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From Hell: The rise of the Vermilion Black Devils

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When a convoy of toned black BMWs rolls into the quiet Alberta town of Vermilion on an early spring morning in 2019, the locals have every right to be surprised. No one recalls an official visit to the town since it was formally inaugurated in 1906, a century ago, let alone a convoy flying the Russian imperial eagle.

As the door of the lead BMW opens and an enigmatic figure in a leather jacket, jeans, and aviators strolls out and walks straight for the town hall, flanked by two prototypical burly ex-prison ZEKs, the locals’ confusion turns to a sense of palpable danger. The town mechanic, who had seen Eastern Promises many times, swears that the Russians have KGB tattoos and someone needs to call Trudeau right away lest the country become overrun by Putin, starting from this sleepy mining town. Of course, no one does anything. But when 15 minutes later the Russian walks out, now flanked by only one of his bodyguards, gets into the driver’s seat of the 7-Series, and drives away without a word or ceremony, the convoy sending rising clouds of red clay dust well into the morning sun - the fear turns to curiosity.

This curiosity turns to bewilderment, when the mayor calls a town hall meeting that very afternoon. Beside her stands 190 cm, 100 kg of Fedor - “just Fedor”, as he says firmly - in a leather jacket, the prototypical Russian mafia thug, and as he stares ahead, stone-faced, the mayor explains that a young Russian by the name of Rasputin, with authorization from the government of Canada, has just bought a $20 million stake in the town. Before the crowd has a chance to process this figure, she adds that Vermilion is now the home of a professional hockey team, the Black Devils, with a new 13,000 seat arena and associated businesses to begin construction imminently.



Autumn 2019, in the hero-city of Volgograd, Russia. It’s cold, unglamorous, and foreboding. Alexander Rasputin stands before a throng of international journalists, his customary aviators down. ITAR-TASS is here, as well as TSN. His goal is simple. “I want to conquer North American hockey. We start from the bottom. We take no prisoners. We give no room for “BUT”. We start from the lowest league, LIHL, we win every year. We move to the top. And then we win there. A war, to prove our strength. A true challenge, like the Summit series. My challenge to North American hockey”, he grins. To get to the GHL is one Five-Year Plan. To win in the GHL is the other.

There are laughs that slowly die down, then shocked silence among the media. No team has ever accomplished the trek from the LIHL to the GHL in 5 seasons. The logistics behind such a feat are...improbable at best, a vodka-fueled daydream. No team in the billion-dollar NA professional sports has ever done this. The skill gap between the levels is massive. The roster turnover will be crippling. The financial weight, more so. The competition from established teams and the brutal 80-game season with a minimum time to build chemistry and team identity, thrice that.

But Alexander comes from Volgograd, where the siege held in 1942, and carries with him the shadowy weight of the Rasputin name. Rumours fly that Alexander has a connection to the same wild sorcery that powered Grigory, the same sorcery that set in motion events that toppled an empire. Certainly, his reputation in the elite circles is not good. He is volatile, uncouth. He listens to Scandinavian metal. He wears jeans, leather jackets, and long hair like he is some kind of Peter Steele wannabe. He drinks too much, even for a Russian, and isn’t respectful of Orthodox beliefs. There are whispers of cults, women, and pagan rituals. Most write him off as one of a thousand spoiled degenerates living out opium dreams on the money of previous generations. But this opinion will change.



A month later, Alexander again stands in front of nearly all of the 4,000 strong population of the town of Vermilion. “We are here to win at all costs” is his clear and slightly ominous message. Like most small Canadian towns, Vermilion is also a hockey town with a solid junior program, but this is on an entirely different level. There are misgivings. Alexander’s involvement is not trusted. Someone demands to know why he chose their community, of all places. 

 “During the war, my great-grandfather stood shoulder to shoulder with a Canadian soldier,” begins Rasputin. “This man had come to the Eastern Front to deliver supplies, and stayed to deliver the invaders from our land. Him and my great-grandfather survived Stalingrad together.” He pauses for emphasis, looks over the crowd. “And for that I owe him - and your town, his birthplace, much gratitude.” There is silence, then scattered applause which eventually overtakes the entire crowd. For the time being, at least, Alexander is one of them. 

 

On the financial front, the new Russian owner delivers. Vermilion Black Devils are officially inaugurated as a professional hockey club in late 2019. A modern arena is built, the design strangely gothic, what some might claim as occult symbols decorating its hallways and a massive 10-metre basalt and crimson steel statue of a grinning, winged demon decorating its front gates. Colloquially known as “The Chasm”, Vermilion Park quickly fills with the sounds of skates hitting the ice and pucks hitting the net. Gold and black jerseys are paraded on hundreds of citizens, and despite the town’s name, these two colours are dominant on every storefront. Rallies take place on the streets, and a brand-new hockey academy is receiving hundreds of talented young prospects from around the province. The city, at least for now, has bought into Alexander’s vision. 

 

But there is much work to be done. Alexander assumes the GM role, and Fedor the meaningful title of “Personnel Manager”. As a foundation for the team, the Black Devils franchise co-opts a struggling amateur regional hockey club. At practices, they are barely able to elevate the puck, and their skating is abysmal. Alexander spits, slams doors and spends a lot of his time growling at his iPhone, occasionally taking the ice himself. Fedor menacingly points at the underperforming players and cracks his knuckles. The season is a few short weeks away, and the team cannot decide if they are hockey players or sunflower seed farmers. The lone bright spot is the first Vermilion team captain, a Swedish teenager named Fritiof Bergland. His linemate, German prospect Nico Habib, also shows potential.

After the first week of practices yield few results, Alexander flies to Russia, returning in 3 days with a familiar figure at his side, whose presence only seems to reinforce his backdoor connections. NHL legend Pavel Bure steps out of the black 7-Series, his mouth a hard line as he sees the backwater Canadian town with a shiny new arena and so far, nothing to show for it. But he looks at Alexander, who waits expectantly, and nods. That evening, Bure is announced as the club’s head coach and ambassador of its direct, Soviet-school offensive playstyle.

Responding to the local reporters’ questions of whether the team’s goals can be achieved, he says laconically - “We will see.”

Edited by AlexanderRasputin

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SEASON 1: 
 

LIHL
The First Circle

(60-6-3-11, 1st place)
 
 
Rasputin brings in two Russians to fill key roles on the team - angry powerforward Viktor Sabitov and goaltender Dennis Sabantsev. Sabitov will play on the 1st line with Bergland and German veteran C Akram Janjic, who joins the squad through a Twitter job posting. Sabantsev will start in net. Bure runs the first weeks of practices behind closed doors, with players sleeping and eating at the arena. Occasionally, the players run out of the building in a line carrying what looks like bodybags over their shoulders, and head into the old clay mine where they are seen swinging pickaxes and chopping wood on the surrounding countryside. Rock music blares out of the arena, and bonfires and strange chants cover the perimeter as a vaguely Orthodox-looking priest does laps around the building with an incense burner.
 
When the public is finally allowed in, they see a different team. The Black Devils are fast and aggressive, and hit hard. Inter-squad scrimmages devolve into adrenaline-fueled shoving matches. The players are focused. Where they lack natural skill, they are physically prepared to play a fast, aggressive game. Bure routinely steps onto the ice to show them mere grains of his talent, still exponentially better than anything they can offer, but for now, it is enough. 

The drastic change in cohesiveness causes the unbelievers in the local media to put out a hit story on the team. “Local team’s miraculous transformation powered by ‘Russian gas’” whines the headline. In a calculated PR move, Rasputin invites WADA experts in to test his players. They follow them into bathrooms and crawl up to their beds to take blood samples during sleep. At one point, the WADA team bursts on the ice in the middle of a practice and demands urine tests on the spot. The players call the WADA rep “Gollum” for the way he always creeps behind them, muttering to himself, just out of sight. But the results are negative.

Opening night has an audience of 750. Someone throws a sack of potatoes on the ice and boos. The players pick them up - no sense to waste good food. 

The first season goes by quickly, powered by excitement, adrenaline, and the novelty of professional hockey. The still mostly-empty stadium is slowly attracting fans, but the team is a financial black hole. Rasputin streams games on social media, inviting YouTubers and amateur sportscasters to call the games and build up a younger fanbase. He holds NHL tournaments in the arena, giving out cash prizes and season tickets left and right. #BlackDevilHockey and #RussianSpies is trending on Twitter.
 
True to their namesake, the Black Devils rip through the competition, finishing with a 60-6-3-11 record and a +195 goal differential. Bergland and Sabitov finish with 81 and 72 points, Sabitov with over 200 hits, and the team’s 2nd D-pair of Jesse Betiol and Aadam Richer-Louveteau, local boys, are +94 and +93 respectively. Calgarian Cedric Lepage is the team’s top goal-scorer with 39.

A championship banner is lifted at The Chasm, and one flame is lit under the demon statue in front of the stadium. The Five-Year Plan is underway.

 

Edited by AlexanderRasputin

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SEASON 2:

IHL
The Second Circle

 
(67-1-1-11, 1st place)
 
 

Rasputin’s Black Devils project is at this point getting notoriety in his home country. Alexander flies back to Russia and visits with Moscow, gaining special exemption on signing Russian players below VHL level to the Black Devils organization. Russian media raises a furor over the team’s crowdfunded, floor-level campaign to get talented prospects who would ordinarily not play in their home country to sign for the Canadian club. One of these tournament-style tryout sessions yields a landslide winner with the talented and flashy 20-year old forward Maxim Bogolyubov. He signs a contract offer from the club and is the first piece of the Black Devils rebuild in an assault on the IHL. Rasputin also brings back two Russian centres, Starikov - a strong-as-a-bear-on-meth defensive player, and Votyakov, a skilled passer with high faceoff ability. Playing together since a very young age, they are slated to be the core down the middle for this new Black Devils team. From another social media job posting, offensive d-man Ove Ellingsen flies in from Norway to play on the team’s first pairing and PP. 

