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The 2017 NHL Draft Experience

As a resident of the Windy City and a hockey writer I figured it was my duty to attend one of the league’s marquee events of the summer: the NHL Entry Draft. Despite a valiant effort on behalf of our editor, I was denied a media credential [Sorry! – Acha].  Which, in the end, was fine by me, because it meant I could attend as a fan.

After making arrangements to get the day off and securing tickets (not as difficult as I thought it would be) I headed off to the United Center on a bright sunny afternoon to see what all of the fuss was about.  Despite almost running my Divvy bike into a parked car and then having to tell the cab driver where the United Center was, I made it.

Then, for the better part of the next two days, I sat and watched teenagers get drafted. After that experience I feel that I can offer you some advice, should the draft come to a town near you.

Day one

Get there early

On Friday night, the draft was scheduled to start at 6:00pm.  I had planned to arrive at the United Center at 3:00pm in order to wander around FanFest and scoop up some draft swag before the festivities got under way.  Due to a work obligation and the aforementioned cab driver, it was closer to 4:00pm before I got close enough to walk to the UC. By the time I got there, it seemed everyone else in the Chicago area had made it already.

FanFest, which sprawled over two parking lots north of the UC was jammed with people wandering around in hockey jerseys on a warm summer day. There was mostly Blackhawks gear, but there were a few random teams sprinkled in (shout out to the guy in the Reid Duke Brandon Wheat Kings sweater).  Sadly, there was nary a Lightning jersey to be seen among the sea of red.

A quick jaunt around found fans waiting in line for a lot of things: a picture with the Stanley Cup, to go through the Centennial Exhibit truck, and to shoot pucks. There were also lines of kids waiting to play ball hockey and stick handle through an obstacle course.  Having seen the Cup and the Centennial Truck in San Jose, I avoided the mass of humanity and headed inside to meet up with a friend.

We wandered over to the Upper Deck booth where they were giving away prizes and the opportunity to have your own hockey card made.  It was a quick process and now I have another wonderfully awkward photo on cardboard as a keepsake.

Next I headed to the upper deck of the Madhouse on Madison and chatted with a couple of Lightning fans about the Jonathan Drouin deal and other Tampa-related matters. In all there were four other Lightning fans that I spotted over the weekend (one clad in a Russian Vladislav Namestnikov jersey), which is about three more than I found the last time I was at the United Center.

With time winding down I decided to grab a snack and head up to my seat.  I would say that about half of the vending stations were open and they were charging full price.

Be prepared to sit

For Day One, I had a seat on the club level. Let it be known that the draft may be the only time I could afford tickets to the club level at the United Center.  I settled into my slightly too low to the ground seat to the left of the stage and hung out there for the next two-and-a-half hours.

It’s odd being in a hockey arena and just sitting for two hours.  There was no getting up to celebrate goals or heading out during intermission.  There were no breaks in the first round, just team after team picking players every ten minutes or so.

I would recommend against sitting at the side of the stages.  Yes, you are close to the stage, but the angle isn’t that great and you don’t get to see the big draft board. Seeing that board is kind of important when you’re live-tweeting the draft and trying to figure out who is next and who has been drafted.

The advantage, however, was that I was able to see into the green room that was behind the stage. A large majority of the higher-rated prospects and their families were hanging out backstage waiting for their names to be called. The gentleman next to me (a father who had a passing interest in hockey, but his kids really wanted to attend) wasn’t as into the draft as some of the other folks so we started a quick game of “spot the agent in the green room”.  The easiest way to spot an agent- they were always on the phone and they usually had fantastic hair.

Keep Yourself Entertained

At some point in the middle of the first round I might have Tweeted out something about missing Pierre McGuire. That may be the the only time that sentence has ever been Tweeted. The point I was trying to make was that sitting at a draft isn’t the most entertaining thing in the world.  A pick is made, there is polite applause, a quick video package is shown, and then you watch everyone parade up to the stage. Photo is taken, hands are shook and then the next team is announced.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

There is no breakdown of the pick or excited talk of “real strong lower units”. Even the reaction of the crowd is muted. For instance, the majority of the fans have no idea how much of a stretch it was for Michael Rasmussen to be selected with the 9th overall pick. So, they just booed because it was Detroit, not because it was a bad pick.

Without, the running commentary you had to find other ways to amuse yourself. Watching the draft floor was one way.  Trying to figure out which GM’s were on the phone or wandering over to other team’s tables occupied most of the time. It was fun to wonder if a trade was coming if an assistant walked around to a GM and handed him a piece of paper or showed him something on a computer.

When you watch Steve Yzerman at a draft you don’t see much. He tended to sit at the table, slightly hunched over, staring straight ahead.  Occasionally he opened up a folder and made a note. Then he closed the folder and resumed staring straight ahead. He did make a few phone calls (especially on Day Two). Once I believe I saw him take a sip of water.

