Monday, June 27, 2011

Do You Feel A Draft? No -- It's Probably Just The Wind Coming Across Your Ears As You Nodded Off To Sleep


The NBA Draft was being held at Target Center in 2000.  I remember seeing all the fun fans had at the NFL Draft, and I always wanted to be part of that scene.  It’s not a game, but it is a sporting event, so I thought it could be just as exciting.

One reason I looked forward to the draft, I think, was that you can say that you saw a superstar when he was a baby-faced rookie, dazzled by all the lights and adoration, rocking some clothes he thinks makes him look good.  And there might not be another time when you can see all of a year’s budding studs in one place than on Draft Night.

However, I didn’t want to go alone because I thought the people around me would jump me because I was a weird freak.  So I called my friend, who’s a huge NBA fan, and asked if he wanted to go with.  He refused – he didn’t think it was worth going.  Therefore, I didn’t go.

Well, I’ve grown up since then and stopped giving a damn about going to public events by myself.  I mean, who cares if strangers think I’m a pedophile or something?  So when I heard that the NHL Draft was going to be held in St. Paul this past weekend, I made sure I cleared my calendar for it.

It’s not as if a sports league’s draft comes around to the Twin Cities every year.  Starting in 1936, the NFL Draft always has been and probably will always be held in New York City.  Minnesota was the last of nine straight NBA Draft sites away from Manhattan before it dropped anchor back in NYC, although this year they took it back on the road, all the way to … Newark, N.J.  And the MLB Draft wasn’t even televised until a 2007 (till then it was held via teleconference, the audio for which was broadcast on its website), and is now shot from an artificial, diamond-staged studio in Secaucus, New Jersey.

But since 1985, when it was held in Toronto, the NHL Draft has become a roadshow.  (The draft began in 1963 but always took place in Montreal, either in NHL offices or a hotel.  It became open to the public in 1980 when it was held at the old Forum.)  So who knows if they’re going to come back around these parts ever again?  Heck, if there are 30 cities in the NHL, I’ll be 65 the next time it rolls around.  So I wanted to see how this thing works in person.

All tickets for Friday’s first round were sold well in advance.  On the street and at Stubhub a general admission ticket was going for $30.  Does anyone think it’s crazy to pay that much money for what essentially is sitting in on a really big meeting?  Well, you’re right.  Sort of.

Like a concert staged in an arena, one side is curtained off for the stage where the players walk onto, put on the gear of the team that just selected them and pose for pictures.  According to a news report, Friday’s “sellout” was more than 12,000 tickets.  There weren’t 12,000 people there; I’d say the X was at 40-50% capacity.  It’s like if Primus played the X: They have an intense following, but if they think they can play to capacity at an arena, they’re sailing the seas of insanity, not cheese.

Where the ice would be were 30 tables, one for each franchise, laid out in a 6x5 grid, as meticulously arranged as a Phil Spector song.  I’m kicking myself for not bringing binoculars, because even though each table looked tiny from the top level, each of them had about 16 chairs for the team’s front office members and a child, serving as a runner/mascot, wearing his or her team’s hat and jersey with an “11.”

When a team with the next pick is announced onstage (it was Commissioner Gary Bettman on Friday, an NHL Vice-President and a representative from NHL Central Scouting on Saturday), team officials either call or type in their pick to what is known as central registry, which was the area stage right where picks and trades are reviewed and cleared.  For the first round only, some of the team’s officials would then walk onto the stage and announce who their selection is.  See, I thought that the NHL Draft was so loose that all they did was announce the player onstage.

If the player is in the building, he’d walk onto the stage (after hugging his family, of course), don his new team’s stuff, pose for photos with his new bosses and the commish, then pose just with his new bosses.  He’s ushered off, stage left, for interviews with TSN and the NHL Network, and then he finally gets to hobnob in an arena restaurant with other freshly-minted NHL employees where I’m guessing they’ll take turns saying, “No, I got the check.”

If you think just watching this stuff in-person is boring, it is.  You go to a draft for the announcements, and there’s a lot of time between them.  That’s alleviated on the second day, when they dispensed with the walking onto the stage and announcements were made at the tables, so the selections came quick.