In the off-season, the team drafts Albertan forward Allen Hachey, a fast and skilled, though physically frail teenager, who Bure describes as a “starving man’s Maxim Afinogenov”. Bogolyubov and Hachey will play on the 1st line with Canadian hotshot powerforward C Ziad Ostrout, acquired in the team’s first big trade with the Pettisville Steelers, in which previous captain and star player Bergland is moved out after a long closed-door discussion with Rasputin and Bure. 


It is at this point that players and fans begin to realize the price of Rasputin’s Five Year Plan - no player is safe and player attachments and jerseys may not last beyond one season. Anticipating the discontent, Rasputin calls a press conference and reminds those present of the covenant they formed - without the Five-Year-Plan, the city of Vermilion holds no attractiveness to growth and no romance to new fans and players. Without continuous promotions, there is only stagnation and mediocrity. He acknowledges Bergland’s contribution to the team and unveils a display in his honour, forever part of the Black Devils lore. “Take your anger out on the opposing teams” is Rasputin’s message to his players. 


And they do. Vermilion finishes the season with an astounding 67-1-1-11 record, wiping the floor with the competition and scoring 406 goals in the process. Ostrout leads the way with an historic performance, generating 52G/56A/111P, along with 229 hits. Bogolyubov follows with 104 points and Hachey with 95. No Black Devils player has a minus rating, with D-man Sampo Venalainen leading the league comfortably with a +91. 

The small town has brought a massive impact to North American hockey. A second banner is rolled down from the Chasm rafters, and a second flame is lit under the demon statue. 

Edited by AlexanderRasputin

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SEASON 3:

CHL
The Third Circle

(56-6-3-15, 1st place)

Part I

After two seasons of blistering success, albeit in the lower leagues, the Black Devils are beginning to be noticed by other clubs and the North American hockey scene. The vision of an enigmatic Russian bringing the club to an historic, meteoric rise is ⅖ complete. Vermilion as a town has grown dramatically over the past two years, with businesses finding a home in the shadow of Vermilion Park, and ticket sales surging. The stadium is still half-empty, but if the team keeps winning as is, filling it is a realistic proposition at the SHL level. And the Devils are not just winning, they are winning in style. Maxim Bogolyubov, in particular, has become a massive fan favourite, showing off all the predicted Russian silkiness and patterning his style of play after that of his coach, Bure. The “BOH” line (a play on the Russian word “bog” meaning “god”) of Bogolyubov, Ostrout, and Hachey has been remarkable so far, and the three players are indeed enjoying demigod status in Vermilion. 

As is Rasputin. He, however, knows what is coming. CHL is no longer a sandbox league. There is some real structure and financial muscle behind the clubs here, and the Black Devil squad has to be rebuilt again, because the objective is nothing but victory. Nothing but 1st place. Rasputin dips once more into the Russian lower leagues to bring out veteran offensive defenceman Sergei Zhurov, shutdown defenceman Semyon Lobkov, and powerforward Anton Kopeykin, famous in Russian junior YouTube compilations for breaking stadium glass with his hits almost at will. In a long season against stronger teams, depth will be crucial. He also signs legendary CHL goalie Zach Callan, hoping the added veteran leadership in net will play a part.

The solid beginning of the off-season is marred by conflict with IHL top defenceman and team captain Ove Ellingsen, who demands nearly double his salary in a contract extension and refuses to report to training until this is done. He makes disparaging comments to the media about his star status deserving compensation. Alexander and Pavel call a press conference. The message is clear. 

“This ship is moving,” says Rasputin coldly. “You get on board, or we leave you behind. Victory is bigger than all of us.”

The next day, Ellingsen is shipped off to North Haven for a depth player and a prospect. Ellingsen is a popular figure and some players are clearly unsettled by the manner of his exit. There are rumours of a shouting match between Rasputin and Ellingsen’s defensive partner Sampo Venalainen. “I don’t like fucking losing!” is heard through the office walls. Alexander pounds his fists on the table. “Do you?”

The team uses the extra salary to add Canadian offensive defenceman Dereck Semple and signs their 1st round draft pick, two-way Slovakian forward Andrej Sloboda to play in the bottom six. Training has increased in intensity, and American football-style dummies on sledges with Ellingsen's jersey are hit hard every practice. It's a crude tactic, but reinforces the message - you are either with us, or against us. Rasputin knows that to succeed yet again, this is the only way forward.

The siege of CHL is under way.

Edited by AlexanderRasputin

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Part II

The season begins slow.

Almost immediately, disaster strikes. In game 2, star forward Bogolyubov breaks in one on one against an opposing defenceman, pulls the puck through his legs and aggressively drives the net, colliding heavily with the post while attempting to stuff the puck behind the goaltender, who rushes out to meet him. The impact is heard around the arena. Bogolyubov skates back to the faceoff circle and attempts to continue play, but his leg buckles under. He goes straight to the locker room.

“He come at me a little bit with stick, hit against skate, get me off balance. Is not illegal, of course - but he is still son of a bitch”, responds Bogolyubov with typical Russian black humour. The news is not good. He is sidelined for most of the year due to a torn ACL, putting into question the team’s ability to complete The Plan. 

Bogolyubov’s absence and the lack of Ellingsen’s leadership hits the team hard. They drop 4 out of the next 5 games and drop out of the auto-promotion spots. At a Thursday practice, Rasputin calls it early and brings the team on a trip around Vermilion. “These are the people that have houses, families, lives here because of you,” he says assertively, “...because of what we set out to do. If we fall at this hurdle, all of this goes away.”

Some players are distracted, laughing it off. At the next practice, Rasputin tells them to go on the ice without gear or padding. “Right now, you are faster, lighter than the others, because your duty isn’t weighing you down” he yells as they complete skating drills well ahead of the rest of the team. “You have no duty to this city, to this team, to ME? Then you have no protection!” he bellows, as the players with no equipment are laid out onto the ice again and again by their fully geared teammates in checking and scrimmage drills. “What now?” he yells in their faces. 

Before the next game, Rasputin addresses the players again. “Play for victory, play for glory - play with anger, play for yourselves - I don’t care unless you win. But play also for these people who owe their livelihood to you. It’s a big responsibility, an unusual burden. But we are an unusual team.” He grins. “The winds of Veles are with you. Go win some fucking hockey games.”

It works. Vermilion goes 34-3-1-7 the rest of the season. Taking Bogolyubov’s role on the first line is another Russian star prospect, 18 year old Dinijar Moskalev, acquired from division rival Paladins for draft picks and prospects. Moskalev is the fastest player in the league - a physical specimen, but also a student of defensive hockey with a burning passion for the game. Rotating on the 1st line with another new acquisition, Czech sniper Sava Ustak, the duo provide a capable replacement for Bogolyubov.

Ustak paces the Black Devils with 80 points, Ostrout has another strong season with 36 goals, and the Black Devils take a third straight league title with a 56-win season - securing promotion to the BHL and lighting a third flame in front of Vermilion Park. 
 

Edited by AlexanderRasputin

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SEASON 4:

BHL
The Fourth Circle

(59-2-4-15, 1st place)

Part I 

The now well-oiled Vermilion machine has won 3 straight league titles and countless hearts. The player Instagram accounts are flooding with fans and their pockets with cash. For the first time, the Black Devils are a profitable business. The Chasm, as Vermilion Park is now commonly known far and wide in Alberta, is a busy place. Hundreds of businesses have opened their doors within the arena and the Vermilion area, with the town quadrupling their population and infrastructure just barely catching up with the expansion. 

Alexander Rasputin buys a tiger sanctuary and fills it with bears. Every morning he wrestles them to remind himself that life is precious, and that danger and uncertainty can be bent to man’s will. Rasputin is a man on a mission - and for the BHL, that mission is to get better players. The Vermilion staff understand that at the BHL and then the SHL level, they are entering elite territory, and the core of the team that will be able to compete in these leagues needs to be built now. 

A new top-tier scouting team is formed, with focus on using advanced analytics on picking up the best players for the now well-known Black Devils style of play - fast, furious, and incredibly offensive, both in approach, and in the amount of Russian profanity accompanying every rush. Coach Pavel Bure, now with a 183-13-10-37 record behind the bench, continues to go out on the ice and destroy his defence at practices, but they can now stop him about half the time, rather than not at all. There is clear progress. 

The Black Devils have drafted well, picking up gifted defensive defenceman Dmitry Yakovlev at 114th after shipping perimeter squad players to mediocre teams in the offseason for their draft picks. Yakovlev will immediately slot in on the team’s first pairing, and is one of the pieces that will form the team’s core for at least the next two seasons. The team has also signed flashy Canadian C Laith Sanford, who scored a record 57 goals the previous CHL season, playing for rival Wolverines. Goalie Dannie Dutil, known for his near-perfect positioning but not much else, has been slotted in as a starter to replace retired Zach Callan. Rasputin and his staff aren’t concerned - the goaltender isn’t going to be winning the team many points with the kind of offence the Black Devils are used to running. 

