Sunday, July 15, 2007

The NHL Entry Draft Mirrors Life

Imagine you are 18 years old. Your parents, who truly believe you are the next coming of Mario Lemieux, insist you fly alone to Columbus for the 2007 National Hockey League Entry Draft so you can accept your team’s jersey in person-- against your agent's advice. Preceding scouting reports indicate you’ll likely go in the fourth round. Your parents can only afford the one ticket and stay home with your siblings to watch the draft on TV.

After your plane lands in Columbus and you pick up your bags from the baggage turnstile, there is a van waiting for you and a group of other players who arrived from other destinations. With the belongings all loaded and players strapped in, the van then proceeds along International Gateway, steering towards the 670 West/US-62 West/Cassady Avenue exit. Along the 670, the van turns left on Neil Avenue and pulls in front of the media entrance of the Nationwide Arena alongside Nationwide Boulevard. This will be your home for the next few days.

Draft day comes and you’re sitting in the lower bowl of the arena – by yourself. There is quite a buzz of activity. About two or three whole sections of the stands are set up as a media area, with tables and plug-ins, where some familiar well-known faces are sprinkled in, talking, working on their laptops, and mulling around.

The floor of the arena has no ice. Instead there are 30 sets of tables with numerous chairs and each table has a sign with its team’s name and logo. You can see Brian Burke of the Anaheim Ducks on the phone and several individuals you don’t recognize talking all around him. You see Wayne Gretzky from the Phoenix Coyotes, Jacques Lemaire from the Minnesota Wild, Glen Sather of the New York Rangers, and a host of other familiar faces and legends of the game.

There are people sitting intermittently throughout the stands: groups of people representing a player and his family; others who are probably agents assessing the mood of the floor; and interested bystanders who just want to see what the event is all about.

You took a tour of the building on the first night, when Round One was conducted, and saw the press conference area, where the drafted players have been directed to go after their names are announced, to face the media and questions. There is a podium with a microphone set up in front of a blue backdrop with the NHL logo and the Columbus 2007 Draft logo. The area is basically set up for just the first two rounds.

Your agent checks in on you periodically but he has three other players attending the draft, all touted for the first two rounds and there is an anticipated bidding war for one of them. He does his best to make you feel comfortable and ease your nervousness, but his cell phone is going off every two minutes. It’s almost better without him there.

The first round took the better part of three hours to go through. The second round is almost as long. The whole thing is real long. Because the first round is televised and with there being a set time between picks for teams to make their assessments and put in their order, the day drags. There are a few people you can talk to, mostly rival players in your division. They are at the draft with their families, so it would be uncomfortable for you to sit with them for any length of time. You mostly chat with each other in the concourse.

You sit and wait. Round three rolls by…round four…round five. Your name is still not called. The sixth round comes and goes, and now, your stomach is really starting to clench. Your mouth is dry, regardless of how many bottled waters you drink. Your heart starts pounding. You think about why you’re there. Will you get picked? Why does nobody want you? You love your parents but can’t help but feel a bit of anger towards them for insisting you be here.

It’s the middle of round eight and still no call. You see the hub of tables on the floor area winding down. There are only a few picks left and you can see there are no more deals being made.

The last name is picked and it’s not you. You just want to sink into your seat and hide. You don’t want anyone to see you and know what a failure you are. You didn’t get picked. Out of all those names, yours wasn’t one of them. But what about that scouting report? It said you’d go in the fourth. Did everyone lie to you?

In 2000, I attended my first NHL Entry Draft. It was also the same year that Minnesota and Columbus were accepted into the league, hence the pick announcement for the Expansion Draft was held the night before. It was the year of Dany Heatley, Marian Gaborik, Marcel Hossa, and John-Michael Liles.

Although I filed a report for one of my usual sources, my main assignment was for the New England Sports Journal – to do a story on the players that were from the New England area.

It was exciting, boring, and a fabulous networking event. Everyone who was anyone in hockey was there: general managers, presidents, coaches, agents, scouts, media, and alumni.

From the media perspective, there wasn’t a lot of downtime. After the luncheon on the same day as the Expansion Draft, a media availability of players afterwards included most of the players that were slated to go in the first 10 spots. I remember being able to get in a couple of one-on-one questions with Gaborik.

The entire hockey world was set on its heels on the first pick when New York Islanders General Manager Mike Milbury picked Boston University’s Rick DiPietro. It was the first time in hockey history that a netminder had gone first overall since 1968, when the Montreal Canadiens drafted Michel Plasse. Back then only 24 players were picked altogether.

Of course, for me, the draft was over. My job was basically done in the first pick. What a story. I spent about three quarters of the rest of the first round sitting in the press conference when DiPietro was brought to the podium in the media area and then waded through the scrums, vying for a one-on-one, only getting to pitch maybe two questions total. My story was all about DiPietro with a few footnotes about the other New Englanders who were picked in subsequent rounds.

Over the years I’ve spoken with players about their lives behind the scenes, but not just the NHL guys, the juniors, too. I’ve always had a strong passion for junior hockey, stemming back to my adolescent days in Edmonton. One of the questions I talk to many of them about is the NHL Entry Draft.

The draft story that sticks out the most is the one that has inspired me throughout the last 10 or so years of my career – after Theoren Fleury told it to me. In his first year of eligibility (1986), Theo was at a wedding in Rosetown. He said he must have called his dad about 20 times. Nothing. No calls from anyone.

“I made the last call around midnight and nobody had called,” says Fleury. “It was a real disappointment to not be drafted the first year. I didn’t have a great year but I didn’t have a bad one.”

The following year, he had made the World Junior team and had a great season. He stayed home for the draft and was about to give up when in the final round, he finally got the call.

“It was about 3:00 when (Flames scout) Ian MacKenzie phoned me and told me I was drafted by the Flames. It was nice to be at home and share it with my family. We were all pretty excited. I think the biggest thing was, even though I was really disappointed the first year, in the second year, all I ever wanted was a chance and an opportunity. Fortunately, the Flames gave me that chance.”

He was picked 166th overall by the Calgary Flames. So what’s the big deal? Well, Theo was drafted at a time when teams were looking for size and strength – guys like Eric Lindros – big and bulky with some talent. Guys like Brendan Shanahan, Glen Wesley, Joe Sakic, who went in the first round. Theo was 5’7” and small by the 80s wish list standard.

But the story doesn’t end there. Unbeknownst to Theo at the time, he almost didn’t get drafted. When it came time for the Flames to make its final pick, they weren’t going to pick him. MacKenzie almost had to get on his hands and knees and beg then GM Cliff Fletcher to give this kid a shot. He said they wouldn’t be disappointed. And they weren’t.

To me, that story epitomizes everything that sports stands for. Every situation can be filled with high drama. And then, no matter how bad the odds seem to be stacked against you, anything can happen. And like in life, if even just one person stands in your corner, it’s all you need to get where you’re going.

For all of those fortunate to be chosen, it’s only the beginning. They still need to do the work to get to training camp and they are a long way off from making a team. For those who aren’t chosen or even on the list, it’s not always the end of the line. Some of the league’s undrafted players include Ed Belfour, Curtis Joseph, John Madden, Andy McDonald, Martin St. Louis, and Dwayne Roloson. Some of those names are engraved on Stanley Cups. Then there are those drafted players, even in the first round, who never get out of the minor leagues or they go to Europe and disappear from the radar.

Sports is an emotional roller coaster in every aspect, be it the draft, a shift, a game, and even a career. Some of the best lessons are taught through adversity, but definitely, the easy ones are to learn are from watching others, like athletes, go through their own.


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