But that exposed another problem with attending a draft: It may be the only sporting-related event explicitly made for television.  If you watched this on Versus or TSN or the NHL Network (whose logo adorned the foam puck given to every fan leaving the X both days – that’ll be a joy to shoot into the busted dryer) you get to watch talking heads talk, interviews with the draftees, highlights, etc.  Besides the occasional interview on the Jumbotron, we were entertained with promotional videos of the team selecting.  Only fans of those teams were interested; otherwise, you were bored stiff.

Not a whole lot of fans out-of-state came to the draft.  I saw a few Vancouver Canucks and Edmonton Oilers fans, and I saw the only three Florida Panthers fans in existence trying to start a chant in the building.  But there were only two fanbases with any appreciable size Friday and Saturday.  One was the Minnesota Wild, of course.  The other?  Those of the Bastard Atlanta Thrashers.

Many of the newly stolen relocated team’s fans drove the 466 miles from Winnipeg to, first of all, be the only people in the entire arena to root for Bettman when he appeared onstage and, second of all, to witness the first building block of their new team … whose name, in a very welcome act of drama, was announced onstage.  And everything old is new again: Team Chairman Mark Chipman said before they named their seventh overall pick that they would be called, yes, the Winnipeg Jets (and not the Manitoba Moose, like I feared).  That got one of the loudest cheers the entire weekend.  The fact that Jets fans stole a team from another city and think it’s just as good as reclaiming the one stolen from them in 1996 was seemingly lost on them.

The otherwise good-hearted Winnipeg phalanx was one of several refreshing sights in a weekend that was one long drone of names I’ve never heard of, punctuated with some truly memorable moments:

·         Wild fans went, well, wild whenever the team was on the clock, and especially so when they drafted two Minnesota players, one of them being Mario Lucia – son of University of Minnesota head coach Don Lucia – in the second round.

·         In fact, there were 15 Minnesotans taken overall, though none in the first round, a streak of nine years shamefully snapped.  We shouted our “yays!” for every one of them.

·         I brought with me a list of the Top 30 skaters from North America and Europe, according to NHL Central Scouting.  After the first round was over, only six players from across the Atlantic were selected.  Interesting.  Are players from Sweden, Russia, Finland, et al, not as good as players from, say, the Quebec Major Junior or Ontario Hockey Leagues, or is it a matter of unfamiliarity?

·         The league paid tribute to two people who passed away.  Kicking off the ceremonies on Friday was the widow and two young daughters of E.J. McGuire, the director of Central Scouting who passed away in April from cancer.

·         The other got a huge ovation from Wild fans when officials from the New York Rangers took the stage.  Those were the two teams that employed Derek Boogaard, the lovable enforcer who died in May from a mix of alcohol and oxycodone.  Derek’s younger brother, Aaron Boogaard, was on hand to announce the Blueshirts’ selection and was immediately given a standing O.  The roars for him and his big bro, the Boogeyman got louder as he was about to make the pick.

·         And the biggest trade of the night, one featuring the Wild, drew a lot of cheers but a lot of loud chatter and oohs-and-aahs.  On Friday, not too long after Minnesota drafted a Swedish defenseman named Jonas Brodin, Bettman, after a long wait that included him gesturing demonstratively with a card in his hand as if to ask the registry, “What the hell does this say?” announced that Wild defenseman Brent Burns and a second-round draft pick in next year’s draft were being sent to San Jose in exchange for the Sharks’ first-round pick in this year’s draft, a Boston University forward named Charlie Coyle, and Devin Setoguchi, a right wing who tallied 29 goals last year.  Burns was an All-Star and is a fan favorite, but the Wild need some goal-scoring punch, and this trade addressed the need for that firepower now (with Setoguchi) and in the future (with Coyle, who most people think will be a beast, and the draft pick that they turned into Zack Phillips, a Canadian center who should have gone way higher than 28th overall).