After being blessed by the horned Orthodox-looking, incense-carrying priest, and under the watchful eye of Fedor, the scouting team locks themselves inside The Chasm’s offices for 13 days. Arena employees report chanting, flickering flames, and strange, inhuman sounds from behind the doors.

On the 14th day, as the scouts file out, their sunken eyes filled with incomprehensible, eldritch truths, their leader hands Rasputin a torn scrap of paper. On it are three names:

C Frank Weichert
F Hasan Peloso
F Ricky Danielsson

Frank Weichert (1).png

Hasan Peloso.png

Ricky Danielsson.png


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Part II

Weichert, a 21-year old German superstar with elite playmaking and faceoff skills, trains in the Alps, at altitude. After signing a lucrative deal with Vermilion, he quips that Rasputin himself paradropped onto a ski slope and negotiated the signing during a ski race. “If I beat him, I would have owned the club, and he would have centered the 1st line”, he says, laughing. The signing of Weichert, something that took over a week to complete, involved competing with offers from various BHL and SHL teams, and was the first true test of the Black Devils reputation.

“I wanted to come here because of the playstyle first, as “defence” is not a word in my vocabulary - but also because I wanted to be a part of history”, continues Weichert. “Ultimately, I was convinced that someone with as much drive as Alex was going to bring this team to the GHL.”


Canadian powerforward Hasan Peloso needs no such convincing. “I knew about Alex’s project. I have family in Alberta and they couldn’t shut up about this insane new team with the witchcraft and the arena, and the Moscow money, and the feeling of lifting a trophy every single season. I saw the games, the interviews. The balls with which they played and Alex’s message of ‘we’re coming for you’...” He chuckles. “They didn’t need to ask me twice.” 

Rasputin describes a similar mutual admiration. “We have this tradition here. Every practice, the first player in the locker room begins to do pushups, and continues until all the other players have come into the room. I have...had...the record - 165, probably out of respect”, he grins. “When Hasan came in, first practice, he started the set, and the boys lined up right outside the door, to, you know, f*** with the new guy. Well, we must have waited for a good 10 minutes and that f***** was still going. At that point, we had no choice. What a monster.”


With two of the three top targets locked down, Rasputin sets out to approach Herschel, with whom Danielsson had recently signed, for a deal to obtain his rights. A Swedish junior star, the 20-year old sniper is viewed by the scouts as the ultimate fast, energetic trigger-man with elite shooting ability, who would form a telepathic partnership with Weichert and be a predator on the rush, with Peloso providing the hits and net-front presence to enable the other two to have their way with the enemy defence. But the negotiations drag on. Despite Vermilion offering a more and more lucrative package to a team already stacked with top young talent, Herschel management stubbornly refuses to pull the trigger on a deal.

The beginning of the season draws close, and Rasputin finally resorts to something he hadn’t yet done - trading away the Vermilion 1st round pick. In a package with previous 1st rounder Sloboda and promising centre Oehrl, the BHL 1st is finally enough to green-light the trade, and Danielsson, “a fast-food Mogilny”, according to Bure, takes the first plane to Alberta to link up with his new club. 
 

Edited by AlexanderRasputin

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Part III

The season begins with even more fanfare and more on-ice success, as the team, knowing Rasputin’s expectations, set out to tear down opponent after opponent in truly demonic fashion. Halfway through the season, the Black Devils are 9 points clear at the top of the Eastern Conference. The 1st line of Weichert, Peloso, Danielsson, dubbed the “Weapon of Pass Destruction” line by the press, is cosmic. Midway through the season, Weichert is leading the league with 1.85 PPG, with 30 goals and 55 assists in 46 games putting him on a record 150-point pace. An injury to Danielsson slows him down, but it is Peloso who is leading the charge in the goalscoring department, Ovechkin-esque in battering through opponents on his way to highlight-reel goals. The mainstream Canadian media has picked up on the hype around Vermilion, and public figures and ex-pros can now be seen at Black Devils games. Rasputin and Bure are more than happy to give interviews, creating a constant aura around the club. Will they, again, capture the title as easily as before?

Fate strikes this charge down in game 46, against Estuary Flame, a Western conference rival. In a now routine, surgical three-move breakout, Weichert and Peloso skate away, 2 on 1 against an Estuary defenceman. In desperation, he dives to the ground, waving his stick like a white flag at Weichert’s legs, and tripping him awkwardly as the two players slide in a pile to the boards. Weichert doesn’t get up and the crowd holds their collective breaths. Moving slowly, the Black Devils star is escorted to the locker room, holding his head, as Peloso repeatedly smashes the offending Estuary player into what remains of his face.

Post-game, a grim Rasputin spits out “Done for the season” before disappearing into a closed-door meeting with the players. 

Feeding on Rasputin’s earlier message of channeling anger on the ice, it is Hasan “Turkish” Peloso who steps up for the team. Paired with Danish veteran playmaker Clemens Eriksen, picked up via waivers, the two continue the Vermilion domination of the BHL. Peloso finishes with a record 50G/56A/106P in 73 games, Eriksen contributes a respectable 68 points in 48 games in his short time with Vermilion, with Weichert finishing 3rd in league scoring despite missing 34 games.

The Black Devils take the title with 4 games to spare, missing out on another 60-win season by 1 game. The team celebrates around Peloso, receiving the top goalscorer, point scorer, and overall MVP award, his name etched into Black Devils lore. A banner is lowered from the rafters and a fourth flame is lit in a ceremony by the injured Weichert.
 


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SEASON 5:

SHL
The Fifth Circle

 

Part I

The offseason before the team’s SHL challenge is noticeably muted. The pressure is palpable. Despite Vermilion’s domination the previous 4 seasons, there is still an era of disbelief seeping through Rasputin’s seemingly undefeatable organization. So close to the first Five-Year-Plan goal, everything is magnified. Alexander locks himself in with the players often to speak in team-only sessions.

The level of turnover that was effective in previous seasons is no longer viable. A team with chemistry, willing to face battle for one another, is the only way to pass the SHL gauntlet, full of GHL-ready players from narrowly relegated teams, and young talent from around the world. Scouting the opposition, Vermilion staff is shocked at the quality their rivals possess. Western rival Blenheim Fighting Bobcats are backed by a world-class Russian goaltender, Juris Alenin, an eccentric with undeniable GHL-level talent who is well-known in Russian sport as a wild man and a crazy naturalist, disappearing for weeks into the Russian tundra during the off-season and found swimming in icy lakes more than inside human settlements. Warman Fighters are constructed from A-tier prospects playing together for years, an effective and cohesive unit that has had a chance to develop chemistry and hone their approach for some time. In the East, Timberwolves field a strong, offensive squad, while Becancour Kingsmen and Welsford Riders are all aiming for promotion. There is a feeling around the Black Devils club that this season is different from the rest. 

Rasputin focuses on strong goaltending. With the talent available to other teams, winning through sheer offensive firepower is no longer guaranteed. The team will still fire at will, as usual - but the support at the other end needs to be strong. He splashes cash on the best available FA on the market - Danish goalkeeper Paul Moller. Moller has GHL pedigree and a stellar career record. The scout report warns of his lack of positioning fundamentals, but at every level, Moller has been able to mask that deficiency with some truly unreal ability in every other area. “He doesn’t even know where or what the net is”, complains Bure. But Muller flops around comfortably in pre-season, pitching 2 shutouts in 3 games.

Next, Alexander signs tough-as-a-bear veteran Russian defenceman Igor Stezhensky. Ex-military with a shady past, Stezhensky and Bure eye each other steely until the new signing puts out his hand, and thanks Bure for bringing him onto the team. When offered, Stezhensky does not accept the co-captain's armband until the current captain, Peloso, will take part in a traditional Spetsnaz exercise of two men sitting across from each other on a bench and trading punches until one taps out. The bout is televised. The two men hammer each other with blows for 15 minutes, but both are still up, bleeding and swearing profusely. Rasputin steps in and calls the match, offering the two a peace-shot of Stolichnaya. The two captains, Canadian and Russian, nod as they stagger up, having earned the respect of the team and each other. They will take the armband and provide the steel and instruction to Vermilion’s young core of offensively gifted players.

Finally, with Weichert still recovering, the Black Devils are first to the signature of talented Danish playmaker Ejnar Bruun, to split the creative load. Swedish veteran two-way forward Amandus Waldenstrom joins him on the Vermilion 2nd line. The team has a strong European lean, but with enough steel and strength to be feared. At the end of the FA period, Vermilion picks up Loke Hellstrom in a trade, a Swedish dman with an uncanny shooting ability and a cool name - as well as Isaac Miville Deschenes, a Canadian offensive d-man. These two will run the Vermilion powerplay. The squad looks tough-as-nails, a good mix of experience and youth, and equipped to play the high-octane hockey Black Devils fans are used to seeing. But the yet another round of turnover means the players have very little on-ice chemistry.

This will prove to be a problem.
 

