Dreaming Big at the NHL Draft

Peter Tingling, a business professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, analyzed the data from years of NHL drafts in an effort to measure the effectiveness of scouts’ drafting decisions. His conclusion? “Better off guessing.”

Of course, that won’t stop NHL teams from sending legions of scouts to remote locations all across North America, Russia, the Czech Republic, Finland, Sweden, Slovakia, and Germany, tasked with the goal of finding the Next Big Star. That won’t stop these scouts from pouring through detailed statistics of 15-year-old kids, analyzing their physical properties and mental capacities and everything in between. On the other side of the glass, the teenage hockey players know they’re under the microscope, understand that everything about every action on and off the ice is dissected, evaluated, and given a numerical grade. Come draft year, the more overtly skilled players can’t even put together a sandwich without being scrutinized for their creativity (or lack thereof) in ingredient choices. Each prospect tolerates and even embraces the spotlight, because it means that he can continue to foster his dream of maybe, just maybe, one day playing in the National Hockey League, playing for the team he adores, playing alongside the star he grew up idolizing.

But before that, he dreams of the June day in the year of his 18th birthday– the day he’ll hear his name announced in front of a crowd of thousands, the day he’ll walk up to the representatives of the NHL team that chose him out of hundreds, and he’ll pull on that team’s sweater and be able to call it his own. It’s a day when dreams are fulfilled or crushed, and whole lives begin anew: It’s Draft Day, baby.

After years of following the NHL draft online by scanning a list of names and, in the cases of draft picks of a team I like or the appearance of a player under 5’9”, consulting a brief scouting report on the player in question, I was given the opportunity this year to attend a draft for myself.

I pulled into a Newark lot a smidge later than I had anticipated, and I barely got a chance to enjoy the rollicking fanfest set up outside Prudential Center as I hurried to the media trailer to pick up my press pass. I could barely contain my joy when the nice lady handed me a lanyard to go along with my credentials. (After dealing with a season of temporary passes strung through stretchy-string necklace ties, lanyard necklaces had come to represent, in my mind, the mark of a truly important event and/or a truly important reporter. The last time I received a lanyard press pass, I had to travel to Vegas to get it.) Enjoying the humid, filthy, sticky Newark air, I wandered around outside and squinted at a few boys in suits as if their names, potential draft statuses, and bios would magically materialize on their foreheads. When that didn’t happen, I headed inside.

The perk of actually being there versus watching the whole production from home (or reading about it afterwards) manifests itself in a paradoxical way: The feeling of immediacy, of experiencing the moment When It All Began, is something that only takes on significance in retrospect. That is, looking back on Draft Day from some indefinite time in the future, when Draftee Number One, or Five, or Twenty Seven, or One Hundred Twenty Seven is hoisting the Stanley Cup, you can announce to no one in particular: “I was there the day he was drafted. I was there the day it all began.” But the drafting procedure itself, taking place in real time, is not too thrilling, to be honest.

I was joking about bringing my Columbia University Women’s Ice Hockey Club jersey in case my name is called, but I did spend a significantly embarrassing amount of time wondering what it would feel like. I imagined the thoughts and feelings of those 18-year-old boys who, unlike me, actually harbored realistic hopes of being called that night. For the players who went in the first three rounds, I can imagine the experience was quite different than that of the players who were picked in rounds four through seven—or not at all. Seth Jones may have slid down all the way to number four, but he knew not only that his name would be called, but that he would get to walk up to the stage, shake the commissioner’s hand, and pose for a picture with an NHL jersey brought out just for him—as only first round picks get to do. Later round picks don’t get the luxury of donning a jersey with their names printed on the back. Later round picks don’t get the luxury of knowing that their names will be called. Then, of course, there are those boys who sit through the entire seven-hour endeavor without hearing their names called at all. Of the many iconic pictures that filtered out of Prudential Center that day, no photograph was more moving than the one that showed, in the back left corner of the picture, a father and son sitting amidst a sea of empty seats as the draft was coming to a close. So many dreams are fulfilled that day, but so many are dashed as well.

Those who weren’t drafted can reenter next year, and many undrafted prospects were already invited to development camps across the country for a last-minute opportunity to impress some men in suits and earn themselves a second look. And as for the ability to pursue that NHL dream, well, the NHL is sprinkled with undrafted superstars. Some little guy named Marty St. Louis just won the League scoring title for the second time in his career. You could say he made $400 without ever passing Go—and you, my little undrafted friends, could too!

But for the vast majority of future NHLers, Draft Day is where it all begins.

My favorite moment of the Draft occurred 211 times that evening. Of the 50 or so that I witnessed firsthand, I flailed audibly at every single one of them. The moment in question, of course, is the Post-Draftee Name Announcement Family Hugfest, which, to me, is emblematic of the sum total of all feelings associated with that momentous occasion: excitement, relief, anticipation, fear, envy from other prospects, separation anxiety for mom, etc. The 208th PDNAFH, however, was the most heartwarming one by far. The Devils, with the newly acquired 208th draft pick, awarded franchise goalie and future Hall-of-Famer Martin Brodeur the honor of selecting his own son, Anthony, as the club’s final pick for the evening. Playing it cool, the kid took his time finding his way to the draft floor, where his father and a bunch of other important Devils executives awaited his arrival to claim his jersey. And when he approached the table, he did what he had always been taught to do: he reached out to shake the hand of the man holding his shiny new jersey. Which, in this case, happened to be his dad.

