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!”

Interview of the Week: Ryan Airston

This week’s interview is with Dakota Jackalopes LW “Flyin’ Ryan” Airston.

SHL Digest: This week, we’re talking with a longtime SHL star who’s had a long and twisting journey this season, Ryan Airston.  Ryan, thanks for speaking with us.

Ryan Airston

Ryan Airston: Hi, everybody!  “Long and twisting journey” is probably an understatement, to be honest.

SHLD: You said it!  Let’s talk a little bit about the year you’ve had.  In the offseason, you signed a contract extension, seemingly putting to rest the rumors that the team couldn’t afford you.  But then, a couple weeks after the season started, one of your teammates got those rumors going again by saying the team should move because attendance was too low.  The team denied the rumors, but then a couple months later, they tried to trade you and Arkady Golynin, only to have the league veto those trades and ultimately assume control of the franchise.  Now you’re closing in on the end of the season, and everything’s up in the air: no one knows where the team will be next year, or whether the GM and coaches will be back, or any of the players either.

RA: Man, it kind of makes me dizzy just hearing all that.

SHLD: With good reason.  So, first of all: how do you feel about everything that’s happened?

RA: Mostly, I feel bad for our fans.  Maybe there haven’t been enough of them to save the team, but they’ve been loyal.  They’ve kept showing up regardless of all the headlines and crazy stories.  And their reward for all that loyalty is they’re probably going to lose their team.  That just sucks.

SHLD: And what about you? How did you feel about almost being traded?

RA: I wasn’t happy to get traded.  Obviously, when I signed the extension here, that showed how much I wanted to stay with this team and these fans.  I hoped that by staying, it was a sign that the payroll cuts were over, and that the team was going to start building again.  I never imagined that less than a year later, I’d find myself on the way out of town, or almost.  I didn’t want to leave my teammates and the organization.  It felt like getting on a lifeboat from a sinking ship, only I was put on the lifeboat against my will.

SHLD: So were you happy when the trade was vetoed?

RA: It was complicated.  I was glad to be back, yeah.  But the whole mess showed just how badly off the team was financially, and with the league taking ownership, we’re all kind of stuck in limbo waiting to see what happens next.

SHLD: If the team does wind up in a new city, will you still want to stay?

RA: I think so, yeah.  I expect that in a new city, we’ll be able to start building again, and that’s exciting.  It’s a lot more fun when you know you’re playing for something.

SHLD: One last question: we’ve gotten a ton of question from people who want to know how your fluffy bunny ranch is doing. Can you provide us with an update?

RA: Doing very well, thanks.  This year’s bunnies are the fluffiest ones yet.  We’re up around 300 bunnies at this point.  If you know someone who wants a fluffy bunny for a pet, tell them to give me a call; I’ll hook them up!

SHLD: Sounds good!  Thanks for another fun interview, Ryan.  Good luck the rest of the season!

RA: It’s next season that I’m focused on at this point, but thanks!

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.

2020 SHL Western All-Star Roster

The roster for the Western Division in the 2020 SHL All-Star Game, which will be held on Wednesday at Kansas City’s Heartland Telecom Center, was announced today by coach Sam Castor.  The selections were as follows:

LW: Rod “Money” Argent, Portland.  The Bluebacks are hot, and they’re quickly building a strong and enthusiastic fan base.  The team’s fans showed their love in the All-Star voting, as they rivaled Hamilton in terms of the largest turnout.  Thanks to the strong support from the Rose City, the Bluebacks wound up with three starting slots.  Among those is Argent, who will appear in the All-Star game for the first time in his career.  The winger is fifth in the league in goals with 18, and has Portland’s second-highest point total with 34.  Argent is a strong two-way player, as reflected by the fact that he leads all Bluebacks forwards in blocks with 27.

D: Ted Keefe, Anchorage.  This marks the first time that a non-Michigan defenseman made the West’s starting lineup.  The strong support of Igloos fans allowed Keefe to finish with the most votes among defensemen.  Although this is Keefe’s first All-Star start, it is the third time that he’ll make an appearance in the game.   Keefe is having a strong year offensively; he is tied for the lead among SHL defenseman in goals with 11.  But it’s defense that’s his primary calling card.  Any unlucky opponent that’s been the victim of his punishing hits can attest to that; his 50 blocks on the season tell the same story.