Edited by AlexanderRasputin

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Part II

The new arrivals mesh comfortably with the “veteran” core of the team, as Ostrout, Bogolyubov, Moskalev, Venalainen, and Sanford are still in the squad, along with the WPD line. The mood is optimistic, Vermilion Park is now near capacity, and the town boasts hotels, chains, and a modern experience for casual and serious fans. The season opens with a massive hard rock performance by Shinedown officially premiering “Devil” as the official Vermilion club anthem. Rasputin is lukewarm on Shinedown - they are no Behemoth - but the song is heavy enough for the general public. As the theme blares and he watches from the press box in his customary aviators and leather coat, the opening lines are announced to thousands of screaming fans:

Peloso - Weichert - Danielsson
Bruun - Adams - Waldenstrom
Aboussafy - Moser - Venediktov
Sanford - Levet - Ostrout

Miville-Deschenes - Stezhensky
Hellstrom - Yakovlev
Arnaud - Malepart

Moller
Antonsson

After a strong start, the opponent on Game 11 is Nipawin, a team Black Devils fans will get used to seeing. Vermilion comes out with the usual swagger and lethality, and quickly gains a 2-1 lead, Peloso scoring twice, one a rocket from the Ovi spot, and cleaning up a rebound in front. The fans are losing their minds, and The Chasm is rocking.

But the momentum shifts quickly. Unlike the lower leagues, the teams in the SHL know what the prize is, and even wounded boxers can hit back quickly. Nipawin gets a goal back immediately, and its constant pressure takes a toll on the Vermilion offence. Centerman Adams misplaces a breakout pass, which is intercepted - and Vermilion defenceman Hellstrom is forced to bring down a Thunderhawks forward on a clear breakaway. The referees rule a penalty shot, and after the ensuing goal, Hellstrom is ejected from the game for making throat cutting gestures at the officials. A suspension is almost certain, and the crowd raises the roof with boos and profanity. The Thunderhawks score on the ensuing powerplay and ice the game in the final minute to win 5-2. Despite a dominant 3rd period, the Devils can’t rise to the occasion and Peloso smashes his stick into the glass as Stezhensky, ever the calm presence, critically watches the players file off the ice. 

Hellstrom sits for 10 games, and Vermilion drops the next two with performances that are good, but not quite good enough to take the W. The team is clearly unsettled, and this time, Rasputin isn’t getting a response from asking his players to channel their anger into goals. If anything, the team seems fragile and too emotional, collapsing under the pressure of needing to win. Bure coldly watches as another lead slips away, but Rasputin stubbornly refuses to change the lines or the team’s approach. Black Devils lose 4-1 to rival Groundbirch and are now on a 0-3 streak and losing ground in the title race in their first, critical, SHL season.


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Part III

Again, the town of Vermilion comes to the rescue. The next morning, the players get a phone call. They are expected at the academy arena, Solar Stars Park, in 60 minutes, full gear. As the squad arrives, they see Bure and Rasputin, geared up in white and gold, already on the ice, in front of 25 equally suited up academy prospects. A massive pile of body, arm, and leg weights lies at centre ice. Silently, Alexander points at the weights with his stick. 

“The series is best-of-5. Full games, 15 minute break in between. Get your s*** on, decorate yourselves with the weights like a goddamn Xmas tree, and form your lines. You are coaching yourselves today.” 

20 extra kilos of weight is manageable for the kind of athletes playing for the Black Devils, and the team easily takes the first game from the academy, 5-1. The pace is frenetic, and as the game winds down, the players are tired but in good spirits. Moskalev is throwing good-natured insults toward the academy squad, and the players feel comfortable. If this is their punishment, so be it. But Rasputin smirks and changes his lines, and 15 minutes later the fresher, faster academy graduates have the professional squad pinned in their zone, absorbing check after check, shot after shot. The team responds well - the skill level of the Vermilion top 6 is elite, and even at half speed, they are deadly. Peloso and Weichert lead the charge, and the professional squad takes the 2nd match 3-2. This time the break goes by faster, the jokes are fewer, and the Black Devils concede breakaway after breakaway in the first period of the third game. Bure is tireless, cutting through the defence again and again, testing the resolve of his players. Rasputin is no amateur himself, breaking in down the wing and smashing shot after shot at the net. The two motivate the prospect team, and they win a close game 3-1. The tide turns.

Skating on Bure’s line for Game 4 is 16 year old Austrian teenager Sandro Koch, here on a tryout with a handful of other prospects eligible for next year’s GHL draft. After the Black Devils score first, he sets up 3 out of the next 6 goals, and the prospect squad takes the fourth game 6-3. Rasputin and Koch exchange a couple of words after the game, then Rasputin and Bure. There is frustrated yelling from the Black Devils locker room. Rasputin smiles and waits. Vermilion comes out enraged, but noticeably adapts their game to their opponents, playing with more finesse, less physicality, and exploiting the inexperience in the prospect squad. It’s tight, but the Black Devils take the final game 6-4, and with it, a 3-2 series win. The exhausted players file off the ice as Bure salutes the prospects. Rasputin is pleased.
 


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Part IV

The next game is away against top 5 West team Flying Legends. A 6-4 win, with 1G 3A from Weichert and 9 points from the “God” line is a noticeable improvement from the previous games. Two more wins follow, then five, and soon the Black Devils’ are streaking at 11 games, and the team is 1st in the East standings. Depth arrives via trades, but this time Rasputin keeps his valuable 1st round pick. Rotating in on Weichert’s wing is playmaker Bruun, who will finish the season leading the team with 33 goals. The good form continues into the final stretch, with the Black Devils, Kingsmen, and Castaways chasing the division-leading Timberwolves.

With just over 20 games to go and only 4 points between Vermilion and West Chicago, there is a home and away series with the Riders to navigate. Vermilion took the previous game 5-1, and there should be nothing to worry about. But the Devils come out flat, not clinical, and end the day with a 5-3 loss despite doubling up the Riders with shots. This is a precursor of things to come. Vermilion G Moller has a poor game, never feeling comfortable - but he will have another chance in two days. The team files off the ice 7 points back, but with plenty of track still to go. 

The next morning, troubling reports arrive. Moller is nowhere to be found, absent from morning practice and MIA. Players report seeing him dazed the previous night, the look of a man whose mind is far away. Rasputin quickly organizes a search party and brings in team doctors. Did Moller get a concussion the previous game? The medical team answers in the negative. But who knows, concussions are easy to miss and affect everyone differently. 

Players and professionals scour the city for their missing teammate. His cellphone is off. Bure raises troubling concerns of organized crime activity by competitors. He points out the questionable nature of Warman GM Wick Schozen, known for his elaborate and barely-legal antics to derail other teams, and matching Rasputin for foul language and drinking volume. Rasputin flies to meet Wick alone with two bottles of rum. Warman media reports the two carousing around the edge of the town, causing thousands of dollars in property damage and leaving equivalent sums of cash behind. Three hours later Rasputin returns satisfied of Wick's innocence in the matter. But the clock is ticking, and going shot for shot with other GMs to find out the truth is not an effective solution. 

Pulling on his military experience, Stezhensky and team experts psychologically profile Moller, identify his frequented places, and investigate all of them. As time ticks and evening falls, the team comes across an isolated, old farmhouse in the prairies outside Vermilion. Inside, huddled in a blanket and in a near-catatonic state, is the Vermilion starting goaltender. Turning his blank gaze onto his captain, he whispers “I should have had that shot”.

The next game is tomorrow, and Rasputin has Bure make a mental health announcement to the team and brings in a team psychologist. In a closed-door session with Rasputin and Moller, the psychologist recommends the goaltender sits for 3-4 games to regain his mental equilibrium. But Moller wants to play. Rasputin knows what it’s like to not have an opportunity to redeem yourself in front of your teammates, so he stands behind his player. Moller will start the crucial 2nd half of the home-and-away against Welsford Riders. 

Edited by AlexanderRasputin

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Part V 

The game does not start well. Moller immediately concedes, but reorients himself and makes several key saves to keep a sluggish Vermilion in it. At 2-1, Weichert juggles the puck at the blueline, a hurricane of black and gold, spins around two forecheckers, and snipes the top corner past the shocked Riders goaltender to make it 2-2. The game begins to turn and the Black Devils come in waves at their opponents. Waldenstrom cleans up on the doorstep during a high-pressure powerplay to make it 3-2, then Peloso takes the puck to the net through the Welsford defence - throwing the puck between the defencemen and bursting through with his patented power move. 4-2 Devils, and the Welsford arena is silent. True to their playstyle, Vermilion keeps pushing to close out the game in the 3rd, but, on a harmless board play, a Riders forward is alone in front and buries the rebound to get the Riders back into it. Moller, despite being left out to dry by his defence, looks distraught.

In the next 5 minutes, he is beat once again, by another harmless floater from the point. Bure calls a timeout to reorient the team, but despite sustained Vermilion pressure, they cannot break through. Time after time, crisp passing plays break open the Welsford defence, but first Weichert whiffs on a breakaway, then Bruun puts the puck just wide, the goaltender on the ground and out of the play. An ominous chill descends on the arena, an air of inevitability. Moller stands in the way of a Riders shot, misses with his glove, and the puck deflects just wide off his shoulder. He takes another in the mask. With 7 minutes to go, a slapshot from the point by a Riders defenceman is deflected in front, and the puck finds its way behind the stunned Vermilion goaltender. 5-4 Riders. This is how the game ends. A 9 point gap between the Black Devils and Timberwolves with just over 10 games shrinks the chances of another 1st place finish. 

In the dressing room, the atmosphere is abysmally low. Teammates come by Moller’s bench one by one, showing their support for the beleaguered goaltender. He doesn’t speak. Rasputin comes in, puts his arm around Moller and has a few words. The players know what’s coming. Antonsson will start the next game for Vermillion and becomes the de facto starting goaltender of the team. 

With the turmoil behind them, the team plays freer, looser. They take 3 of the next 5 games and 12 of the next 17, but it is not enough. To add insult to injury, the team loses yet another game to the Riders late in the season, 2-1. Yet West Chicago is unstoppable, and the 9 lost points mean that, despite their excellent performances, the Black Devils finish 3rd - their first year without a title. A 3rd place finish, however, still means playoff hockey - and it still means promotion to the GHL, as per the Five-Year Plan, is within reach. 


