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.

Bliss Celebrate V-Day in “Sweetest” Style

Thursday was Valentine’s Day, and the SHL celebrated with a full slate of games.  Most teams didn’t make much of the holiday, but the Hershey Bliss pulled out all the stops for their game against Kansas City and treated their fans to what the team called “The Sweetest Game on Earth” (a play on the city’s slogan, “The Sweetest Place on Earth”).

For starters, all fans attending the game received a heart-shaped box with the Bliss logo on it, filled with (what else?) Hershey’s Kisses.  The team replaced its usual in-game musical selections with romantic tunes, from “Can’t Help Falling in Love” to “As Long as You Love Me” to “Let’s Get It On.”  The theme continued on the ice, as the team’s usual chocolate-bar shoulder patches were replaced with heart-shaped patches, as were the captain’s “C” and alternate’s “A”.

nibs

The Bliss turned their mascot Nibs into Cupid, complete with toga and angel wings.  Throughout the game, Nibs went through the stands looking for loving couples.  When he found them, he gave them gifts ranging from flowers to giant Special Dark bars to Hersheypark tickets to gift certificates to local restaurants.

“We wanted to show our appreciation to the couples who chose to spend their Valentine’s Day with us,” said Bliss GM Scott Lawrence.  “Because what could be more romantic than a hockey game for two?  That’s what I’ve tried to convince my wife, at least.”

The Bliss didn’t forget their single fans, either.  The team held a “Blind Date” promotion, in which fans who bought special tickets in Section 214 were randomly seated beside other single Bliss rooters.  Those who hit it off were offered two tickets for a future Bliss game.  Lawrence said that several fans in the section took the team up on its offer.  “Who knows?  Maybe someday there will be a marriage out of it!” said Lawrence.

Unsurprisingly, the “Love Line” (Hershey’s top line of LW Lance Sweet, C Justin Valentine, and RW Christopher Hart) featured heavily in the promotion.  The team held a silent auction to raffle off each of the trio’s game-worn jerseys, as well as a date with Hart (the only “Love Line” member who is still single).  Proceeds from the silent went to the local Boys and Girls Club.

“To me, this is a really cool opportunity to give back to the community,” said Hart.  “I mean, I go on dates all the time, but I don’t usually do it for charity!”

Perhaps inspired by all the love in the air, Hershey rolled to a 4-0 shutout win.  The Love Line played their part in the rout: Valentine scored a goal and Hart had an assist.

Bliss coach “Chocolate Chip” Barber felt that the “Sweetest Game” was a fun promotion, and he hopes the team will do it again in the future.  He did have one suggestion, though.

“You’re handing out all this chocolate to the fans, which is great,” said Barber.  “But what about me?  I was expecting to come in and find a bouquet of chocolate-covered strawberries on my desk, or one of those big Special Dark bars or something.  But I got nothing.  Where’s the love for the coach?”

Jones Target of Racist Taunts

The Quebec Tigres were left furious this week after an incident in Hershey, when fans directed a racially-tinged chant at D Ward Jones while he was sitting in the penalty box.  Fortunately, both the Hershey Bliss and the league took reacted swiftly to condemn the perpetrators, and the controversy produced a positive outcome.

Ward Jones

The incident occurred during the third period of Friday’s game, when Jones went down on a hard check by D Nikolai Kulkarov.  The blueliner felt that Kulkarov should have been penalized, and complained bitterly as referee Dave Killoran steered him toward the bench.  Jones’ agitation was met with a razzing response from the crowd.

As the Quebec defenseman sat beside his teammates, still stewing, a trio of fans sitting a couple rows back began heckling Jones in a racial way.  First, the fans began chanting “Trump’s gonna get you!” at him.  (Jones is a vocal detractor of the president, having called him a “racist hatemonger” during the 2016 election and threatening to move permanently to Canada if Trump won the election.)  Jones responded by flipping the bird and squirting his water bottle over the glass at the hecklers.

After that, the fans began singing the chorus of the song “Shock the Monkey” by Peter Gabriel.  The song itself is not racist, but the reference to monkeys clearly sent Jones over the edge.  The defenseman pressed up against the glass and began screaming at the fans, who made monkey sounds in response.  At that point, Jones summoned arena security and demanded that the fans be ejected, which they were.

Jones recounted the incident in detail to reporters after the game.  “I’m tired of sweeping these things under the rug,” the defenseman told reporters.  “Idiots like them deserved to be called out and publicly shamed.  Every black player in hockey has stories like these, but normally we don’t talk about them in public. Don’t make waves and all that.  But this crap isn’t going to stop if we don’t talk about it.”

Quebec coach Martin Delorme declared the chants “absolutely unacceptable.  This kind of behavior should have disappeared from the game 30 years ago.  As a hockey fan, I am deeply embarrassed and ashamed to think that fans would behave this way today.  In a competitive contest, it is easy to forget your brain and shout things at your opponent that you would never say normally.  But there is no excuse for being a racist, not in the year 2018.”

The Bliss moved swiftly to condemn the fans’ behavior.  The team announced that the fans were “permanently banned” from attending games at the arena.  GM Scott Lawrence also personally apologized to Jones and the Tigres.  “On the ice, we are spirited competitors with Quebec,” said Lawrence.  “Off the ice, though, we are friends and fellow human beings.  The actions of a few loudmouth fans do not reflect the feelings of our fanbase as a whole, and we repudiate those fans and those views.  We have nothing but respect for Ward Jones, and on behalf of the organization, I’m very sorry that he had to deal with this kind of abuse in our arena.”