C: Eddie Costello, Portland.  Last year, the veteran center was traded to Hamilton at the deadline, and went on to play a leading role as the Pistols won their first Vandy.  In the offseason, he signed with Portland, and has led the team to its spot atop the standings at the midway mark.  Those fans returned the favor by making Costello the top overall vote-getter in the West.  (It’s likely that he got support from his former fans in Washington and Hamilton as well.)  Costello’s 36 points are tops on his new team, while his 25 assists land him among the SHL’s top ten.  He’s no slouch defensively, either, with 26 blocks so far this season.

D: Fritz Kronstein, Michigan.  Kronstein continues his streak of All-Star starts, finishing ahead of teammates “Mad Max” Madison (a three-time starter) and Brooks Zabielski, as well as Portland’s Benny Lambert.  This comes as no surprise, in spite of the Wolves’ disappointing first half; Kronstein has started in every All-Star Game to date.  Though Michigan is not performing up to its usual standards, the German-born blueliner continues to produce on both ends, leading the team’s defensive corps with 22 points (including 10 goals, second among Wolves defensemen) and tied for the lead with 59 blocks.

RW: Vince Mango, Portland.  The colorful, high-scoring Mango secures his third All-Star berth and his second start, finishing roughly 1,500 votes ahead of Anchorage’s Nicklas Ericsson.  (It’s sweet payback for Mango; last season, Ericsson nosed him out of a starting slot by less than 800 votes.)  Mango is often regarded around the league as a one-dimensional scorer.  While his 15 goals does place him among the SHL’s top ten, Mango’s game has matured as he and the team have grown.  He has recorded 11 assists so far on the year, and he has even blocked 17 shots.  “Honestly, I never thought I’d see the day when Vince blocked a shot on purpose,” said Castor.  “He’d be afraid of mussing his hair.  But he’s clearly changed, and good for him.”

 

Second Line

LW: Jerry Koons, Anchorage.  Last year’s starter makes it this year on the second line, one of four Igloos chosen for the team by their coach.  Koons has appeared in every All-Star Game so far and has started twice.  Among all Western left-wingers, Koons is the leader in both points (with 37) and assists (with 25).  “I’m sure some people will say I’m a big homer because there are so many of our guys on the team,” said Castor.  “But you tell me which guy didn’t deserve to go.  No question about it that Jerry deserves to be there.”

D: Wyatt Barnes, Saskatchewan.  Barnes, who makes his fourth trip to the All-Star game, is the Shockers’ only representative at the All-Star game this season.  But he is no charity pick; arguably, he is the SHL’s best defenseman so far this half on both ends of the ice.  Only teammate Chris Oflyng has more points among the West’s blueliners than Barnes’ 29.  And no one in the league, in either division or at any position, has more blocks that he does, just one shy of the century mark.  “One of these days, the fans are going to wake up and realize that Barnesy should be starting in this thing,” said Oflyng.

C: Hunter Bailes, Michigan.  In spite of the Wolves’ underperformance so far this season, Castor couldn’t overlook Bailes’ solid campaign for Anchorage’s longtime rival.  Bailes is the Michigan leader in goals (with 14) and points (with 29), and his +14 rating places him within the league’s top ten.  Somewhat surprisingly for one of the league’s consistent stars, this is the first time that Bailes will be appearing in the midseason contest.  He was named to the team in 2017, but he missed the game due to injury; teammate Warren Marlow skated in his place.

D: Benny Lambert, Portland.  The Bluebacks aren’t solely represented by players who were voted in by their enthusiastic fans; Lambert is one of two Portland players chosen by Castor to accompany their starting colleagues.  This is not Lambert’s first All-Star appearance; he was Seattle’s lone representative back in the 2017 contest.  Lambert’s 71 blocks are tops on the Bluebacks, and his 16 assists are tied for second on the team among blueliners.