In the first round, the Devils play Groundbirch Purple Eagles, a mediocre Eastern opponent. The city of Vermilion embraces their first playoffs, with banners and jerseys filling the streets. NHL stars are seen at The Chasm, with Ovechkin and Sergei Fedorov, good friends of Bure and Rasputin, rumoured to be interested in a stake in the team. They draw a massive crowd. “Vermilion will not be suck this year” states Ovechkin to gathered reporters, winking. 

The arena is upgraded with goal songs for each player, a new lighting package, and the goal horn adjusted to a demonic laughter accompanied by rock music. The fans will hear a lot of this sound in the first round.

After winning the first, “what is defending” game by a score of 7-5, backed by duelling hat tricks from Venediktov and Bruun, and some magnificent powerplay magic by Hellstrom, smashing in two bullet slapshots, and assisting 2 more, the Devils score 17 total goals over a 3-game sweep of their opponents. Angry at the end of the season, stinging from a first trophyless year and knowing what’s at stake, the Black Devils don’t ease up through the entire series, burying the Purple Eagles under an avalanche of rubber and grinding their players into the hospital-white boards that soon take up a reddish hue. Forgoing a game of extreme finesse in favour of North/South speed, firepower, and physicality, the team looks unstoppable and Vermilion the city is rocking.

But, the second round schedule is revealed - and fittingly, dramatically, Vermillion must now go through Welsford Riders, the nemesis of all nemeses, to achieve Rasputin’s goal of 5 promotions in 5 seasons. 

Edited by AlexanderRasputin

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Part VI

The first game of the second round is at home, at The Chasm. The mood is tinged with apprehension, but the success of the previous round, and the desire for revenge against the Riders overrides all fears and anxieties. The Vermilion players are fired up. Practices are testosterone-fueled, and the compete level is through the roof. 

Rasputin gathers the team near a makeshift altar within one of the nets, offerings to the Slavic god of war Veles strewn around redly on the white sheet of ice. The players know that this is the final battle of the war. Old injuries, mental strength, physical ability - all are about to be tested to the limit. He looks carefully around the squad of men assembled before him, searching for any signs of faltering, for any signs of crumbling under the pressure. He knows that, no matter their strength of spirit, players are human, and some need different approaches than others. 

What he sees looking back at him are stoic, focused faces of men ready to go to war. Rasputin focuses a little more on the Vermilion goaltender Moller. After sitting for the end of the season and the first round of the playoffs, he is eager for his chance. And Alexander, trusting his work for most of the season, trusting his ability to recover from his earlier breakdown, will give it to him. 

Moller will be the starting goaltender for the series against Welsford. “Devil” blares from the arena speakers, an avalanche of gold and black covering the inside of the arena. The Vermillion player gather together for a Slavic war chant, the Russian version of the Icelandic thunderclap, implemented by Rasputin, a huge football fan, earlier in the season. Adrenaline pumping, the players line up as Moller slams his stick to the ice.

The first minutes of the game are frenetic. Waldenstrom opens the scoring off the rush, finishing a lethal Vermilion attack. Peloso slams home another after 13 minutes, taking the puck and a Riders defenceman into the net. But, as before, the Riders answer quickly. Two goals are scored on a 5-on-3 powerplay, as the fired-up Vermilion players get into penalty trouble. A third comes soon after, as Hellstrom gets caught up ice on a Vermilion rush. The puck deflects off the crossbar off of a Vermilion shot, and Riders are 3 on 1 on the resulting rush. The trio makes no mistake, and Moller is picking the puck out of his net. In the third, despite Vermilion pressure, it is the same old story. The team can’t finish their chances. With the goaltender pulled, the Riders once again break out 3 on 1, and ice the game with a 4th goal. Vermilion keeps pushing until the end, getting a goal back off of a Yakovlev slapper, but it is, as before, not enough. The game ends 4-3 in favour of Welsford. Vermilion are two losses away from failure. 

Rasputin says the right things in the postgame interview. “We are still in this. We need to keep pushing. We need to play our game.” But it is his last statement which is key to the players - “I love this team. No matter what happens in this series and with my goals - they have shown themselves to be real men, real professionals, brilliant sportsmen. I came into this with the team as a tool to achieve my goal, but I am coming out of this with true appreciation of this squad. We will go forward, together, no matter how this ends.” 

The players, for the first time, feel the pressure of the Five Year Plan lift. Rasputin cancels practice and throws the team a massive Russian dinner. Vodka and conversation flows freely, and the players, for the first time in this headlong sprint, feel relaxed. 

Next game, they respond. Playing away at Welsford, the Devils play a game that is much more loose, relying on chemistry, skill, and controlling, rather than responding to, the flow of the game. The result speaks for itself. Total domination and a responsible defensive effort result in a 3-0 shutout win for Moller, who plays brilliantly, making several incredible saves with his trademark chaotic style. The series goes back to Vermilion tied 1-1. 

But the relaxed attitude is not without cost. Game 3 is at home, and the Black Devils are sloppy. Despite Stezhensky barking orders all over the ice, the forwards are trying to pull moves that are too fancy, losing the puck in their skates, and the defencemen are lax in backchecking. The physical play has suffered, and the team is overpassing when they should be driving to the net. Bure is incensed, losing his voice screaming, and looking like he is about to suit up and go onto the ice himself. Vermilion quickly falls behind 0-3 to a focused, driven Welsford team, and despite a late-game push, the previous pattern repeats itself. Final score: 6-2 Riders, with Vermilion outshot 42-26 and outhit 18-10. “Sympathy for the Devils” read the Vermilion newspapers. 

“We must do better. And we will.” Stezhensky speaks for the players. “We will win this series.”

Coming back to a hostile arena with Welsford knowing they can close out the series at home is tough, the toughest scenario the Black Devils have faced. The team is quiet on the flight, quiet on the bus ride, quiet in the pre-game skate. Unlikely heroes step up. Ostrout and Yakovlev, young players, come around to every Vermilion teammate, speak with them, motivate them. They lead the team in a pre-game chant, remind them of who they are and what’s at stake. And then they step up on the ice. Ostrout delivers a masterclass with 2 goals, 7 hits, and Yakovlev is a +3 as the Black Devils again defy the odds, rediscover their form led by the bottom half of their lineup, and edge the Riders 3-2 in Welsford. 

The decisive Game 5 is at home, at the Chasm. The furor has now reached indescribable levels. The city of Vermilion closes for game day. Aside from outdoor viewing parties, the streets are empty. “Give the Devils their due” say massive banners and flags across the city. The players do their best not to crumble under the weight of expectation, knowing that days like this are what define careers, lifetimes. 13,000 people fill the arena, with at least that many more on the streets. The atmosphere is raucous, primal. The media coverage reaches national levels and celebrities and NHL players are taking notice. 

Ovechkin, always quotable, is a guest analyst for the SHL playoffs.  “It is biggest party since we win the Cup. Of course, Washington is best city! But Vermilion is pretty good. Everybody jumping up and down... Lots of vodka, too.” 

Rasputin calls the team together pre-game. He quotes the great Sir Alex Ferguson: “The experience of defeat, and the manner in which one reacts to it, is an essential part of what makes a winner” he enunciates. “You have drained the life out of your opponents. You have taken them to the edge. Exorcise the demons - become devils yourselves. This is not about skill, not about structure. This is a pure test of wills. Make them blink first.”

“I don’t believe in fate” he adds, walking over and shaking the hand of every player, hugging some, exchanging meaningful nods with others. “Except for today.”
 

Edited by AlexanderRasputin

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PART VII

“Coming in there is like going through the arse-end of Satan” quips an unnamed SHL GM. “And they always pulled some stunt to make you feel on edge, like you didn’t belong. Like you had walked into a cult gathering or an orgy or something. It definitely affected gameplay.”

Vermilion Park, colloquially, and after this season - officially, known as The Chasm, is indeed a unique hockey arena. To enter, crowds are led through a fractured valley of a long hall, decorated with various occult scenes and eye-bending architecture. Sound booms, then disappears in a myriad of strange reflections. Lighting is equally eccentric, red and uneven, and fog is occasionally launched at visitors like at some kind of carnival fair. Some - many, criticize this as tacky and playing for shock value, but the atmosphere undoubtedly makes itself known.

“I think it’s cool as hell - literally”, says Rogath the Sad, a local Black Devils fan and black metal musician. “When I slither into The Chasm, I feel like I am entering an eldritch world of dark wonder and occult truths. It really helps distance myself from reality. I’ve even written a song about it, want to hear?” 


This uniqueness is even more apparent during these playoffs. A formal complaint is lodged by the Welsford Riders to the league. The visitor entrance is long and twisting, and Welsford must walk the gauntlet of what Rasputin, tongue-in-cheek, calls the Halls of Reflection. A long domed corridor with walls and ceilings entirely covered by LCD screens, it can be used to advertise, display various information, or even project calming images of night skies and nature for a 360 degree experience. For the past two days, though, prior to the decisive Game 5, it rolls Vermilion’s every goal against the Riders, every Welsford mistake, on a continuous loop. For the entirety of this long walk, the opposing team must endure a morale-sapping assault on their spirit, set to demonic laughter. 

