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Drama front and center at NHL draft

Drama front and center at NHL draft

By Chris Botta, Correspondent

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When Brian Lawton’s name was called as the No. 1 pick in the 1983 NHL draft by Minnesota, he was cheered by a packed crowd at the Montreal Forum and was able to shake hands and spend time with every member of the North Stars’ scouting staff that played a role in selecting him.

When Mike Keenan craftily — some might say desperately — attempted to draft future superstar Alexander Ovechkin for the Florida Panthers in the last round of the 2003 draft (a year before he was eligible and went first overall to Washington), Keenan and NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly debated the issue right on the floor of Bridgestone Arena in Nashville.

This is the charm of the NHL draft, where the drama of picking potential stars and making blockbuster trades is played out on one stage with all of the major characters present, before a live audience in the arena and watching on television. This is in contrast to the drafts of the NFL and NBA, in which team staffs are sequestered in “war rooms” in their respective cities and electronically send in their draft selections and transactions.

No. 1 pick Brian Lawton fields a call at the 1983 NHL draft.
Photo: COURTESY OF BRIAN LAWTON


In the NHL draft, each team has a table with 21 seats on the floor of the arena — space that is usually taken by the ice surface for games. At those tables are the general managers, coaches, scouts and — more and more lately — club owners and presidents. An additional dozen employees, including administrative assistants, public relations officials, social media editors and the like — are in the stands, suites or press box. The NHL draft is one of sports’ biggest business meetings, played out live before audiences over a Friday night and Saturday afternoon.

There are no plans to change the community approach.

“We have looked at alternatives over time, but there has never been enough support — internally or among our clubs — to change it,” said Daly, who has been with the league for 20 years. “It’s a special weekend, an experience for our players of the future, our clubs and our fans. I don’t expect that to change at any point in the near future.”

The event is not a revenue-generator for the NHL. Tickets are free, sponsorship opportunities are scarce, and the travel and operations costs are significant. The league takes a small loss with each draft, but is happy to write it off because of its unique impact.

“Everything is happening right in front of you, so the NHL draft is a lot more dramatic for television,” said Frank Supovitz, who was the NHL’s group vice president of special events from 1992-2005 and then held a similar position with the NFL for the next 10 years. “It is superior as a fan experience because of all the drama. There’s dealmaking, phones ringing, GMs huddling. I would tell fans all the time, ‘Bring a pair of binoculars and watch the action at the tables.’ It’s also the event that NHL cities and teams that may not have the infrastructure to host another major event like an All-Star Game or outdoor game love to bid for.”

After decades of being held in the league’s offices or a conference room in the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal, the NHL draft first went big in 1980, when it was conducted in the Montreal Forum. In the late ’80s, the league began spreading it around. Every year, several teams pitch the league to serve as host. Mandatory requirements include a minimum of 1,500 available hotel rooms near the arena, and the ability for the league to completely take over the arena from the Monday before through Monday after for setup and load-out.

“It’s a popular event that our clubs love to host,” Daly said. “But it’s not without its costs in terms of the time it takes to build and execute an event of that magnitude. The remarkable thing is that management at even our busiest buildings — the United Center, for example — feel strongly enough about the benefits of hosting the draft that they are willing to commit the days necessary. That says a lot about the popularity and appeal of the event.”

The Chicago Blackhawks are hosting the 2017 NHL draft at the United Center on June 23 and 24.

“We first expressed major interest in hosting the draft about three years ago,” said Blackhawks President and CEO John McDonough. “We’ve had a Winter Classic at Wrigley and a Stadium Series game at Soldier Field, so this is another uncommon experience for our fans. The NHL and NBA have never had their drafts before in Chicago. Having it here brings more positive attention to our team and city.”

McDonough pointed out that in the last 15 years, 41 players drafted by the Blackhawks have played for them. Of those 41, 17 have won at least one Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks.

“Our theme this season is ‘Welcome to Our Future,’ so having the draft here now makes sense,” McDonough said. “In June, we’ll have a first-round pick, and as of now another nine picks in rounds 2 through 7. It should be an entertaining weekend for our fans.”

Whether it’s a blockbuster trade, stunning move up the draft board, or a dispute, fans can watch the corporate drama from their seats. At the 1992 draft, both the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers believed they had obtained first overall pick Eric Lindros in a trade with the Quebec Nordiques, and the dispute went to the league, which ruled that the Flyers trade was official. Later in that same draft, the Ottawa Senators — participating in their first draft — unknowingly selected a player who had already been taken by another club, leaving GM Mel Bridgman to famously say, “Ottawa apologizes.”

Buffalo played host to last year’s draft, where all moves continue to play out on one stage.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES


When Keenan tried to draft Ovechkin, he brought a legal brief to the front of the room and engaged in an argument with Daly. Keenan attempted to make the case that Ovechkin — several days short of the birthdate cutoff for draft eligibility in 2003 — was actually eligible when the additional days in leap years were factored in.

“I had to respectfully decline Mike’s appeal,” Daly recalled. “But I told him I admired his creativity.”

A then-17-year-old Lawton was almost late for his first overall selection at the 1983 draft. On his way down the hotel elevator at Montreal’s Manoir Le Moyne, Lawton bumped into young movie star Jodie Foster, and the two spoke in the lobby for 15 minutes as his parents looked at their watches, trying to stay patient.

“I talked to Ms. Foster longer than I should have and was just making my way into the Forum when I heard my name called,” said Lawton with a laugh. “Couldn’t believe it. But I’ll never forget the warmth from the fans and the chance to meet [Minnesota GM] Lou Nanne and all those scouts and everyone with the league. That’s a connection that draft picks in other leagues don’t get right on the spot, and I hope it never changes.”

The NHL draft will continue to evolve — one broadcasting source said there is a movement to have all of the top prospects wait to be drafted in a green room instead of the stands, for maximum television tension — but the NHL will keep its Town Hall spirit intact.

“I like the fact that the draft, probably more than any other league event, brings the hockey community together — alumni players, future players, team executives, coaches, scouts, agents, people who have spent their careers and make their lives in hockey,” Daly said. “In many ways, it’s an annual reunion of the people who make this sport go.”

Chris Botta is an freelance writer and independent communications consultant based in New York. He can be reached at chris.botta@yahoo.com.

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