A local sportscaster took things a step further the next day.  Will Grobacz, who is the play-by-play announcer for the Bliss, stated during the team’s next broadcast that “it’s one thing to say that we don’t agree with those remarks.  It’s another thing to show it.  This was a terrible thing, but let’s see if we can make something good happen as a result.”  Grobacz said that he would set up a fundraising page, where fans could donate to a charity of Jones’ choice.  Jones requested that donations go to The Sports Shed, a charity that provides sports equipment to youth sports teams in his native Chicago.  Fans wound up donating over $10,000 to the cause.

“Wow, that kind of blows me away, to be honest,” Jones said when informed of the fundraising haul.  “Now I’m really glad I said something.  Big thanks to all the fans who gave.  It’s good to get that kind of support.”

Bliss Acquire McLearen, Make Push for East

The SHL’s trading deadline occurred this week, which meant that the league’s contenders were all looking for ways to shore up their squads for that playoff push down the stretch.  By all accounts, no team was more active in seeking upgrades than the Hershey Bliss.  Although the Bliss spent most of the first half out front in the East, the Washington Galaxy have caught fire the last couple of weeks, winning 9 of their last 10 and passing Hershey for first place.

Eager to avoid falling behind Washington, Hershey GM Scott Lawrence pursued numerous options for strengthening his roster.  In the end, he made a single deal, acquiring LW Vonnie McLearen and D Gustaf Bergstrom from the Dakota Jackalopes in exchange for F Kelvin Starkey, minor-league D Alex Angelos, and a 2nd-round draft pick.

Vonnie McLearen

In McLearen, the Bliss add a rising star who will give their already-solid offense a boost.  The 23-year-old winger was one of Dakota’s top scorers, putting up 12 goals and 20 assists on the season.  Over the last couple of seasons, McLearen has risen from a lightly-used reserve to become a key offensive contributor.  He has a reputation as a hard worker and a strong two-way player.

“Honestly, I was a little surprised to discover that Vonnie McLearen was available,” said Lawrence.  “Great young guys like that are usually tough to come by.  He’s a tremendous pickup for us.  We’re really excited about the energy and spark he’s going to bring to our team.”

Gustaf Bergstrom

The Bliss also added a veteran grinder in Bergstrom.  The 30-year-old blueliner will be the seventh defenseman for Hershey, replacing rookie Kermit Kaufman.  He was a longtime starter for the Jackalopes before being demoted to reserve duty this year.  He appeared in only 6 games with Dakota in the 2017 season, recording an assist.

“When you’re playing those tough games down the stretch and in the Finals, you could always use a little extra grit,” said Lawrence.  “Bergstrom’s an old-fashioned banger, the kind of guy who isn’t afraid to scrap and does the dirty work.  He gives us that quality depth, a guy we can count on when we need him.”

While the acquisition was welcomed by Bliss fans, the deal got a chilly reception in Dakota.  McLearen has long been a favorite among Jackalopes rooters, who have enjoyed watching him blossom into a top-notch starter.  The fans were heartbroken to see McLearen dealt, and they bombarded the front office with angry tweets and emails.

“This was a tough deal to make,” said Jackalopes GM Paul Mindegaard.  “Everyone around here loves Vonnie.  Heck, I love Vonnie, and I hated to give him up.  But sometimes you have to make tough deals in this business.”

According to team sources, the trade was financially motivated.  The small-market Jackalopes spent freely this season in hopes of building a contender.  Instead, the team has languished around the .500 mark, well behind Anchorage and Michigan.  McLearen will be a free agent this offseason and is likely to command a significant raise.  The strapped-for-cash Jackalopes are unlikely to be able to re-sign the young winger, and they wanted to get a return for him rather than see him walk away for nothing.

Kelvin Starkey

In exchange for McLearen, the Jackalopes received a pair of young prospects.  The 24-year-old Starkey was signed by Hershey before last season, and displayed considerable promise.  He had worked his way into a starting role for the Bliss prior to the trade.  In 11 games with Hershey, Starkey scored 8 points (1 goal and 7 assists).

“We’re hoping that we got ourselves the next Vonnie McLearen in this deal,” said Mindegaard.  “Kelvin is a guy who has worked his way up the hard way, and we think he’s got considerable room to grow with some additional playing time.”

Alex Angelos

The 20-year-old Angelos is an offensive-minded defenseman who flashed considerable promise with Hershey’s minor-league affiliate in Albuquerque.  With the Screaming Eagles, Angelos put up 34 points (14 goals, 20 assists) in 44 games.

“Alex Angelos is a guy who fits well with our team concept,” said Mindegaard.  “He’s a fast skater, and he’s shown that he can contribute in a high-tempo environment.  He’s also a strong shooter and he has a great passing touch.  He’s a player who has the potential to have a long and successful career here.”

While the Jackalopes are gearing up to get younger, the Bliss are hoping that the acquisition of McLearen will put them over the top.  Each of the last two seasons, Hershey has come up short against the Galaxy, and the team and their fans are growing impatient for a shot at the title.  “Everyone in this organization is hungry for a championship,” said Lawrence.  “We believe that this trade puts us in position to make that run to the title.”