rush that Alexander started.  The old friends wrapped each other in an embrace and screamed in celebration, while the crowd fell into a stunned silence.

The Igloos tried to mount a rally, but the fired-up Pistols overwhelmed them.  Anchorage’s final push was thwarted when LW Jerry Koons took an ill-timed tripping penalty with three minutes remaining.  A frustrated Koons slammed his stick against the glass and buried his head in his hands as he sat in the sin bin.

“I feel like I cost us the championship,” said Koons.  “I took a stupid, stupid penalty at the worst possible time.”

As the final horn sounded, the Pistols raced toward their blue line to celebrate.  They pounded each other on the back and shouted, “We won, we won, we won!  We won!”  When Commissioner Perry Mitchell presented them with the Vandy, Alexander took a long lap around the ice, tears streaming down his cheeks as he contemplated the team’s accomplishment.

“I have lived to see our glory!” said Alexander in the locker room, as his teammates poured beer and champagne over his head.  “It’s been an amazing year for me, getting married and winning the title, and this is a new high.  When our children tell our story, they’ll tell the story of tonight.”

Shields ran around the locker room, hugging his players and doing his best to dodge the beer showers.  “Goliath is dead!” shouted the coach. “With our faith and our bravery, we stood up against our mightiest opponent and we took him down.  All hail the heroes!”

A somber Sam Castor, coach of the Igloos, congratulated the victorious Pistols.  “Make no mistake, they earned this title,” said Castor.  “It was a hard-fought series, but they were the better team in the end.  They deserve this.”

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