For the last five years, PuckBuddys have been fortunate enough to cover one of professional hockey’s biggest events – the NHL Draft. Sure, fans can watch it from home – the awkward smiles, the hockey brass cutting deals, the booing of Gary Bettman, it’s all there. But to attend in person is to get a much clearer look behind the curtain as to all the things that make this game, and league, all that it is.
This year’s draft was in Tampa, and we asked PuckBuddys contributor Eric Pinder – a.k.a. “Operahockeyguy” – to manage our coverage. He did a great job; below is his comprehensive wrap of this year’s draft, and a look back at the 2014-15 season.
First born children are photographed endlessly in the best wagons for kids, in nauseatingly “cute” settings, and their exploits filmed and shared ad nauseum while the next kids have increasingly less documentation. And so it goes with the NHL Draft. The first round picks are lauded and photographed onstage next to smiling team officials while the second rounders and up are hustled through the process and seem to get less of the attention. Although it does make Day Two go by quicker, I can vouch for that.
This was a really good hockey season for me personally. I became the hockey commentator for the show “After Further Review” on CBS Sports radio here in Orlando. And I was chosen as a Bolts Social Captain in November, meaning that I was the de facto social media cheerleader for the game against Columbus. The Lightning did lose that game which would indicate I won’t be asked back to perform those duties. (Kudos to the Lightning organization for choosing an openly gay blogger and not caring about any potential backlash.)
The Lightning had a pretty nice season as well, ending up only two wins from a Stanley Cup. (I still can’t really talk about it. Emotions still raw, bitter aftertaste lingers, etc) Myself and Long Suffering Partner (LSP) went to Game 2 of Round 1 versus the Detroit Red Wings where I wore a Lightning jersey and rooted against my hometown team, thus garnering the wrath of several school chums. (Bullying me still)
Through a quirk of fate, I was in Montreal during the first round and I scored a ticket to their Game 5 versus the Senators. I wore my Lightning jersey to that game as well and endured some heckling in French (and dubious sounding French-Canadian accents). The joke was on Montreal though, as the Lightning managed to defeat them in Round 2.
A true highlight was getting tickets for Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final where the Bolts defeated the Blackhawks in a thrilling 4-3 match. The only downside was it cost us $942 on the secondary ticket market thus pushing our wedding plans back a few months as we have to save up money to provide an open bar – I know my friends all too well.
So it was great to end the season (or begin the new one if you are an optimist) by attending the NHL Draft in Sunrise, Florida, home of the Florida Panthers. (Motto: You Can Buy Rats In Our Gift Shop!) Thanks to the good folks at the NHL (Shout out to Nicole Buckley!) I was provided with actual media credentials! Zone 2! I had my own assigned seat next to actual press folks!
Ever better, my seat was on the end near where the NHL staff and team personnel went to their special zone, meaning it was a constant parade of famous (and infamous) coaches, scouts, GM’s and various lackeys. I witnessed Patrick Roy and Ron Hextall shake hands right in front of me! They didn’t break out into a fight which was disappointing, but that probably would’ve been gilding the lily.
I set up the following rules for the weekend. Number one: I would not ask for pictures or autographs from anyone (unprofessional). This included taking selfies as a player walked by. Number two: I would stay out of the way of the actual media as they have a job to do, and let’s face it, I’m merely a well-informed amateur.
Number three: I would get all the free food and snacks I could manage. (#StarvingArtist) I did avoid the pastries for breakfast on day two, but had a bagel instead. So, still carbs, but I had it plain with no butter or cream cheese just to feel a bit better about myself. (BTW, what were those sketchy looking strawberries doing in the fruit basket? Were they from last year’s Strawberry Festival?) And while I had no hard and fast rule about heckling Pierre McGuire, I decided against it as I did not want to get kicked out and miss out on more food.
Arriving at the BB&T Center at 5pm on Friday meant that I had missed out on the media welcome dinner the night before. (Next time) But I quickly found my seat and got the lay of the land – figuring out how to get to the interview area quickly, where the bathroom was, etc. To my chagrin, I discovered late on day two that it was quicker to walk up to the concourse behind me and use the restrooms located right there. Ah well, that meant I got enough walking in to nullify the bagel.
The draft is far better live than on TV mainly because you don’t have to listen to Pierre McGuire. But also it’s great to hear the individual booing of teams like Boston and Montreal (neither team gets love in this state) and to join in the annual booing of Gary Bettman. To his credit, he replied on the portable PA system “Thank you for that warm South Florida welcome” and proceeded to mention the standing room only crowd – which of course, never happens in this barn in the regular season.
