Loathing the NHL Draft

Every year, a right of passage takes place with each professional sport league in North America.  The renewal of potential, an infusion of depth to the organization, and the addition of hope that can revitalize a morbid fan base that can only see light if they look to the long-term and not the short-term effects from a professional sports draft.

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Yes, between entry draft events for each league and (at a later date) pre-season camps, hope can be fused back into the skeleton of a professional sports franchise's body, giving it renewed strength, substance, vigor and vitality.

But of the four major sport drafts, I just have to say it:  the National Hockey League entry draft is routinely the worst one to witness and the most painful to endure each and every year, without exception.

Every draft, no matter how much research and scouting takes place beforehand, is a crap-shoot.  Only a sliver of the talent selected by the franchises in the league will ever lace up skates at the NHL-level, let alone contend for a Stanley Cup (and there is only a scant chance they ever will play for the Cup, even less win one).  This, in itself, is a reason for the cynical not to like the draft or the hoopla surrounding it.  It's like the lottery - there's a chance for a payoff.  But it's just a shot of hope that more-likely-than-not won't manifest into a true prize. 

But the cynical take isn't what gets me about the draft...  Oh no, I can feed off the hype.  I can scan the prospects and understand the reasoning why a team might need this asset in a 1st round pick, and why they might select that player with a latter round pick, etc...  The stories of the players themselves are all unique and interesting too.  I can take something from each and every draft.

No, what the NHL Draft suffers is the poorest of poor implementation.

For a league that changes it's rules with as much regularity as the NHL does, using the "tradition" excuse (as so often is the case with those defending how the draft is handled -- both on TV and on stage) just cannot be justified.  Things change, rivers change course, fools come into power, and the Chicago Cubs even contend once in a while in Major League Baseball.  When I'm told the big board is a tradition, or the fact the draft is held at arena venues out of tradition, the chronic ass-kissing by General Managers as they step up to the podium with their full scouting staff behind them (and more sometimes) is a tradition...  I scoff.

Some of these might be traditions that others revel in, but relics is the word that more aptly describes them.  This is not to say that I don't think fans should be able to witness the draft, or that teams shouldn't have representatives at the draft...  This is saying to cut the pomp-and-circumstance and feed us more substance.  Cut the fat and add some more beef to the event.

The Venue

Changing host cities yearly is a logistical nightmare, but it's not un-doable either, and that can be seen each and every year with the event switching from NHL city to NHL city.  No, the problem is the buzz kill with an over-large venue allowing just about everyone and anyone inside...  and the fans sit idle more often than not.  The players in attendance are sitting in the stands like the rest of the people - even though this is their moment of celebrity.

The arena setting allows more fans to attend, but the cavernous expanse of the arena is a poor backdrop for what is ultimately an executive-event ongoing in the building.  More times than not, the crowd comes off subdued in the spacious settings and that is a buzz kill.  It gives the perception there really isn't anything going on -- but people wanted to be there anyway.

You look at the standard for a professional draft -- the NFL -- and the venues are always more generalized for events of this size:  Radio City Music Hall, the Jacob Javitz Convention Center and the Paramount Theater at Madison Square Garden.  They are more appropriate for an event of this scale.  Not over-large, but not rinky-dink either.  Much more intimate for fan reactions as well as following the prospects who are in attendance (and they're also treated like the stars they are for the day).

The fact that the draft is a regular event at one specific location also adds the buzz to it.  The NFL draft and New York City go hand in hand...  Couldn't the league achieve that event-like status by holdign the proceedings in Toronto annually?  Or Chicago?  I list those cities before New York because I know originality is something that is a necessity as well.  With a third party location year in and out, it's not just a host-city crowd that attends the event, but there is a much wider assortment of fans that flock in for the event as well

The NHL would also do well to start using 3rd party facilities instead of arena's for such events.  Oh, sure, arenas offer more space to play around with, and a venue like a concert hall would offer less space for all the executives in attendance (we'll get to that in the next section), but the intimacy aspect is too important in presentation of the event.  Too large makes it seem much-ado-about-nothing.

The Pomp and Circumstance

I think the best way I can share this peeve with you is to show you a round-about example of what I am talking about:

"We'd like to start off by thanking our lovely hosts for their generosity and warmth.  There's no place like Montreal and we'll be eagerly awaiting coming back soon.  We'd like to also extend our congratulations to the Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins and runners-up Detroit Red Wings for giving us such an exciting and memorable Stanley Cup Final this year.  I'd also liek to extend a hello to our fans back home in (city) who are watching the draft live at our official team draft party.  Our fans are one of a kind.

"While I also have the opportunity, I'd like to commend Gary Bettman for the outstanding commitment and perseverance through his thankless job.  And I'd also like to extend congratulations to the other 29 NHL clubs on the completion of another incredible season of NHL hockey!

"On behalf of the (insert team name) scouting department and our owners (several names inserted here to further draw this out), I'd proudly like to announce that with our pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, the team selects...."

Now, if you're watching the draft at home or at the team draft party, do you find it important that a GM -- yours and the 29 others that step to the podium -- kisses the host city's ass?  Is there a large degree of necessity in the cheap pop that comes from the audience with that?  Is it mandatory that anyone at the podium utter a large amount of throw-away nonsense in praise of everyone and everything?

