BUFFALO, NY— Picking up my credentials from the NHL Public Relations trailer in Alumni Plaza leading into the First Niagara Center is really the only time I feel humbled and lucky enough to be able to cover such events. This year’s draft marked the 13th Draft I’ve covered since 2002 (2006 I missed due to the Draft being hastily held in an Ottawa-area hotel conference room a week after the NHL lockout was resolved).
The draft is a different animal when it comes to covering hockey. It is the one time a year where the behind the scenes people are the ones who shine. The scouts, who put many hours watching and rewatching the young talent that are about to be drafted, are the guys making the major decisions about a team’s future. It may take years to see if their choices pan out for their team, and the stakes are great.
On the media side, it’s not the NHL beat writers who shine, but the writers who have followed many of these kids throughout their season– whether it be those who follow the major junior leagues, European leagues, the NCAA, or even scouting services like Red Line Report or International Scouting Services— this is their weekend where their tireless car rides, flights, and independent scouting pays off.
Friday night was a bit of an electric feeling. With the event being in Buffalo and the Toronto Maple Leafs having the first overall pick, there was plenty of blue and white roaming the streets around the First Niagara Center, as the Greater Toronto Area is only a two-hour drive from Buffalo. There were also a decent amount of scalpers for such an event where there’s a lot of buzz. So much buzz that this draft was the first one I can remember where they sold tickets rather than giving them away or having a raffle for them. While I didn’t ask the scalpers what they were offering, I can imagine that some desperate people who yearned to see a franchise player like Auston Matthews to be selected and held in regard as a savior would be willing to pay the high asking price of a scalper.
As the Fan Fest happened outside the area, with plenty of interactive events and live music for the fans waiting to get into the arena, I made my way into the arena, which already had a packed concourse of eager fans. Of course, it took me a while to get my seat as Lyle Richardson of Spector’s Hockey and myself looked everywhere for a prime seat and really took an adventure through the bowels of the First Niagara Center (think Spinal Tap getting lost on the way to the stage) before setting up shop in the media workroom.
My tradition has been to stay along the railings in front as the first pick is announced. Standing at ice level and looking around is definitely a sight to see at the draft. The different fans representing their different teams, players and their families in their best suits and dresses, media members trying to get one last tidbit of information from the NHL executives, scouts and management holding last minute conferences — it’s truly an experience you have to soak in to appreciate.
The first round is all about pomp and circumstance. The players are called up, have their pictures taken in front of the video board with the team representation, and put through the media responsibilities that comes with becoming a NHL player. Yet, before that happens, it’s time for the heads of state to address the crowd and in Buffalo, it’s the man who has single-handedly kept the city of Buffalo together in a sports sense– Terry Pegula.
As Pegula stood at the podium, chants of “Thank you, Terry” rained down onto the floor. The crowd, so appreciative of what this man has done to bring the Sabres out from the shadows of Tom Golisano and built up the area with the HarborCenter across the street (home to the Buffalo Beauts of the National Women’s Hockey League and the Canisius Golden Griffins of the NCAA). Mr. Pegula went on to give advice to the players whose names may be called to use it as motivation for the future, tor them to work harder than they have before to prove people right or prove people wrong.
After Pegula stirred the crowd positively, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman came out to a chorus of boos, which he soaks in much like a professional wrestling bad guy and goes into his spiel undeterred. After his speech, mostly drowned out by boos, he invited the Toronto Maple Leafs brass up to the stage and make their pick. A mixture of cheers from the Maple Leafs fans and boos from everyone else, Mark Hunter picked Auston Matthews. After the pictures and handshakes are done, Bettman announced a trade sending Lars Eller to Washington and another deal that sent Andrew Shaw to Montreal. While those are solid and noteworthy trades, I’m on my way to the media availability of Matthews.
The interview room is set up with a little podium for the players to sit behind, save for one spot at the back of the room with chairs set-up for the more important or noteworthy picks. As the first overall pick, Matthews fits that profile. With Toronto media dealing with a standing-room-only situation, they got their questions to Matthews about things large and small– playing nicely for now, which doesn’t seem to always last in Toronto.
As I walked back to the workroom to film a quick YouTube blip with Lyle for Face Off Hockey Show’s page, I noticed the interesting layout to the whole event. After the interview room, many players are brought out of the area and into the public before getting pictures or going into the suites with their family to celebrate. This creates tight quarters, but a great fan interaction for the young kids to get autographs or selfies with the newly drafted players.