The league rejects the complaint as trivial, warns Rasputin about unsportsmanlike behaviour, and Alexander gives a rare interview praising the opponent before the game. “They have the makeup of champions. They battered us all season. Welsford is our first true rival, and no matter what happens here today, that is forever part of our lore. Hats off to (Welsford GM) Nicolas Wiggins - if he keeps this up, they will have a bright future.”

“But we are going to win this game”, he adds emphatically. 

It is a cold autumn night in Vermilion. 13,000 people in the arena, as many in the streets, are holding their breath as the Canadian national anthem is performed and the puck drops for the final, nationally televised, game of the SHL playoffs. After an initial cautious 5 minutes, the game opens up with a monstrous hit by Stezhensky on a Riders forward entering the zone. The crowd salutes the Vermilion captain but the referees fairly sit him in the box for charging. As they have done throughout the series, the Riders capitalize on the ensuing powerplay. 1-0. But the hit has energized Vermilion, and they are laying opposing players out all over the ice. One more such hit, by Waldenstrom this time, frees a Welsford defenceman of the puck and Bruun picks it up, breaking away toward the goaltender. He fakes left, then right, running out of space, but the goaltender reads it well and gives him nothing. In a stroke of brilliance, Bruun accelerates past him and wraps the puck around from the other side, the surprised goalie failing to recover in time. The crowd roars and the Devils keep coming. Another massive hit by Hellstrom takes two Welsford players into the boards, Weichert recovers the puck and sends a blind backhand pass into the slot, where Danielsson is waiting with a simple tap-in. It is 2-1 Vermilion. 

But to the credit of the Riders, they are prepared to go blow for blow with the Black Devils machine. A takeaway in the neutral zone, and three crisp passes later, a one-timer sits inside the Vermilion net. Then, after a period of sustained Devils pressure, the Riders quiet the home support when a casual dump-in handcuffs Moller, and the Welsford forechecker places the puck into the empty net. The score after 40 minutes is 3-2 Welsford. Rasputin quickly gathers his team as they file off the ice. His message is simple. There is nothing he can say that the players don’t already know. He has faith in them, and he trusts them to motivate themselves.

Alexander and Bure stay on the bench as the Vermilion players go into the locker room. 

The situation worsens in the third. Just 3 minutes in, another powerplay for Welsford. The Vermilion Achilles heel this season has been their PK, and it is no different this time, as a collapse of bodies near the net results in a heavy deflection of a Riders point-shot, and, as before, Moller is picking the puck out of his net. 4-2 Riders. Rasputin is grim, but he and Bure walk around the bench calmly, telling the players they have confidence in them. Stezhensky and Peloso do the same, as captains, and it is the former who channels it into reality, as, with 7 minutes left and Vermilion outshooting Welsford 40-33, he snipes a bullet through a defenceman’s legs and past the Riders goaltender. 4-3. 

The Riders attempt to ice the game with another goal, but whatever happened in the Vermilion locker room in the 2nd intermission has calmed the team. They are playing surgical, precise hockey, defensively sound, all risk calculated - different from the passionate but disorganized start to this game. Again and again, the Devils intercept the puck in the middle of the ice, where the Riders have had success due to the lax Vermilion zone coverage. Retaining possession, Vermilion d-men patiently recycle the puck and wait for an opportunity, as the crowd performs the thunderclap chant, and frustration clearly begins to affect the Riders, alone in a hostile building. The moment comes with less than 3 minutes remaining in the 3rd. Hellstrom and Miville-Deschenes exchange cross-ice passes, after which the Swedish defenceman hits a streaking Weichert, who spins around a Riders player and sends the puck to the point, where the veteran Waldenstrom hammers it in off the crossbar. 4-4 with 1:57 remaining. The decibel level from the crowd is ludicrous as the Black Devils calmly skate to center ice, barely celebrating. They know their work is not yet done. 

The last two minutes fail to result in a goal, and this game is going to overtime.

Just as unnervingly, the Vermilion squad stays on the ice during the entire break, barely exchanging words, simply waiting for their opponents to get into position. Rasputin and Bure are likewise stone-faced, watching. The crowd also goes quiet, and the atmosphere is eerie. As the puck is dropped, the Riders throw everything they have at the Vermilion defence, trying to put away the game. And they almost do.

A drop pass finds the Devils defenceman out of position, and the resulting rising slapshot just catches the edge of Moller’s blocker, deflecting off the outside of the bar and out. An audible sigh escapes 13,000 lips as the puck is recovered by Yakovlev behind the net 2:35 into the overtime period. Circling slowly, he leaves it for a streaking Weichert as the announcer leads the crowd into yet another thunderclap. Weichert, as he has done all season, picks up speed around the outside as Welsford changes lines. Nothing is heard in the arena except the powerful rhythmic claps, like the sound of one massive heartbeat of a giant living organism. A Riders forward forechecks, and Weichert drops the puck to a gaining Peloso, then moves into the slot as the Canadian forward powers behind the Welsford net, pushing aside his man. “HUU” echoes in the stadium.

Peloso weaves into the corner, leaving the puck for Yakovlev, who has joined the play, evading a check from a Riders defenceman. The thunderclaps grow in intensity and speed. Yakovlev twists away from his checker, fakes a pass to the point to commit the oncoming defenceman, looks up, and throws the puck cross-ice to Weichert at the right circle. The rubber disc moves slowly, as if underwater. Receiving the puck in space, already moving, Weichert takes two strides forward, eye to eye with the readying goaltender, half a step ahead of the flailing stick of a Riders defenceman. The thunderclap is deafening. The German centre winds up, freezing the goaltender, maintaining eye contact - and sends a no-look cross-crease pass to the left. Throwing bodies aside, an off-the-rails freight train coming from the left point, Peloso reaches the puck and connects. 

For a second, all is quiet - until a cinematic roar shakes the stadium and doesn’t stop, making even the goal siren inaudible. Releasing all the emotion they’ve held in check, the Vermilion players throw off their gear and pile on to one another, Rasputin shaking the hand of the Riders GM, and diving in on top of the gold and black pile. The Russian manager roars at the crowd and they respond, ecstatic. Stoic Stezhensky sheds tears, Weichert and Peloso are hitting each other on the back like they are choking, demonic laughter echoes in the stadium, and in the middle of the celebration, Bure and a few players disengage to console the dejected Riders. In overtime, after a blow-for-blow, evenly matched battle, the Black Devils exorcise their own demons and beat the Welsford Riders to win their SHL playoff series, 3 games to 2.

Rasputin's impossible Five-Year Plan is a reality - 5 seasons, 5 promotions - and the Vermilion Black Devils, against all odds, are going to the GHL. 

Edited by AlexanderRasputin

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SEASON 6:

GHL - the Sixth Circle


(45-5-4-26 - 4th place)

Part I

The summer flies by in a drunken haze as Vermilion does its best to match the Washington Stanley Cup party of 2018. An erstwhile forgotten town of 2000 people is approaching life as a 200,000 mini-metropolis - exponential, necessary growth to support the Black Devils machine. The town has spread far and wide, has its own airport, a substantial hockey-centric infrastructure supporting its arena, and continuous influx of sponsor funds and new businesses has made both the city and its hockey club comfortable financially. The Devils squad, and Rasputin himself, have become legends in the community. They spend the summer visiting schools, community centres, bars, birthday parties, business events, anywhere they are welcome - which is everywhere. A massive mural with a squad image and scenes from their SHL run decorates the wall of the Vermilion Town Hall. The past and future of this city is now inextricably tied to the hockey club. 

At yet another massive banger honouring the Black Devils, Rasputin breaks away from the wall of jumping players and walks over onto the balcony, tossing back his vodka. He leans over the railing, thoughtful. At this moment, his celebration is finished. Alexander wants more, and knows the real story has only just begun. Vermilion are newcomers in the GHL, having earned no victories and no respect. Being an average GHL team is not in Rasputin’s plans, and so work, risk, moves - all must start right now. 

Next week, as 5 years ago, Rasputin stands in front of a crowd in the Vermilion city square. This time, his appearance is met by earsplitting whistles, a massive cheer that doesn’t stop, and a 5 minute chant of “Devils, Devils, hail!”.

Finally, he raises his arms to quiet the crowd - the high priest of this particular ongoing ritual. 

“5 years ago, we made a pact,” he begins. “And this pact was delivered by both sides. I promised you victory and a place in the GHL,” Alexander points to the demon statue with five flames lit. “And it is done. You promised me and my players your unconditional support, and we have had it, gratefully. Both of us have had a brilliant, historic journey to get here. Are you satisfied?!”

The crowd bellows. Alexander grins and nods. 

“But another journey is about to begin. Another pact, another Five-Year Plan. In 5 seasons, I intend to have championship banners fill the rafters in there.” He points to the massive bulk of The Chasm behind the crowd. “But before this happens, there will be turmoil. There will be victories, to be sure - but also losses. Sobering moments. Decisions you do not understand. Here and now, once again, I promise you victory in return for your unconditional support.” Rasputin leans forward. “Do I have it?”

Another massive roar of “YESSS” emanates from the crowd, almost a demonic howl that can be heard far and wide.

Alexander nods, as does the horned priest behind him. The pact is made. 


