This is easily the 2nd most anticipated NHL side show of the year. The first being Trade Day. Entire legions of NHL sports journalists will devote their time completely to cover this particular transactional fracas. Many a fan will take the day off and stay at home with a case of brew and watch the melee. I personally would love to take the day off of work to watch. However it wouldn’t be the smartest use of my time.
Back in the summer of 2002, I cheekily decided to attend the draft. At that time I was living in Kingston and decided that I needed to go check it out. Tickets were relatively cheap if I remember correctly. I was on the hunt for autographs and to enjoy the experience in person. Pacific had set up a booth just outside of the ACC and were selling 2002 Pacific products. That in of itself was a lot of fun. Unfortunately they ruined my “show” stamped Matthieu Darche RC in the crimper. I kept it anyways as a reminder. In those days, I wasn’t making a pile of cash so the wax crackage was limited to 1 pack. I was broke and I wanted to keep the trip as affordable as possible.
Part of the reason I went to the draft, stemmed from a conversation I had with a very good friend of mine who’s son was in the OHL and went through the draft experience. I won’t name names for privacy sakes. His son never wishes to discuss this experience again in his life time if he can avoid it. I will honor that request. I will refer to them as Son and Father. The Father told me that the 1994/95 lockout really screwed up his son’s dreams to be a pro. The son was a great goalie but was faced with the prospect of fighting for a job with his former OHL team because of the lockout. He was too far down the depth charts to play in the AHL, or ECHL due to the fact that many teams sent their young prospects down to play there. He unfortunately realized he was the odd man out. He could have played in Europe but was so depressed that he quit the sport altogether. It would never be mentioned again in his family. I was very good friends with his Father. He would choke up and show his anger about the whole process of the draft and how the business of hockey is very vicious. You not only have to play well on the ice, but also player equally well managing the politics off-ice.
While I was at the draft, I realized that there weren’t a tonne of fans there to cheer on the Leafs Draft picks. That made it easy for me to sneak down and sit next to some of the players. Of course the best players sat in the front couple of rows near the TV camera’s. What you don’t see is the many fringe players and families sitting a bit higher up in the stands. I could have sworn the looks on the their faces, was the same look that Mothers and Fathers had when they learned their kids were going to Iraq or Afghanistan to fight. There were no smiles, only sweating young adults and their families waiting for a chance to get drafted. It was akin to an auction house. You were being critiqued on the spot, your value rose and plummeted like commodities in the market. I think coffee beans had a little more weight than some of these players. Round 1 was exciting, I got to see Jay Bouwmeester, Petr Taticek, Rick Nash, Kari Lehtonen, Cam Ward and Alex Steen drafted. They were seated about 4 rows in front of me. I kept switching seats to get closer. The usher had no idea who I was from the other million people sitting around me. However the binder of autographs was a dead giveway. I didnt exactly hide it. I will tell you more about those in another post. (This was the first and last time I’ll ever hound a player or legend for an autograph)
I sat next to a family who’s son I cannot remember his name but he was from Russia. He was not highly ranked but I could overhear his agent speaking to him. His tone and mannerisms led me to believe that he was trying to calm them down. That they didnt waste their money coming to Canada. The young man was sitting as solidly as a rock. Medusa may as well have given him the evil eye. By the end of the 2nd round, he was still there. Not one member of the family had moved. The agent stared at his blackberry and said prayers internally. Occasionally he would get a visit from an NHL club staffer. They would whisper a thought or two and the agent would return to his seat. Another one liner given to the son. Another round has already gone by. By the end of the day, his mother was in tears. Her son was leaning forward with his head in his hands. He was crying. I was emotional myself. I did the honorable thing and moved away from the family. They needed their space, even if it meant moving one seat away. It was awful to see.
If we rewind a bit, to the first round. It was neat to see what I wouldn’t see on camera the on-goings of the draft. The agents and journalists fighting for any news, any stories of value to write or speak about. They were as thick as flies on dung. The chosen ones of the first round may as well have been Greek Gods. Everyone wanted a piece of them.
I came back to the draft for the 2nd day. By this time all the players who were left over had moved down to the first row. Many more seats were available and I got to sit at in the 2nd row nearest to the Philadelphia Flyers table. Bobby Clarke really is a stone faced individual. That year the flyers were done early and left the floor before any of the other teams. Joel Quenneville and a player rep were hanging out in front of me. Just chatting it up while all the players behind them looked like they had seen ghosts.
This was the hardest day for me. I saw many more players in tears, many Fathers and Mothers gently rubbing their suited backs. The kids were being strong, they were staring ahead at their future. All that they were taught from a young age was to live and eat hockey. This was the first time they understood that a pro career may not be for them. They were too young to feel this sort of rejection. They were simply just too young to feel this pain. With my heart heavy, I decided that I should leave. I stared down at the steps as I left my seat. I didn’t want to stare into the eyes of those who were hurting inside. They deserved a bit more than what was served to them over the two days of the draft.
This was the last draft I attended. I will watch future drafts on TV. I can’t bear to watch the pain people suffer while the select few enjoy the spoils of their athleticism. A dream is always free, but realizing a dream is only for the cream of the crop.
To all those entering the draft, be strong. Take your pride and work ethic that brought you here and keep those skills forever. Never let someone take your pride. Keep your chin up and be proud. There are far many players who never get to this stage. Consider yourselves blessed and good luck.