Once Lyle and I finish our quick hit, my eye is on Tyson Jost. Part of my responsibility this weekend was not only to work on things for FOHS and The Sin Bin, but I offered coverage to the University of North Dakota for incoming freshmen Jost. As he got picked 10th overall by the Colorado Avalanche, I took my phone and mini-microphone adaptor to the interview room once again. The NHL has a TV to show where each draftee is going to be set-up and once Jost’s name came up, I camped out. As he got there, a good number of other reporters join me at podium five, mostly those in the Denver media and some from the Vancouver area, as Jost was a former member of the Penticton Vees in the BCHL.
In these scrums, it’s all about timing. There’s really no hierarchy as there is in post-game scrums, here it’s a matter of picking your spot, figuring out lulls in conversation, and jumping in when you see just a hint of a down time. The topics are varied, especially in the first round where many media have researched those who may go in the first 30 or so picks, but they cover a wide range from his feelings about getting drafted, what it means to be picked out of the BCHL, his choosing the college route over major junior, and his expectations going into the UND program. Couple that with the story of growing up in a single-parent household and how the family all help he and his siblings succeed– it makes for a great story you would want to share with people, even if you didn’t have any vested interest.
Also on Friday, people put on their “expert” hats and tried to figure out why one guy would fall from a projected spot. In this draft, the first was when Columbus picked Pierre-Luc DuBois third overall when most believed that Jesse Puljujarvi would go in that slot. While that was only a one spot fall, it seemed that Jacob Chychrun fell much further than people had thought. Projected as a top-ten pick in most mock drafts, he slid to the middle of the round to the Arizona Coyotes. It’s hard to say why a player drops in the rankings so much — it’s highly subjective and with the inclusion of advanced stats it adds a new dynamic for teams to rate players in a situation like this.
As the first round wound down, we look at our cell phones to clock the time. At a party the night before, I set the over/under at 4.5 hours for the event to be done. As the last pick of the first round was made, we saw the event that started just after 7 PM has ended just short of 11 PM. While it may have seemed far-fetched over/under, thanks to commercial breaks and teams taking their time– it was a solid call.
On Saturday, the tables turn drastically at the draft. There is no pomp and circumstance, there are no long commercial breaks, there are no team entourages going up to the stage. This is the day where teams make their picks from their tables and greet the draftee somewhere in the middle of the floor. Those prospects who were still in attendance take it all in and soak up the moment, much like Mr. Pegula suggested over 15 hours prior.
This is also the day that media people who knew so much about the projected first rounders reveal how very little they know about the prospects being picked in the later rounds. When pick were taken to the interview room, it’s plenty of basic questions by the media about the team they were selected by, what they think about the city they are going to, and what kind of player they are. There were a select few who know a lot about a sixth rounder out of Tri-City of the USHL, but those are the few who care enough to learn at least a little about every player and make the player’s day just a little brighter.
On the second day, I always enjoy wandering around. It’s hard to do that during the first day as the concourses are usually packed, leaving very little breathing and walking room. Often on the Saturday, there’s plenty of card and memorabilia stands around the concourse, most notably Upper Deck, who has a stand that allows you to be on your own hockey card. Moreover, I always enjoy seeing how each arena is laid out and what they decide to put onto their concourse. With Buffalo, there’s a lot to do with their heritage, the French Connection (Rick Martin, Rene Robert, and Gilbert Perreault) banners hanging on the concourse as you go up the escalator on the way to the Labatt Blue Zone, a bar with vintage goalie pads surrounding the bar and pillars. Pictures of the Connection, Tim Horton, Alex Mogilny, and others others are on display to connect the history to today’s team.
Yet it seems before you can blink, rounds two through seven are over, taking about three-and-a-half hours, less than the first round in its entirety. The executives are spread all over, many holding press conferences in the interview room, at the railing in front of the press rafters, some just leaving quickly in order to catch the first flight home. And just like that, everything is being torn down and set aside for another day. That’s the cue for the media people to get out as well. Some of us leave early, many of us have to be given a time-limit to finish up and get out. I’m of the former camp.
The city of Buffalo and the Sabres put on a great show. While it may look like an easy thing to do, there’s a lot of work put into it, from the front office to the volunteer staff. It’s the little things like the food brought in to give a taste of the city rather than a generic sandwich, the ushers and security staff making sure you don’t get too turned around inside the arena, the player handlers who make sure everyone gets what they need before whisking away the draftee for pictures with family and onto their new life as a NHL player.