(By the way, I think Minnesota was one of the big winners in the draft.  Others include Edmonton, who got top pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and a very good Swedish defenseman named Oscar Klefbom, and Chicago, who continue to overturn their Stanley Cup-winning squad by adding four players from Central Scouting’s Domestic or International Skaters Top 30.  The big losers?  The aforementioned Jets, who used their first-rounder on Mark Scheifele, a man ranked only 16th among Domestic Skaters; Toronto, who traded with Chicago to get a higher first-round pick and then selected someone outside the Top 30; and the Coyotes, whose 1st-round draft pick, Connor Murphy, has back issues.  Oh well, they’ll be leaving Phoenix next year anyway.)

I also got to see a lot of not-so-flattering things with the business end of the NHL, as well as some observations that I found to be useful:

·         Outsiders still don’t get the difference between St. Paul and Minneapolis.  I much prefer the Mill City on the west side because that’s where all the excitement is.  But just because there’s not much to do in St. Paul unless you’re a hockey fan or a political junkie doesn’t give you an excuse to not know where you are.  I believe Ottawa Senators assistant General Manager Tim Murray screwed up not once but twice on Friday.  First, he thanked Minneapolis, not St. Paul, for their hospitality, which drew a chorus catcalls.  He then tried to make up for it when the Sens drafted again in the first round by thanking “the city of Minnesota.”  We just laughed at him then.

·         Like you saw in this year’s Stanley Cup ceremony, Bettman is hated worse than bin Laden.  He was lustily booed whenever he said a word onstage.  It did get a bit bad when the Bronx cheers carried over to when McGuire’s family came out to announce that Edmonton was on the clock with the first overall pick, but otherwise, the crowd was civil in confining its anger towards the man responsible for the failed Southern strategy and the subsequent screwing over of Atlanta.  Although, at this point, he could rescue a cat from a tree and get booed.

·         I’m shocked that Wild fans reserved their loudest boos for the Canucks.  Why the hell not the Dallas Stars, duh?!  And how ‘bout Chicago??  I know the ‘Nucks are division rivals, but they’re still halfway across the continent.  There’s no proximity.  If there’s a Game 7 in Vancouver, Wild fans can’t just hop in a car and drive the two days to get a ticket.  Bettman’s plan of feeding us the idea of developing intense hate for a city two time zones away is, unfortunately, working.

·         Now, don’t get me wrong; we booed when Bettman said the Bastard North Stars were on the clock.  Dallas officials were rightly mocked when they drafted some 6’7” stringbean.  But, I saw on the Jumbotron that Bettman reacted to our scorn by raising an eyebrow and smirking, like he was saying, “Well, I guess they’re still not over it.”  No, sir, we’re not.  Should we?

·         Seriously, Bettman acts like a douche who wants everyone to know he’s in charge.  When a draftee comes down to put on his new team’s colors, he usually takes off his suitcoat because it’s cumbersome to put on a jersey with it on.  Well, one of them forgot to take his off.  Bettman helped this young man take off his coat, but he is the commish, so with purposeful steps he walked across the stage to where his assistant was tending to this player’s family.  This assistant saw the coat and walked over to the edge to get it … but Bettman was in such a hurry to get back to the photo op that instead of handing it to him, he just dropped the suitcoat on the edge of the stage.  Come on now, Bettman – that coat probably cost that family, like, $149 at the Men’s Wearhouse.  That boy can afford a dozen suits now, but still. …

Good, bad or ugly, if you are interested in a draft and there’s one being held close to you, go.  It’s one of those “bucket list” things any fan should do, even if it means camping out all night (that’s the way the NFL handles tickets to the draft).  Because there’s one thing I saw over and over again these two days that never got old: When a player’s name is announced, his family leaps out of their seats and cheer.  And you see him go down the row, embracing everyone that hung out with him and hoped to hear his name get called.  All of them had their cameraphones out; I saw one mother wipe tears from her eye.

That’s the point you understand that, even though this is an event where the largest contingent in the crowd is potential draftees and their folks, what you are seeing is lives being transformed right for good and for the better.  All the money spent on sticks and pads, all the early morning hours shuttling him to the ice rink for practice, all the time away at college or juniors – this past Friday and Saturday validated all of that time and effort.  Even if these players don’t see a minute of time in the NHL – and most of them won’t – they just experienced one of the greatest days of their lives.  One of the greatest days of their families’ lives, too.  And that realization melts in the face of even the coldest of our boos.

Posted by WilliamSou at 4:26 AM

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