Imagine you are 18 years old. Your parents, who truly believe that you are the next future of Mario Lemieux, insist that you fly alone to Columbus for the 2007 National Hockey League entry draft so you can accept your team’s jersey in person, against the advice from your agent. Previous scouting reports indicate that you will probably go to round four. Your parents can only pay for 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 at the baggage turnstile, there is a van waiting for you and a group of other players who arrived from other destinations. With all belongings loaded and players tied down, the van continues through International Gateway, heading toward the 670 West/US-62 West/Cassady Avenue exit. Along the 670, the van turns left onto Neil Avenue and stops in front of the Nationwide Arena media entrance off Nationwide Boulevard. This will be your home for the next few days.
Draft day comes and you’re sitting in the bottom bowl of the arena, alone. There is quite a bustle of activity. About two or three full sections of the stands are set up as a media area, with tables and plug-ins, where some familiar familiar faces are sprinkled in, talking, working on their laptops and pondering.
The floor of the arena is ice-free. Instead, there are 30 sets of tables with numerous chairs and each table has a sign with its team name and logo. You can see Brian Burke of the Anaheim Ducks talking on the phone and various people you don’t recognize talking around him. You see Wayne Gretzky of the Phoenix Coyotes, Glen Sather of the New York Rangers, and a host of other familiar faces and legends of the game.
There are people seated intermittently throughout the stands: groups of people representing a player and his family; others that are probably agents that assess the mood of the floor; and interested passers-by who just want to see what the event is about.
You took a tour of the building the first night, when Round One took place, and you saw the press conference area, where drafted players have been instructed to go after their names are announced, to face to the media and questions. There is a podium with a microphone set up in front of a blue background with the NHL logo and the 2007 Columbus Draft logo on it. The area is basically set up for the first two rounds only.
Your agent visits you periodically, but he has three other players coming to the draft, all promoted to the first two rounds, and there’s an early bidding war going on for one of them. He does his best to make you comfortable and ease your nervousness, but his cell phone rings every two minutes. It’s almost better without him there.
The first round took almost three hours to complete. The second round is almost as long. The whole thing is very long. Because the first round is televised and there is a set time between picks for teams to make their evaluations and place their order, the day gets longer. There are a few people you can talk to, mostly rival players in your division. They’re on the draft with their families, so it would be awkward for you to sit with them for an extended period of time. Most of the time you chat with each other in the contest.
You sit and wait. Round three rolls by…round four…round five. Her name is still not called. Round six goes back and forth, and now, your stomach really starts to shoot up. Her mouth is dry no matter how many bottles of water she drinks. Your heart begins to pound. You think why you are there. Will you be chosen? Why does nobody love you? You love your parents, but you can’t help but feel a little angry at them for insisting that you be here.
It’s the middle of round eight and there’s still no call. You see that the center of tables in the floor area is reduced. There are only a few selections left and you can see that no more deals are taking place.
The last name is chosen 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. They didn’t choose you. Of all those names, yours was not one of them. But what about that scan report? He said you would go in the room. 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, so the selection announcement for the Expansion Draft was made 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 regular sources, my main assignment was for the New England Sports Journal: to do a story on the players who were from the New England area.
It was exciting, boring and a fabulous networking event. Everyone who was anybody in hockey was there: general managers, presidents, coaches, agents, scouts, media outlets and alumni.
From a media perspective, there wasn’t much downtime. After lunch the same day of the Expansion Draft, a player media availability later included most of the players who were scheduled to go in the top 10 spots. I remember being able to ask a couple of questions one on one with Gaborik.
The entire hockey world stood up for the top pick when New York Islanders general manager Mike Milbury selected Rick DiPietro from Boston University. It was the first time in hockey history that a netminder was first overall since 1968, when the Montreal Canadiens drafted Michel Plasse. Back then, only 24 players were chosen in total.
Of course, for me, the draft was over. My job was basically done on the first pick. What a story. I spent about three-quarters of the rest of the first round sitting in the news conference as DiPietro was ushered to the podium in the media area and then made my way through the scrums, competing for one-on-one, only getting to pitch maybe two. total problems. My story was all about DiPietro with a few footnotes about the other New Englanders who were drafted in later rounds.
Over the years, I’ve talked to players about their lives behind the scenes, but not just the guys in the NHL, but the juniors as well. I have always had a great passion for youth hockey, dating back to my teenage days in Edmonton. One of the questions I talk to a lot of them about is the NHL Entry Draft.
The draft of history that stands out the most is the one that has inspired me throughout the last 10 years of my career, after Theoren Fleury told me about it. In his first year of eligibility (1986), Theo was at a wedding in Rosetown. He said that he must have called his father about 20 times. Not a thing. No calls from anyone.
“I made the last call around midnight and no one had called,” says Fleury. “It was a real disappointment that I didn’t get 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 junior world team and had a great season. He stayed home during the draft and was about to give up when in the final round, he finally got the call.
“It was around 3:00 when (Flame scout) Ian MacKenzie called me on the phone and told me the Flames drafted me. It was nice being home and sharing it with my family. We were all very excited. The biggest thing was, even though I was really disappointed the first year, in the second year, all I ever wanted was an opportunity and an opportunity. Fortunately, the Flames gave me that opportunity.”
He was picked 166th overall by the Calgary Flames. So what is the problem? 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 came in the first round. Theo was 5’7″ and petite by ’80s wish list standard.
But the story does not end there. Unbeknownst to Theo at the time, he was hardly drafted. When it came time for the Flames to make their final pick, they weren’t going to pick him. MacKenzie almost had to get on his knees and beg then-GM Cliff Fletcher to give this kid a chance. He said they wouldn’t be disappointed. And they were not.
To me, that story epitomizes everything the sport stands for. Every situation can be filled with great drama. And then no matter how bad the odds seem against you, anything can happen. And as in life, if one person is in your corner, that’s all you need to get where you’re going.
For all those lucky enough to be chosen, it’s just the beginning. They still need to do the work to get to training camp and are a long way from building a team. For those who don’t get elected or even make 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 make it out of the minor leagues or go to Europe and drop off the radar.
Sports are an emotional roller coaster in every aspect, be it the draft, an at-bat, a game, and even a career. Some of the best lessons are taught through adversity, but definitely the easiest to learn are by watching others, like athletes, go through theirs.