But first, the draft. Vermilion narrowly misses on a top 4 pick due to their 3rd place finish, and so does not have a shot at the two generational talents on show - Ulric Patternaude and Pavlo Savaryn. But Rasputin already has chosen his player. Austrian playmaker Sandro Koch, on Rasputin’s radar since his brilliant showing up of the Devils squad at scrimmage, is selected 5th overall, and is overjoyed to join the team. Koch will be a cornerstone of the new Black Devils offence and a fixture in the team top 6 for years to come. “His vision is f****** brilliant”, enthuses Alexander. “And the way he motivated those other teenagers - there’s massive leadership potential there. Sandro has all the building blocks of a future superstar - elite speed, hands, and defensive awareness. I can put him on the top line right now at 17, and have no doubts he will succeed at the GHL level.” Koch’s only weakness is physicality, but the Vermilion scouting team is not concerned. “Larionov-lite” grumbles Bure, but he’s a fan too. 

The team’s next move is to secure goaltending. GHL-quality players in this position are at a premium, so Rasputin targets a trade before the season even begins - and he knows who he wants. After protracted negotiations, a mega-deal with SHL team Fighting Bobcats is struck for star G and Russian wildman Juris Alenin, Vermilion shipping out Moller (who prefers to remain an SHL starter), and star playmaker Bruun. “This was tough to make,” comments Alexander. “Moller pulled us into the GHL after the team pulled him through his own dark time. But he thought he needed another year in the SHL to get his confidence back - and we understood that. I want to thank Paul and Ejnar for their brilliant service to the team - they will be forever part of our history.” 

The scouting report on 26 year old Alenin paints him as Hasek 2.0 - incredibly athletic despite his lack of height, unpredictable and ballsy. His heroics are made possible by extremely good goaltending fundamentals and a killer breakout pass, putting up an absolutely phenomenal 15 assists in the SHL this past season. “I like Juris, I like his attitude, I like his uniqueness among goaltenders. He was my #1 choice, there was no #2. Negotiations took a while, but this is a coup, a truly world-class goaltender is a massive step in the direction of victory.”

Rasputin adds, “You all know how we play. We need an animal in the net to motivate the team, and we will put Juris in a position where those breakout passes are going to get us goals.”
 

Sandro Koch.png

Juris Alenin.png


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Part II

Rasputin knows that the only way to compete is to make a huge splash in free agency. The competition is strong, but the Devils have been smart and have more than a few team-friendly contracts, leaving a lot of money on the table for potential free agent signings. The shortlist is relatively small, but the Black Devils need improvement in every area but goal, so it will be crucial to succeed with signings. 

Going against his instincts, and at the urging of Stezhensky, Alexander extends the strongest offers to defencemen. He has four primary targets: veteran defensive defenceman Tor Magnusson, a legend in the GHL; Cup winner and offensive powerhouse Jerry Drougge, and two-way d-man Kenwyne Letson, known for his skating and one of the league leaders in takeaways. The final, crucial piece, is 21 year old promising and well-rounded blueliner Bruno Lanz, a possible foundational player for the Vermilion defence. Alexander decides he will be happy if he lands 3/4, as bids from other, more established GHL teams come in. 

The Black Devils extend another large offer to powerforward Wiktor Fogelberg, who has elite skating and puckhandling, and has been criminally underutilized on a mediocre Spartans team for the last few seasons before being released in FA. Rasputin sees a perennial top-liner in Fogelberg, still young at 26, and knows the player can be a 30-goal, 60-point performer. 

With the remaining salary space, the Devils send offers to veteran C Noa D’Onofrio, a small but silky-smooth and defensively-sound playmaker, and a variety of fast and physical forwards to flesh out the bottom six. 

The Free Agent targets are ambitious for a team that has just promoted. Rasputin is aware that he may need to bid for a second round of less suitable players if his initial bids fall through. But he discounts that possibility, instead choosing to make serious bids for the few players he actually wants, realizing that overpaying is a small price for GHL performance. But he takes the time to visit each of the potential signings, and pitches the Black Devils vision to them directly. 


As the Vermilion fans anxiously await news from free agency, Rasputin sends out a crack scouting team of Russian hacker-looking types to infiltrate existing GHL teams and create an insider shortlist of future targets. He is not only looking for performance, but also character. The "scouts" will find these players in bars in clubs, in gyms and at grocery stores. They will observe and record, see the intangibles in action. The approach is scientific but also based on gut instinct - these players need to be mentally sound and committed - proven winners. Alexander intends to trade and trade big - and they will play a key role as he rebuilds his team in the next two seasons.

The goal this first GHL season is to make the playoffs and test the Black Devils mettle against the strongest GHL has to offer. Next season, the title challenge is on. 
 

Wiktor Fogelberg.png

Jerry Drougge.png

Bruno Lanz.png


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Part III

As free agent responses come in, Rasputin is surprised and elated to find out that ALL of his primary FA targets chose to sign with the Black Devils - a shocking and welcome development. Magnusson, Drougge, Letson, Lanz on defence, and Fogelberg and D’Onofrio on offence will join Vermilion for the upcoming season and beyond. This is a huge step toward true competitiveness. As the press release goes out, Black Devils fans are dancing on the streets. 

"This is bullshit," - comments an anonymous GM to the media. "They must have paid someone off or...got the mafia to threaten them or something. Who do they think they are? There's a way we do things in this league, and signing all the top free agents is NOT that way." Others welcome the added competition. "This was coming for a while," adds another GM. "The top teams in this league have gotten too fat and content to be truly competitive. Only a matter of time before someone delivers a strong kick in the ass, and I think that time has come, not only with the Devils, but with the Fighters in the West, and some of the other promoted teams, who are hungry and talented."

Drougge comments in his signing interview: “After winning the Golden Cup a couple of seasons back, I’ve been considering new challenges. My mentality has always been that of an offensive d-man, and when I spoke with Alex, he was confident he could offer me the offensive pivot role on both even-strength and the PP. Plus, with the amount of high-quality finishers on this team, I think I’ll enjoy lighting them up with breakaway passes. Fogelberg is also joining? I hate defending against that guy, will be good to have him on my side for once.”

“Alexander specifically wanted me because of my experience in the league, at a very high level,” says Magnusson. “It’s good, I want to be a mentor at this point in my career. I’ve had some great seasons, and it’s time to pass some of that to the younger guys. Doesn’t hurt that I’ll be playing a key defensive role on the team. The Black Devils have a great story, and a lot of young players - but the GHL is a different animal, you know? And I’m happy to help out.”

Fogelberg agrees. “The story, man - it’s all about the story behind this team. Everyone knows of them. There are some GMs and players in this league that are dreading, just DREADING the arrival of the Black Devils, because you know this team will have success, and quickly.” He laughs. “I had to get on that train, no question. Plus I could have sworn I saw Alex at some of my games this past season, scouting me - and he told me I was his top offensive target so…of COURSE I said yes immediately.”

Lanz, Letson, and D’Onofrio echo these sentiments in the press. They can’t wait to get started. Rasputin now has a fully staffed defensive corps, and goaltending is set. The build-out from the back is a smashing success, and even a casual observer will see that Vermilion is a GHL-caliber defensive team with the pairings tentatively slotted as Drougge - Letson, Magnusson - Lanz, Stezhensky is joined on the 3rd pairing by young two-way d-man Elmeri Laaksonen - a highly skilled problem child that couldn't find a home on other GHL teams.

It is rather more complicated on the forward front, however. Aside from D’Onofrio and Fogelberg, the Black Devils land highly skilled veteran Alharbi Gorius, an impulse signing by Alexander in a rapidly thinning FA market. These three will make up the Vermilion top line. Team mainstays such as Peloso, Weichert, Danielsson, and new arrival playmaker Abbas Hodgkinson will compose the rest of the Devils forwards. But this is not a GHL-calibre level offence - not yet.

Rasputin aims to turn his scouting into trades soon into the season, and is already getting in touch with other GMs about their players, letting them know that many assets, including Vermilion’s GHL 1st, are on the table. Some preliminary offers are sent out. Rasputin knows that many will be flat out rejections, but exploring all, even the most unlikely options, is part of his plan. Being gentle about it - is not. Predictably, this rubs some of the already uneasy established GHL teams the wrong way, and complaints about Vermilion’s aggressive trade market behaviour begin to fly.

This will become a popular issue in the media and among GHL GMs in the coming seasons. 


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Part IV

Yet again, Rasputin stubbornly does not change his tactics to adapt to the stronger league, despite the now comparatively weaker squad he has available to him.
“Offensive play is in our blood - we strike quickly and often. I am not interested in changing the team’s DNA. In our case, Muhammad will not come to the mountain - the mountain will come to Muhammad.” The meaning behind this phrase is clear - Vermilion wants to bend the GHL to its will and playstyle. These are loud words, and the public reaction is mixed. Comments of disrespect and arrogance populate the back pages of rival newspapers, and some teams are certainly now more invested into bringing the brash new GHL arrival down to earth. 

But the team starts strong. In the first game of the season, they take out Oshawa, the reigning GHL champion, 2-1, in a strong defensive performance. Then they win three more in a row, turning heads around the league. But fortune is fickle and the room for error is nonexistent. A shred of overconfidence brings a 4-game losing streak, and a team meeting where Rasputin calmly walks around the room verbally slapping every player to show them they are not stars in this league. Humbled, the team responds by winning 12 out of the next 14 and vaulting to the top of the Eastern conference. Fogelberg and D’Onofrio develop great chemistry, and Drougge lives up to his star status by leading the league in D scoring. Koch is trusted by Rasputin to rotate in on the 1st line, demonstrating maturity and formidable talent for an 18 year old rookie. Vermilion plays the same high-octane, formidable offensive style as before, but with an added physical element on defence - and even more speed leading to a stronger North-South game. 

