How To Make a Draft: Behind the Scenes at the NHL Draft

The NHL Draft moves cities every year, and it is the only major sports draft that features every GM from every team under one roof. does it work?

Jun 29 2016, 6:36pm

Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Last Friday night, the First Niagara Center in Buffalo, New York filled with thousands of hockey fans, many wearing Sabres gear, nearly all booing lustily at mention of the Toronto Maple Leafs. But for the most part, the attendees at the NHL Draft who drew the most attention didn't make a sound, for all their nerves. These were the prospects-—some looking sharp in tailored suits, others swimming in too-big numbers they pulled off the racks, some having filled out their frames, others looking like they should be there to support their older brothers.

For the young hockey players, surrounded by friends, family, girlfriends, agents, or any number of people tagging along, the draft is a beginning: the first night of a professional career. But for dozens of people skittering around behind the scenes, the draft is a culmination of a year's worth of work.

The NHL is the last of the four major professional leagues in North America to still put all its 30 member clubs in one room for its Entry Draft. Some no doubt see this as an archaism: the night before the NHL opens its draft in Buffalo, the NBA holds its own in Brooklyn. There, commissioner Adam Silver announces every first round pick from the podium while each team's management deliberates in "war rooms" cordoned off from the rest of the league and from the outside world. (This is similar to the format used by the NFL.) Major League Baseball's draft draws far less attention, as it's in the middle of the sport's season and drags on for 40 rounds, but it's carried out through a similarly remote process.

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The spectacle of having everybody under one roof is unique and offers a rare glimpse into front offices at work in real time. At the head of each team's 20-person table, beside the scouting director and other trusted advisors, is the General Manager. Where most trades in professional sports are carried out surreptitiously behind the scenes, it isn't uncommon for, say, the GM of the Boston Bruins to walk over to the Dallas Stars' table, tap his counterpart on the shoulder, and head to the back of the floor to talk business. While the Leafs see their time on the clock dwindle, Buffalo fans might start to jeer while Lou Lamoriello tries to work the phone, covering his opposite ear with an open hand.

Naturally, bringing in the sport's brain trust for a two-day whirlwind of trades, intrigue, and publicity creates some unique logistical problems for the NHL. To combat this, hundreds of people comprising dozens of league departments descend on the draft site within hours of the Stanley Cup Final's conclusion. (The draft has changed locations each year since 1985; prior to that it was held annually in Montreal.)

The first thing you notice are the signs. By Monday of draft week, the host arena is teeming with operatives, rushing to turn an empty space into, essentially, a television studio. There are so many moving bodies in such a cramped space that at times the only bit of order comes from the dozens of placards with arrows, maps, and levels of security clearance directing you around the arena. And yet for all of these signs, half of the radio chatter buzzing through the arena consists of frantic calls for locations or directions.

Hockey fans getting ready to meet the future of the league. Photo: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports.

The NHL Events Department is tasked with coordinating the entire operation, managing the litany of other departments and subcontractors, communicating with the 30 NHL teams and with the prospects themselves, usually via their agents. Their concerns can range from ensuring the safety and comfort of Russian teenagers as they become instant celebrities to the simple matter of team officials slyly trying to move an extra folding chair to their own table, leaving another team high and dry with only 19 seats.

Early in the week, when I make it into the arena for the first time, the event staff was working with a handful of television types to finalize an area for prospects to field interview questions from radio, TV, and print outlets. To be clear, while this space is sometimes referred to as the media area, it is not the huge bank of media risers at the back of the draft floor, nor is it the media workroom a few feet removed, in the bowels of the arena. The only thing passersby wanted to talk about was the league's expansion to Las Vegas, which at that point had yet to be confirmed. Topics ranged from potential team names to which players might be left unprotected in an expansion draft. (The consensus was that the Aces/Black Knights/[enter name here] will be able to snag a great goalie given the league's new protected-list rules.)

Because of the quick pace in which players are selected (well, relatively: Friday night's first round takes more than four hours, or longer than rounds 2-7 put together), the space in question had to be built to accommodate a handful of young NHL hopefuls at the same time. Step-and-repeat backdrops are unboxed and set up along the area's perimeter; someone tweaked the microphone on the one area that had been outfitted with an official-looking sit-down podium emblazoned with the NHL shield. By the time Toronto announced Arizona native Auston Matthews as the first pick, journalists of all variety (whether it be a Phoenix newspaper, or a French-language radio show) were packed shoulder-to-shoulder in here, trying to secure an interview with the projected franchise player.