This is the most excruciating part of the entire NHL Draft.  Everyone who speaks on the mike -- be it a GM, an owner, a scout or Gary Bettman -- makes a long speech that distracts from the entire purpose of the draft itself.  The selections.  The players.  

There is so much needlessness thrown out with every pick that you get the feeling you are watching congressional proceedings on C-SPAN.  It's like a perpetual filibuster in progress where a congressperson just talks and talks and talks with no actual point until you are compelled to change the channel. 

While we're on the subject, why is a full contingent of scouts and other team executives needed to announce a draft pick?  I realize that scouts don't get the limelight in their job and this is the only chance for them to get any publicity...  But is publicity part of a scouts contractual requirements?  All other sports have scouts doing jobs, shuffling between cities to get a better idea of prospects and other teams players and how they are performing.  Yet you don't see the other pro leagues giving their scouts a moment on TV where they awkwardly and nervously bask in the limelight for a moment and then shuffle off as uncomfortably as they shuffled in, while the sum of their efforts (the team's draft pick) gets the attention of the masses. 

You don't need every scout in attendance, you don't need every executive in attendance, you don't need every owner in attendance...  One of the great things about the draft in the other sports is that the teams take care of their own stuff at their team offices.  They don't have to make tough decisions at a over-occupied table, doing a balancing act between discussion, paperwork, media relations and jabbering on the phone. 

In the end, the marketing anagram KISS -- Keep it Simple, Stupid -- applies here.  What you need is a runner at a table, talking with team executives back at home.  One guy presents the pick to Bettman and Bettman announces the pick.  Not only does that mute the painful speeches, it gives the focus to player who was chosen.

The Telecast

A friend told me that the TSN telecast of the NHL Draft is specifically for die-hards and that the general populous need not apply.  He said that those watching already knew the players, knew the teams they played for and the skills that the guys have.

I asked him, flatly, why can't TSN show those skills in their highlight reels instead of the over-edited bombastic clips that were played out on air -- highlighting hits and scoring and not the tools and skills.  Where is the crisp-passing?  Where is the vision on ice and play reading?  Where are the clips of a D-man handling an odd-man rush?  Forwards crowding lanes?  A center's deftness?

Silence was his answer.

Now, you may think it's impossible to show such things in a highlight clip -- but it's not.  You look to the NFL and some of the position players that are taken -- specifically those in non-glorious positions such as on the offensive line or the defensive backfield -- and you see video footage of why they are good at what they do.  The act of an offensive tackle stopping a pass rusher and good placement of hands and feetwork to keep up with the mad-dog attack of his adversary; a linebacker observing a quarterback and reacting to where the guy is planning to throw the ball; a cornerback deflecting a pass the moment before it reaches a wide reciever, etc, etc, etc.

For all the video footage that TSN has of each and every player in this draft, the clips that make it on air are what you would expect for casual fans - a highlight real worthy of Sportscentre.  For a die-hard fan that wants to be shown and not told, that leaves a lot to be desired.

Oh, and it gets worse.

Every year there is a top draft choice in any league.  One player (or more) whose expectations are in the stratosphere and there is much hype surrounding him (and there likely has been that amount of hype around him for years beforehand).  That's expected.  That's what happens with the #1 pick.

But when you get an hour or later into a telecast of the draft and TV personalities are still talking about the top selection in the draft, or video clips leading into and from commercial are showing highlights from that top pick alone?  Well, it starts to get insulting.

 What about the 29 (or this year, 27) other draft picks that will go in the first round that don't have the over-blown expectations surrounding them?  Don't they have skills that should be shown to the international audience?  It should only be the top player(s)? 

Like I said, it gets insulting.  The draft isn't about one player or one prospect.  It's about a draft class entirely. It makes the crew at TSN seem downright unprepared past the top 5 picks or so. 

And of course, the NHL has given TSN's crews all access -- which further highlights the odd quirks and issues that were presented above regarding the draft.  A selection is called and TSN pans the audience to a smattering of applause that isn't picked up because of the size of the venue.  An interview is conducted with the GM of a team selecting mid-round and the conversation is about the talent of the top pick.  The camera-person invades crowded proceedings at one table or another to give you a glimpse of the inner workings of the draft proceedings and all that's missing is empty pizza boxes and any other sign of an overworked group in ridiculous conditions.

The draft picks are people's friends, relatives and neighbors...  Maybe that's the reasoning of the aw-shucks hokiness of the draft?  It tries to simplify the business proceedings into an overdone group affair and directly contradicts itself.  In order to revel in the selection of someone you know getting picked - why add or approve-of the bombastic video promotions?  If you want intimacy of close-friends joining the elite of the NHL, just why are you using a venue devoid of such intimacy? 

None of my complaints are shots at any host city or the fans who have attended past draft events or will be in attendance tomorrow night in Montreal.  The ridicule is an overarching shot at the production of the event.  This entire thing is supposed to give an influx of hope to the fans of each team and a glimpse and insight at the future, not lull them into a state of boredom.

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