The fans themselves are entertaining. On Day One, a family of Flyers fans sat in front of me. When Bettman announced that Brayden Schenn had been traded they were….not amused. There was some cursing (okay, a lot of cursing). Then they just got up and walked out. They did not stick around for the Morgan Frost selection.

Day Two featured the two gentlemen betting on who would be selected next. Not just what nationality or team the player would come from, but actual players. The currency was slices of pizza (at $7.00 a slice it was quite high stakes).

The number one crowd activity was booing.  Most of those boos were directed not at Patrick Kane, but at Gary Bettman. As a Lightning fan, I have no animosity to the commissioner. Again, without him there is no Jeff Vinik in Tampa, so he gets a pass from me. I enjoy the fact that he now accepts the booing and embraces it. As the negativity rained down on him at the opening of the draft, not only did he not ignore it, he encouraged by actually saying, out loud, “C’mon, is that the best you can do?” He gives zero cares at this point.  I hope at the next draft he struts out to Vince McMahon’s theme song.

Catcalls greeted every mention of Detroit, Los Angeles and St. Louis.  Cheers greeted every Chicago mention. Dale Tallon, the architect of the 2010 Stanley Cup team,  received an extremely fond greeting.

Bettman managed to pull off the rare “Cheers turn onto Boos” when he stepped up to announce the Blackhawks had the 26th pick. The crowd stood and cheered until he said, “I have a trade to announce”. Those cheers turned into boos as he announced that the home team was swapping picks with Dallas. Bettman, ever the optimist responded with, “Don’t be upset, you’ll have a chance to do this again in a little bit!”

Gary Bettman at the draft is Peak Gary Bettman.

Come Prepared

If you plan on live-tweeting the draft bring two things along with your phone – a backup battery pack and a printout of all of the draft prospects.  Spelling is fundamental when Tweeting out the names and with the influx of European (especially the Finns) names, it’s a pain to get them right when all you hear is a name called out. No matter how much pre-draft material I read, there was no way I was spelling “Miro Heiskanen” correctly without some sort of guide. The same goes for Elias Pettersson and Jusso Valimaki.

It’s kind of Anticlimactic

When the first round is over, it’s just over. There is no goal horn or buzzer to signify the end. Bettman just stands up at the podium and announces it’s over and will start again the next morning. By that time the crowd is pretty ready to leave; in fact, most of the Blackhawks fans had left after their team drafted Henri Jokiharju with the 29th pick. (Yes, the Jonathan Toews/Patrick Kane bit was as awkward live as it appeared on TV).

Day Two

After a few drinks with some fellow SBNation writers (including our Supreme Leader Travis) it was home to jot down a few thoughts and recharge all of my electronics.  The 7:30am wake up call the next day was a bit rough, but I persevered and showed up early enough to grab a coke and a pretzel before heading up to my seat (in case you were wondering, yes beer was available at 9:00am).

As I wandered back to my seat, a gentleman approached me and asked if I wanted to be a seat filler. I said, “Of course”. He gave me a wristband and an instruction card and sent me down to the 100 level.  Sweet.

I was still off to the left of the stage but much closer to the action.  I was also among the draft picks and their families which was pretty nice. There was a huge cheer when the Sharks announced Mario Ferraro’s name and I looked to my left to see him (and his blue suit) hugging and high-fiving everyone in my row.

It’s fun seeing how much the families (especially the mothers) enjoy the moment. For the kids being drafted, it’s busy. They hear their name called and they’re immediately whisked away to put their new jerseys on and meet the team officials and do the press. The family stays in the stands and positively beam with pride while talking with people on the phone and accepting congratulations from friends in the stands.

On Sunday I ran into Conor Timmins’ uncle at my day job and we chatted for a few minutes about the draft (he indicated that the Lightning had some interest in the big defensemen) and what stuck out about the conversation was that he used the word “proud” about five times in a two-minute span.

Rapid Fire

On Day Two, teams still have three minutes to announce their picks, but it moves a lot faster.  There is no walking up to the stage, the teams announce the pick from their draft table, and there is no waiting for the player to come down. Once the name is called, the next team is on the clock.

It leads to some amusing moments.

Twice New Jersey was asked if they needed more time to make their pick.  The second time they actually had to use a “time out” to extend their allotment.  And yes, that did draw boos from the crowd.

The players still come down to the draft floor to meet the team at their draft table (unless you’re the Lightning and draft a Russian who may or may not exist).  At one point, Arizona was on the clock for the 78th pick. When I looked at the draft table, everyone was shaking hands with the 75th pick, which they had made five minutes before.

It was about half-full in the arena when I finally departed around the start of the sixth round. I spent some time talking to other fans about how they thought the experience was and the general consensus was that it was interesting, but no need to ever do it again.

So my overall recommendation, if the draft comes to your town, take some friends and go see it. It’s a better group activity then it is a solo activity.

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