Marty, of course, would have none of it. He pulled his son into his arms and hugged him as if the two of them were up in the stands, rather than on the draft floor, in front of the cameras and executives and whatnot. The pride on Brodeur Sr.’s face was unmistakable. Anthony’s face was inscrutable, mostly due to the fact that it was buried in his father’s shoulder.

D’awwwww

Draft day is a day of hope; prospects hope to hear their names called, fans hope their team’s picks will somewhere along the line evolve into high-level contributors for the Big Club, and scouts hope their selections will reflect favorably upon them in the future. Every living being in the building reeks of Hope. Even the highly-touted prospects who know they’ll hear their names called in the first round would be lying if they said they didn’t harbor hopes of landing with a certain NHL team over another.

Hope: one of the most dangerous words in the English language. Another? Luck.

And luck, as Peter Tingling discovered, is really what it all boils down to. This is not a knock on what professional scouts purport to do for a living—far from it. In accepting the overarching element of luck in the whole process, we can appreciate the job that scouts do—attempt to render the element of luck inconsequential—all the more. But at the end of the day, they’re dealing with human beings, not machines. At the end of the day, every human being is a wild card. And at the end of the day, what kind of human is a wilder wild card than a teenage boy?

The night before the draft, I watched an interview with top-rated prospect Seth Jones. Seated at the table with him were six or seven Columbus Blue Jackets executives. One at a time, they began to question him about his skills, level of competition, etc. The air was so thick with formality, it seemed more like a CIA interrogation than a prospect interview. Jones, having been trained in the art of Boringly But Appropriately Answering Interview Questions, handled it all with poise. But he was thrown for a loop when general manager Jarmo Kekalainen leaned in from the shadows, steepled fingers clasped under his chin, icy eyes flashing, bald head gleaming, and, as if he were asking the president of the United States whether or not he should launch nuclear weapons at North Korea, posed the following query: “Should we trade our three first-round picks in order to draft you?” There was only one right answer. But Jarmo was looking for the other.

Jones blinked, and in that moment, he looked like any other 18-year-old boy.

Midway through the second round of the draft, I slipped down to the ice-less ice level to catch some of the interviews and observe these boys in their most candid moments. Dozens of people milled around the cavernous hallway jutting out from the Zamboni entrance; the NHL Network had a table set up for one-on-one draftee interviews, televisions were scattered on various walls for the purpose of updating media members on the goings on of the draft floor, and a couple more tables were set up on raised daises so that the newly drafted players could face their very first swarm of reporters.

In my mind, I divided the draftees into two categories: Those who looked older than 18 years old and those who looked younger. Goalie Zach Fucale, for example, looked like he had just stepped off the playground and could really use an ice pop; and yet here he was addressing esteemed reporters about the condition of a professional sports outlet. In French, probably.

But all of these boys—despite their interview training, despite their already-chaotic lifestyles—all of them now walked with the tiniest extra jump in their steps, looking around with gazes just a little bit glossier, eyes just a little bit bigger, polite smiles stretched just a little bit broader. I always thought the term “glowing” could only be applied to pregnant women, but after experiencing the NHL draft, I’d have to expand the list to include newly drafted hockey players as well.

So, here’s how I saw it: Kid hears his name called, experiences thrill of the century, dutifully hugs mom, dad, girlfriend, siblings, and anyone else who might be within embracing distance, and then, suddenly, he’s following a man in a suit down a tunnel, and the PR guy he just met gently shuffles him to the interview table, chatting with him, questioning him about his family and hotel accommodations in/around the fine city of Newark, asking how he feels about this tremendous life event. Meanwhile, the kid’s trying to ignore the buzzing in his pocket that signifies a flood of congratulatory texts, because he needs to focus on putting his inexpressible feelings into words.

One draft pick in particular stood out to me: a kid who was picked up by the hometown Devils. The Devs made a splash in the first round by dealing their first round pick for Vancouver goalie Cory Schneider, and then traded its 39th pick to the Phoenix Arizona Coyotes for the 42nd and 73rd selections. With the 42nd pick, New Jersey grabbed Bronxville native (like me—holla!) Steve Santini—a guy who happens to have been a lifetime Rangers fan. “That changed twenty minutes ago,” Santini quipped, when asked about his NHL allegiance. You could tell he was already itching to redecorate his room.

When the outpouring of questions trickled to an abrupt halt, the reporters surrounding Santini’s table went to seek out another shiny object to interview. Santini stood off to the side with a member of the Devils’ PR team, waiting to be ushered away once again. Santini was bouncing excitedly. Suddenly, he froze. “Wait. Was I the Devils’ first pick? I was, wasn’t I?” He beamed, like he had just scored a date to the prom. “Cool.”

Five hours later, I was finally ready to head home. The dusk air felt peaceful and refreshing compared to the swirling bustle of activity taking place under the too-bright lights in the bowels of the Prudential Center. Looking up after fidgeting with the contents of my bag, I noticed a family of four stroll by, chatting softly. In the front, a young man walked alongside a middle-aged woman—his mother, I assumed. He was proudly sporting a red, white and blue Canadiens jersey with the name “MCCARRON” emblazoned across the back. At 6-5, McCarron towered over his mother, easily falling into my first category of draftees. He walked with his mother, hand in hand, the white lettering of his jersey gleaming under the light of the streetlamp.

It was another touching moment in an altogether emotionally charged night. Who knows which of the night’s draftees will embark on an NHL career? Which will play a season, or just a game? Even first rounders aren’t sure things, as many long-suffering Rangers fans can attest. Some will get hurt, some will lose confidence, some will suffer through both. In the end, these are kids, and the world of professional sports can be a harsh place.

But, if only for this one night, these kids can dream.

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