June 27 2011 03:59PM
(While I usually restrict my writing to objective analysis and editorials aimed at hockey ops, this post is a thorough and detailed recounting of my time at the NHL entry draft this past weekend. It's is therefore very long. Fair warning.)
My trek to the 2011 NHL entry draft began on Thursday afternoon. Mindful of the time consuming architecture of security measures erected in the wake of September 11, I got to the airport some two hours early so I could be poked, prodded, un-belted, de-shoed and properly papered in order to board the plane on time.
My part in the security theater was well played and I went through customs and such without incident. I settled in near my departure gate and, with a more than a few minutes to spare, I checked in on twitter and email largely as means to kill time more than anything else. My first taste of the frenzy quickly ensued. First, I did a short phone interview with Todd Vaughan of Calgary Metro News. Then, The Regehr rumor, the Smyth rumor and the Carter and Richards trades all broke in rapid succession.
My smart phone, as fancy as it is, was a poor tool for following the chatter, so I switched to awkwardly balancing my laptop (appropriately enough) on my lap in the increasingly crowded departure area. YYC airport has free wireless fortunately enough, so the remainder of my wait was spent exchanging monosyllabic expressions of surprise with commenters and followers in various forms.
The distraction was in part inconvenient given the circumstances but also welcome since my flight was delayed some 30 minutes by a lightning advisory. It was at this point I started to wonder if I would be able to make it to Minneapolis on time for the debut of Flamesnation radio, which was scheduled to start at 6pm Calgary time (7pm in Minny).
Aside from the rising anxiety about potentially missing the onset of my first radio show, the flight was uneventful. I landed in St. Paul around 6:25. I rushed off the plane (pushing over any baby carriages or grandmothers that might clutter my path) and into the baggage claim area and was lucky enough to immediately spy and scoop my bag off the conveyor belt. Next, I located a taxi and implored him to run over anyone who may stand between us and the Minneapolis Hilton which is where the show was to take place. It was already a quarter to seven.
The cabbie pulled up to the hotel about ten minutes later. I threw a wad of American bills at him and messaged Steinberg that I had arrived. I only had a few seconds to admire the throng of media, agents, prospects and executives in the Hilton lobby before jumping on the elevator and racing to Boomer's hotel room. I met Kerr and Molberg when I burst into their de facto studio, but there was little time to exchange pleasantries. They finished up their broadcast, the commercial segment ran and Steinberg got me up to speed as quickly as possible. Thanks to my own poor scheduling and the slight delay in Calgary, I had run breathlessly into my first real radio gig, inexperienced and relatively blind to what was going on.
The show seemed to go well, however, although it's hard to gauge from the business end of the microphones. The array of news on Thursday made filling the hours a breeze since there was never any lack of content to talk about. Steinberg guided the ship professionally throughout the proceedings, allowing me to sit around dumbly most of the time, occasionally responding to questions or cues. I'd like to note at this point that whatever quality or success we were able to manage with Flamesnation radio ths weekend is directly attributable to Steinberg's work.
The show wrapped at 10pm Minnesota time. Pat worked for another half an hour or so voicing various segments before we set out to the Hyatt-Regency, which is where I was booked. Luckily the Hyatt was located only a few blocks away, so the walk and the check-in didn't take too long. Neither of us had eaten since much earlier in day, so we stumbled around the general downtown area looking for a place to eat and have a few wobbly pops. We settled on the Newsroom (a place I'd recommend), where we discovered they don't sell pitchers of beer in Minneapolis (the waitress looked at us as if we lunatics when we asked) and that "Smoke Bomb" hot wings are damn hot. Pat detailed the nights activities a little further here.
I got back to the hotel between 11-12 and sat down to monitor the site and write an article or two. Steinberg did the same. I finally passed out by about 1:30 in the morning.
DRAFT: DAY 1
I woke the next morning around 9am in a bit of haze, which anyone will tell you is not uncommon after your first night on the road. I checked the site to see that Pat had penned 3 (!!) different articles in the intervening hours and then set down to work on the Flamesnation draftboard post. Interestingly, eventual Flames pick Sven Bartschi landed second on our list, marginally behind Mark McNeill. Clearly someone in the Flames office was reading *cough*.