Conscious that 5 seasons is a short time, and surprised and pleased by the quick start, Rasputin nevertheless continues to rebuild the team’s roster. Two massive trades (for players with chin straps) are made that will define the Black Devils for seasons to come. A prolonged negotiation with Outlaws finally results in Black Devils acquiring veteran superstar winger Sylvain Monciau-Desormeaux - a previous playoff MVP, leader, and proven GHL scorer. 

“I remember looking at him for a few seasons now, looking at his play, looking at his interviews, and thinking - damn, this guy is cool under pressure,” says Alexander. “An absolute professional. An iceman. One of those guys where the house would be burning, and he would calmly gather everyone and their things, take them outside, put out the fire, and put on tea for the firefighters as they arrive. But, of course, his level of skill is immense and he leads by example as well. I turned to Pavel and said - this is who we want as a captain. Let’s get him on the team.”

Sylvain arrives with fanfare, takes the atmosphere on with class and humility, and proceeds to score 20 goals in 40 games with Vermilion following the trade, playing an expansive power game and acting as a second hammer of the team, along with fellow powerforward Peloso. The addition of such star power shows the league that the Devils mean serious business. Monciau-Desormeaux never takes a shift off, leads calmly but persistently, and quickly becomes a fan favourite, his iconic #11 jersey selling out in every retailer.

Vermilion’s second major acquisition comes via a trade with Welsboro Settlers. Playmaking C and recent 6th overall pick Izac Mackreth joins the team as the heir apparent for a 1st line playmaker role. Mackreth is a faceoff specialist - something the team currently lacks, and has top-tier offensive skills despite not being a top physical specimen. A consistent drop in performance the last three seasons is something Alexander thinks is more due to deployment than talent or work rate, and he is confident Mackreth will become a valuable long-term member of the Black Devils squad. 

The season flies by, the squad taking shape and battling through tough stretches, while building chemistry. Rasputin and Bure shuffle lines, eye potential partnerships, and plan for next year. It is well understood by the club and fanbase that this first season will be needed to get the team to where it can challenge for titles. Despite some difficult losses, the Devils keep their standings place high, and ultimately finish 4th, shockingly only 5 points from 1st place. Fogelberg lives up to expectations, breaking the 30-goal, 60-point plateau, and Monciau-Desormeaux finishes third in goalscoring in the GHL. The Black Devils do not have a minus player in the entire squad, with Letson leading the team and league at a massive +44.

In the playoffs, buoyed by the regular seasons success, and motivated by veteran leadership, Vermilion makes short work of perennial GHL contender Harrow Hawks, sweeping an ill-tempered, physical, and close series that will set the stage for a bloody rivalry. In the next round, the team goes blow for blow with East champion Bandits, ultimately falling in Game 5, overcome by a more experienced team - which does absolutely nothing to dampen the club’s and Rasputin’s spirit. 

“Goddamn brilliant season” enunciates Alexander, standing in front of throngs of fans and media near The Chasm. “Next year, the East is ours.”
 

IZAC MACKRETH.png

S. M-Desormeaux.png


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SEASON 7:

GHL


(49-4-2-25 - 1st place)

 

Part I


Little Timmy is eating his morning toast, the birds are chirping. The TV is on, the sun is shining - and a massive “OH SH**!” is heard from his dad’s office, as Timmy Sr. runs out staring at his cellphone in disbelief. That is the sound of Vermilion’s first off-season deal this year, where the Devils ship out stalwart D Letson and a 1st rounder prior to the draft for superstar Davin Coronado, a 28-year old two-way defenceman widely considered to be a top 10 player in the GHL. The team is pushing forward at a mouthwatering pace and the city is once again, rocking in black and gold. 

The journey is not without sadness. Long-time captain and ironman Stezhensky leaves the team to play for CSKA back in Russia, Letson and Gorius are lost through trades. The team holds a ceremony retiring Stezhensky’s #48, then throws a massive, traditional Russian bender that includes the whole city. Kvass, vodka, pickle juice flow like rivers. The streets are carpeted with perogies and olivye. The team drunkenly sings “Katyusha”, Lyube, and Stezhensky’s favourite Russian songs until the day dawns and his limo pulls up to take him to Moscow. 

But the squad chemistry takes a hit yet again. Danielsson, a fan favourite and BHL hero, demands to leave after languishing on the 3rd line, and is promptly moved without reservation. In another masterstroke, Rasputin ships him out with 3 other players to relegating Natashquan for powerforward Matej Stuk, a Czech hitting machine with a venomous shot and a bit of an attitude problem. “You guys were asking us to hit more, right?”, quips Rasputin to assembled reporters. “Here you go.” 

Reporters look around before realizing “Stuk” means “hit” or “knock” in Russian. They’re not sure whether Alexander is joking or not, but Stuk himself takes this to heart. A huge movie and tv enthusiast, he walks around getting into players’ and staff faces screaming “I AM THE ONE WHO KNOCKS” in broken English. It is every bit as terrifying as it seems; but Alexander finds it hilarious and fully counts on using that fear on the ice. 

Going from brute strength to more brute strength, the Devils pick up Belarussian defenceman Nikita Drozd on waivers from Copper Mountain. Drozd has three main qualities that far outshine anything else he brings to the table - speed, physicality, and determination. Carrying a PhD in planetary physics obtained while sitting on the bench in Copper Mountain, and the go-to team expert on geopolitics, “Rocket Man” will be the ultimate role-player on defence, slotting in where necessary, and will rediscover his best form at 30 after joining this young Black Devils team. 

This season continues the Devils’ rebuild into a powerhouse. Despite adding chemistry to a new lineup and facing an always-improving set of rivals, the team's play is holding its own. The top line of Monciau-Desormeaux, Stuk, and Mackreth are on fire, posting a CF% of over 60 for the first third of the season, and keeping Vermilion in the top 3 in the conference. Coronado and Drougge find success as a purely offensive 1st D pair - something that even Bure considers risky, but Rasputin pushes forward with until an eventual implosion. It will come from the bottom half of the team, hardly GHL-calibre; their mediocre performances masked by the success of the top 6. Fresh off a victory against reigning cup champion Outlaws, the team proceeds to drop 4 out of 5 against mid-table opponents, their bottom 6 shelled. Changes must be made.

Nikita Drozd.png

Matej Stuk.png

Davin Coronado.png


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PART II

Embracing risk yet again despite the stable performance of the team, Rasputin makes two massive trades, giving away both his picks and some players. D’Onofrio and a 1st are shipped out for veteran offensive C Loukas Gadsby, an elite point producer with an unparalleled finesse game who excels in every area, including faceoffs - a weakness down the middle for the team that Alexander has long been trying to address. Gadsby is, at the time, the GHL’s point leader, and the trade, despite being beneficial for a rebuilding Falconridge team, is widely panned by the rest of the league, still rankling from Vermilion’s brashness and outsider status. 

In his first interview, the normally soft-spoken Gadsby has this to say: “It’s normal. I hated them too when they entered the league. It’s an old boys club here, has been for a while. Not a lot of waves in this pond. I think there’s going be a lot of s*** hitting the fan soon, a lot of tears. Let me tell you a secret - the culture here [at Vermilion] is built on the tears of opponents. The more you cry, the better they play.

The last sentence makes it to hundreds of fan-printed shirts the next day, and instantly makes Gadsby a fan favourite. His performance on the ice solidifies this view, as he finishes the season with 40 points in 50 games and a +30 in the gold and black jersey. 

But Gadsby is head-hunted for his comments, and it is the Devils’ second arrival, rookie defenceman, 1st round pick, and himself a known headhunter Akseli Kokko, who drops the gloves time and time again, with Oshawa, then Harrow, then Highland, to defend his fellow newcomer from hits. The bond between two only grows, as the two are core PK pieces for the team, Gadsby’s speed and finesse complimented perfectly by Kokko’s physical presence and defensive acumen. The Devils, angry, begin to hit back, Stuk making it his mission to lay out thunderous hits game after game. Within weeks, a banner saying “STUK STUK, MOTHER******” will be ever-present behind the home team’s net at The Chasm, the words chanted by rabid fans after Stuk’s every hit. 

With the lines clicking like never before, Vermilion closes the season strong. Neck in neck with reigning East champion Copper Mountain, a mere 3 points separating the two teams, the Devils find another gear in home games, cheered by an insanely loud crowd, playing to prove they belong, playing to silence the boos and chants in away arenas. Alexander starts every home game with a montage of dirty plays, hits, crowd reactions, to motivate the team, elevate its underdog status. They, to a man, SHL players, GHL outcasts, young rookies, veteran GHL stars, all have something to prove.

And they do. The Vermilion machine goes 16-3 to end the season, pulling away from Copper Mountain and, in their second GHL season, shockingly and brazenly winning the Eastern Conference with 157 points. 

They roll through the first playoff round, taking out legendary Lumsden Lions in 4 games, outscoring them 16-9 in a series showcasing the deadly Vermilion PP, and backed by stellar performances of Juris Alenin, fast becoming a Vermilion playoff hero. But the young team comes against another defensive juggernaut in rival Harrow Hawks, and the fired-up, adrenaline fueled streak turns against them. The Hawks coolly hold their head against a dominant Vermilion offence, strike on their own stellar powerplay, and get their revenge for previous season's sweep, eliminating the Devils in a series of close 1-goal games. 

Rasputin isn’t disheartened. “I only have one thing to say to you all” - he points at the reporters, “And to the other teams in this league. We’re coming for you.”
 

Loukas Gadsby.png

Akseli Kokko.png


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