RW: Nicklas Ericsson, Anchorage.  After Ericsson narrowly lost the starting spot to Mango, there was little doubt that Castor would add his top-line right winger to the squad.  Ericsson is is one of five Western players who has been an All-Star every year.  He’s justifiably renowned for his skills as a passer, and he remains as sharp as ever: he’s tied for second in the league in assists with 31.  Somewhat more surprisingly, he also has more points than anyone else in the West, with 40.

 

Third Line

LW: “Flyin’ Ryan” Airston, Dakota.  Airston, the Jackalopes’ only representative, appears in his third All-Star game.  The fan-favorite winger has been named in rumor after rumor over the last couple of seasons, always supposedly on the verge of being dealt for financial reasons, but he remains in Dakota for the time being, continuing to produce as usual.  Airston leads the Jackalopes in goals with 12, and is tied for the team lead in assists with 15.  “You have to tune all that stuff out and just play your game,” said Airston.  “I think I’ve done a good job with that.”

D: Gary Hermine, Kansas City.  In a surprising pick, Castor tabbed the 22-year-old Hermine as a first-time All-Star.  The Western coach acknowledged that he gave Hermine the nod in part to give the KC crowd another Smoke player to cheer for.  “The fans deserve to see a couple of their own,” Castor said.  But Hermine is also on the team on merit; he’s put together a strong first half with 23 points (7 goals, 16 assists) and 41 blocks.

C: Tom Hoffman, Anchorage.  This pick by Castor definitely raised eyebrows around the league.  How could the coach pass over his own top-line center, Jake Frost?  How could the star who has started each previous All-Star contest miss the cut entirely?  According to Castor, the move came at Frost’s request.  “He told me, ‘Hoff’s outplaying me so far.  He deserves to go, not me,” said the coach.  “Of course, Frosty might have just wanted a few days off for a change.”  When the Igloos acquired Hoffman from New York in the offseason, the move was regarded as a cheap flyer at a position of need.  To the degree that fans knew Hoffman at all, it was as a draft bust who hadn’t lived up to his potential.  But he’s undergone a career revival in baby.  He has indeed produced more goals (12) and assists (16) than Frost so far on the year.  In addition, he leads the team in plus-minus with a +14 rating.

D: Sebastian Pomfret, Anchorage.  This spot originally belonged to Chris Oflyng of Saskatchewan, but the Shockers blueliner suffered an injury a couple games before the break.  To replace Oflyng, Castor went with a familiar face, tapping his own man Pomfret.  It’s the second straight All-Star appearance for the 25-year-old.  Pomfret is on track for a career-best season, putting up 19 points (5 goals, 14 assists) and blocking 61 shots to go with his +7 rating.

RW: Bengt Frederiksson, Kansas City.  The Swedish winger was the #1 pick in the draft, and he has completely lived up to the hype so far amid an otherwise forgettable year for the host city.  His 15 goals puts him among the league’s top ten and atop all rookies.  Similarly, his 36 points places him on the SHL leaderboard; no other freshman is within a dozen points of him.  “I am glad that I will have a chance to enjoy this honor among our fans,” said Frederiksson.

 

Goalies

Ty Worthington, Anchorage.  For the first time, Michigan’s Dirk Lundquist is not the Western starter.  And it’s not a fluke driven by the voters; in fact, Worthington has outplayed the mighty Bear so far this season.  His 2.11 GAA is third in the SHL, and his .933 save percentage leads the league.  His underlying numbers belie a 13-10-1 record, which speaks more to a lack of offensive support than anything else.  “It’s nice to see Ty get the top slot for a change,” said Castor.  “He’s earned it.”

Jesse Clarkson, Portland.  In another eyebrow-raising move, Castor elected not to pick Lundquist as Worthington’s backup.  Instead, the Western coach turned to Clarkson, making him the fifth Blueback to appear on the roster.  Clarkson was voted in as the starter of the Eastern team last season, when he played for New York.  After signing with Portland in the offseason, Clarkson rebounded from a shaky start to post his typically solid numbers.  His 16 victories lead the SHL, and he’s backing them up with a skinny 2.68 GAA and a stout .919 save percentage.