Pat was already at the arena what with his "legitimate access" and all, so the rest of my morning was spent hunting down breakfast and monitoring the chatter via my hotel room. Around 2:30pm, Robert Cleave called me from his own room in the Hyatt and we arranged to meet and head down to the Xcel Energy center together. Bob had driven down from his place in Winnipeg and was good enough to chauffeur me around for the rest of the weekend.
Although we've worked together for a couple of years, this was the first time Bob and I had actually met in person. As those who heard him call in on Saturday can attest, Mr. Cleave can talk hockey as ably as he writes about it, and a number of other topics besides. For example, If you prod him, Bob can tell you tales of wayward pilots getting lost in the clouds and guiding their planes into the sides of mountains. Seriously.
Robert and I got to the rink by about 4pm. The doors had just opened to the general public, so we walked around the relatively crowd-free concourse, scouting locations and marking where the Flames table was located on the draft floor. I took a couple of pics to capture the general distance and impression of where we ended up:
The teams setting up for the first round.
...And again, from the opposite side of the arena
"With the 13th overall pick, the Calgary Flames proudly select Sven Bartschi."
We envetually ended up on the second level, closer to the stage as evidenced by the Bartschi pic above. This area afforded a pretty good vantage point as well as seats at a long desk like area and access to a power-outlet close by. Pat and the rest of the accredited media were squirreled away elsewhere during the proceedings, so Bob and I had to make do with what was available. The tickets we received for the event were marked "general admission", but we envetually discovered that others had assigned seats (which we were invariably sitting in). We happened upon unclaimed seats while the night was still young, however.
We set up my computer as best as possible and I began the FN live chat. Bob monitored things via his phone and kept a keen eye on the action on the floor. The first round dragged along at a snails pace and the arena was oddly and mercilessly cold inside. Perhaps in anticipation of the crowds, some over-zealous Xcel employee must have cranked the A/C up to 11. The icy draft seemed to travel up the wall of first floor seats and gust into the first balcony. At one point, an usher apologized for not being able to provide us with blankets. Bob probably suffered the most, being in shorts and a t-shirt the whole time.
The first night was relatively uneventful aside from the pick. Near the end of the proceedings, Robert's eagle eye caught Jay Feaster talking in a corner of the floor with Sabre's GM Darcy Regier. Both club's picks had already come and gone, so it struck us as odd that they would still be talking in earnest. At that time the general feeling was that Regehr had scuttled the deal with his NTC and that it was more or less dead in the water. Bob's scouting of Feaster's activities was a hint of the trade that would be announced the next day however.
Before the end of the night I met up with Hockey Prospectus' managing editor Timo Seppa and we talked about the frigid rink, incredibly slow pace of the first round and the curious decisions by the Philadelphia Flyers. Timo had media access, so it wasn't long before he had to leave and start talking to the prospects and the big-wigs.
We also happened upon a number of friendly Wings fans/bloggers that night (yes...they do exist), coincidentally because they were also looking to take advantage of a table and a power outlet. The funniest part of the evening was each of them waiting patiently for the Wings pick at the end of the first round...only to see Holland trade it away for a pair of second rounders. Sad trombone.Other highlights: a large contingent of Jets fans cheering every passing mention of the new club as well as Vancouver Canucks representatives being heartily booed at every opportunity. Best line of the evening came from Bob, who observed that the cheer Bettman received from the Winnipeg crowds was probably the only one he's enjoyed in the last two decades.
Pat was still working by the time things ended around 10pm, so Robert and myself drove back to Minneapolis where we learned the Reggie trade was back on. I added an article on the Bartschi pick and an open thread discussion of the Regehr swap before Bob and I went out for dinner at pub near the hotel called the Brit. We had a few beers and discussed the direction of the organization amongst other things before calling it a night.
DRAFT: DAY 2
Things started a bit earlier on Saturday. I ate a quick breakfast and set out with Bob shortly after 9am. We arrived and were settled before 10 and managed to get some seats a bit closer to the action this time.
Anyone who watched round two onward knows that there's a lot less pomp and circumstance the second day. The picks came fast and furious with the choice being mumbled into microphones by team execs from the tables on the floor. In truth, things became difficult to follow mid-way through day, especially as each prospect became more and more obscure. A lot of my preferred targets for the Flames were picked in rapid succession to start the second round (Rattie, Grimaldi, Jurco, Jenner, Clendening, Saad) but I was somewhat mollified when the Flames announced Markus Granlund's name. After the Wotherspoon pick, the crowds began to thin considerably and the names and picks began to blur together.