From there, it’s a fairly predictable format. Team gets up, usually thanks the hosting organization (Oilers GM Chiarelli hilariously thanked “The city of Florida” but he’s Canadian so maybe he’s never been down here before) then names their pick. Said draftee then gets up and hugs mom and dad then siblings then maybe shakes hands of coaches and friends in the next row then makes his way to the floor where there is the awkward jacket handoff. (seriously, what’s up with that? Is it a new suit purchased for the occasion and this is the first time you’ve taken it off?)
Then said pick makes his way up the stairs receives a jersey – sometimes with a name plate hastily velcroed to the back or in one case, I kid you not, taped. They don the jersey, in some cases as awkwardly as they took off their coats and they jam a team cap on their head, partially obscuring their face. Then there is posing for photos and more handshakes and everyone traipses down the stairs back to the floor and the next team has their three minutes and then their awkward parade up the stairs to the podium. By the time you get to pick number fifteen, you are already fairly bored as each team milks their opportunity for more time on the stage.
While waiting for all this to happen, music is piped through the PA system and sometimes clever selections are made: “Werewolves of London” for Phoenix Coyotes or “Philadelphia Freedom” for the Flyers. Other times questionable choices like “Pumped Up Kicks” – a song about gun violence – crept in. And the inevitable “Final Countdown.”
Speaking of which, shouldn’t there actually be some sort of penalty for teams that aren’t up onstage by the end of their allowed three minutes? If that happens, I think the next team to pick should issue a challenge and have their team mascots fight it out. If a team doesn’t have a mascot, the coaches then Indian Leg Wrestle for the spot. This would keep things moving and provide more excitement for the crowd falling into a state of lethargy.
The new prospect also gets theme music as he makes his way on up. Inspirational music seems to be the choice, but using the Jurassic Park theme doesn’t really seem appropriate. If you want uplifting music from before the draftees are born, choose the last movement of Respighi’s Pines Of Rome. That was written before anyone in the arena was born – except Lou Lamoriello. FYI, had Jagr been there, I would have made that joke about him.
Next is the round of interviews where the responses like “world-class organization”, “amazing opportunity”, and the all-important “I can’t wait to play for this amazing organization” are spoken in a near monotone. Just once, I would love to hear a player say, “I can’t wait to be traded to another team for future considerations” but clearly no one wants to rain on the parade. (Crap! I think I just made a Funny Girl reference.)
The next day flies by in comparison as there’s no jersey parade or handshake lines. The drafted players head over to the team table as the next team makes their selection. It’s amazing how much faster it goes. But I suppose with first picks out of the way by round 4, teams may just kind of be guessing by this juncture. I mean really, there’s no way to tell if these players will ultimately be able to play at the level required in the NHL. You can scout all you want, but there’s a big adjustment these kids – and they are indeed kids – will have to make to their game to succeed.
But there’s time for that later. The draft is really a time to recognize and celebrate these players for the success they’ve already achieved to make it here. And to get fans excited to learn about new players that may be traded for draft picks in a couple of years.
I suppose this cynical view is tempered by the Lightning’s loss in the Stanley Cup Finals. I did go to all the interviews of new Bolts prospects and was impressed how well poised their picks seemed to be. Steve Yzerman has done a great job with his picks and trades during his time as GM and they are positioned to be a threat for a few more years, so they really didn’t have any pressing needs they needed to fill. It’s good to know they don’t need to rush any of these players into the system. I listened in to Stevie Y’s press scrum where he said they were optimistic about the players they had chosen and that time would tell. Which, of course, is the same thing 29 other general managers were saying.
Ultimately, the draft is about celebrating the remarkable camaraderie of the hockey community. It was wonderful watching opposing coaches chatting with each other on the floor along with scouts, GMs and members of the press. I suppose for many of the former players now in team management, it’s a nostalgic feeling to remember their draft day.
For me, it was an “amazing opportunity” to see how a “world-class organization” puts together such a complicated shindig. Plus an opportunity to chat with the likes of Scotty Bowman and the incredibly gracious and intelligent Elliot Friedman. PuckDaddy legend Greg Wyshynski was so very nice and complimentary. Another big highlight was getting to meet Michelle Gingras, the Lightning reporter. (She loved my pink and green Converse I wore for Pride weekend). Also, I got to thank Patrick Burke, our great straight ally in the sporting world.
So thanks to Puckbuddys, the NHL, and the City of Florida for this remarkable opportunity. Now, Let’s Go Bolts!
Eric Pinder is an actor, writer, and opera director in Orlando. His long awaited libretto of his hockey themed opera “Goaliedämmerüng” is nearly complete. He is not very fond of Pierre McGuire. Mike Milbury either.