Bob and I were able to meet up with Timo Seppa again on Saturday . He gave us a quick scouting report of Chris Butler (decent tools, shakey offensively) before leaving to join the media scrums. Kyle Kosier of Illegal Curve stopped by as well and we were able to discuss The Jets returning as well as the potential for Jets Nation to become a reality in the near future.
Finally, we met up with the friendly Red Wings fans again before heading out. They were rewarded for their patience this time, with Detroit the aforementioned Tomas Jurco with their first choice in the second round.
After the Flames chose Laurent Brossoit in the 6th round, Bob and I headed back to Minneapolis where we had some lunch before I headed to the Hilton for the second iteration of Flamesnation radio of the weekend. ONce again Pat and I were kept really busy thanks to the Regehr trade, Tanguay sigining the rest of the draft, so the three hours flew by. The impromptu Tanguay interview in the middle of the show was a nice bonus.
When we finished up around 7, Pat went out for dinner with Rob Kerr to talk shop and I went back to my hotel to unwind a bit. The plan was to meet up afterwards for some drinks and such, but I'm not too proud to admit that I pretty much fell asleep before Pat was able to get back to me. My return flight was 9:30 the next morning (meaning I had to get to the airport by about 7:30am) so I had a fairly good excuse for being lame at the end of the day.
Usually that's where the story ends, with the long wait in an airport and a groggy couple hours on the plane. However, I was fortunate enough to be booked on the same flight as a number of NHL notables, including the Flames executives (Craig Conroy, Jay Feaster, Ron Sutter, Michael Holditch). The Calgary brass was seated in first class (except for Ron, oddly) whereas I was at the back of the plane so I wasn't able to regale them with my own brilliant plans for the organization.
The real stroke of luck though was being seated beside former Flame Brian Skrudland, who is currently the Florida Panthers director of player development. Despite the tropical locale of his team, Skrudland explained to me he still called Calgary home and that's where he was headed.
A more open or friendly NHL exec probably doesn't exist. Brian asked me why I was at the draft and we discussed various things hockey related, including the difficulty kids face in stepping from junior to the pro ranks, the state of NHL equipment and how big and hard the pads are these days and some of the new ways people are looking at advanced stats in hockey. He asked me if I had read Moneyball and told me he was fascinated by that area of analysis in the game. Other items of interest from Skrudland:
- Said he enjoyed working with Tallon who had a very clear direction for the Panthers but was always open to new insights and suggestions from his staff. The club was thrilled with the Huberdeau and Grimaldi picks and they are hoping to get Gudbranson signed and into the line-up this year.
- I asked him about David Booth's health. He says he's back to 100%.
- Brian described some of the difficulties hockey players face in playing hockey in Southern Florida. Described the feeling of leaving the rink in shorts and how many potential distractions there are for players down there. Says it takes real pros to operate in Miami.
- He also shared that the Panthers made a play to acquire Robyn Regehr. He said the club was interested in him not only because of the quality player he is, but also because of the quality of person and pro he is. Described Robyn in glowing terms and was sorry Florida couldn't land him. He also mentioned it was probable the Sharks made a play for Reggie, but the Flames didn't want to trade him within the conference.
- Skrudland also shared some insights about the Flames 2003-04 and their playoff run. Says an under-appreciated facet of the club in terms of off-ice stuff was Martin Gelinas, who was able to galvanize the dressing room.
There's no question the flight home was unexpectedly one of the best parts of my trip, almost exclusively thanks to Brian Skrudland. I wished him and the Florida Panthers all the best going forward.
The final surprise of the return plane trip was one Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who happened to be seated directly behind me. He struck me as quiet and unassuming, which is remarkable given what he had just gone through over the weekend. If Skrudland hadn't have congratulated RNH on being picked first overall as he sat down, it's entirely possible I wouldn't have even recognized him. I did the inexcusable fan thing and got him to sign a copy of the hockey news I had handy (pictured above). I figured I'd probably never have another, similar opportunity in the future and it was probably anyone would believe my story anyhow. I plan to sell it to some excitable Oilers fan in the future for a fortune (ie Wayne Gretz)...
So that's the rambling tale of my journey to the 2011 NHL entry draft. I hope we were able to provide some value to everyone who stopped by or called in. Be sure to drop by again this week as we gear up for free agent frenzy.