Actually, the international nature of the telecast provided one of the most space-sensitive challenges: On Friday night, the first round was broadcast in America by NBC Sports and in Canada by Rogers Sportsnet. (Saturday's proceedings, comprising rounds 2 through 7, were handled solely by the NHL Network.) While the two broadcasts shared a couple of cameras, they had to produce two different versions of the telecast, with different panels of on-air talent, different prospect interviews, different real-time analysis. And that's to say nothing of the coverage that spilled outside of the arena: on Thursday, I caught a a high-profile reporter giving a stand-up report to his camera crew, suit and tie from the waist up, gym shorts below to combat the sweltering Buffalo heat.

When you are celebrating becoming a millionaire by trying to put a hockey sweater over your dress shirt. Photo: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports.

The draft is produced by a company called BaAM Productions, a company that focuses on large-scale events in sports and entertainment. BaAM works closely with the NHL on a variety of events, including the All-Star weekend and the series of outdoor games, which have become an annual tradition and involve outfitting a football or baseball stadium with all the requisite equipment and logistical systems. Under BaAM, the Entry Draft has become one of the league's biggest events, with fans packing local arenas for large-scale draft parties of their own.

But not long ago, things were much more analog. The giant video screen at the front of the draft floor, which automatically updates with each pick and shows highlights of each prospect, is a new innovation. As recently as a few years ago, the draft board was operated manually, with an army of men and women on ladders sliding nameplates into the proper slot--think of the out-of-town scoreboard at Fenway Park or the leader board at a golf tournament. This was fine during the early going, when the staff would have the marquee names—CROSBY, OVECHKIN, LINDROS, LEMIEUX—on hand, ready to go. But by the time the later rounds came around, there would be prohibitive delays in finding the right player's plate: picks 131 and 128 might be filled in properly, but 130, 129, 127, and 126 would be empty for inexplicably long stretches

What's more: the picks themselves were once carried in by kids. Each NHL team is allowed one runner, generally a 7-to-15-year-old boy or girl who receives a team jersey and in return runs errands. (For years, runners were chosen through local initiatives like newspaper essay contests; starting around the year 2000, team executives started bringing their own sons or daughters to fill the role.) Back when it was still cost-prohibitive to outfit an arena with a sophisticated computer system on short notice, selections (and trades) were made by filling out the proper documentation, handing it to the ten-year-old you met that morning, and sending him or her up to the commissioner's area for approval. While that process has now been entirely digitized, runners are still briefed on the process in case the computer system shuts down.

Of course, there's one constant tying 2016 to years prior: Jim Gregory, the 80-year-old Senior VP of Hockey Operations for the league, whose presence at the podium in later rounds of the draft has rarely wavered for the past three-and-a-half decades. Gregory served as Leafs GM in the 1970s and later headed up the league's Central Scouting department, and in 2009 survived a heart attack. He's spoken about in reverent terms, and while he only mans a few rounds on Saturday—as opposed to the marathon sessions he pulled in the days of the 11-round draft—he is, briefly, the mayor of Buffalo.

By the time Toronto went on the clock Friday night, everything appeared to run relatively seamless. The semi-trailers' hauling equipment had been moved away from the public eye, the staggering amount of catered food and Tim Hortons coffee was respectfully out of sight. The Leafs entered their pick through the computer at their table, waited to make sure the presiding TV networks were ready, and then sent a group of executives—including Lamoriello, president Brendan Shanahan, head coach Mike Babcock, and even their runner—up to the stage. Matthews donned the team's jersey (an updated design, as the draft has become the choice venue to unveil such changes), weathered a hail of boos, shook hands with commissioner Bettman, and headed off to conduct a dozen or more interviews.

It proceeded from there, the Winnipeg Jets took Finnish winger named Patrik Laine, the Columbus Blue Jackets elicited gasps when they selected Cape Breton's Pierre-Luc Dubois over another highly-touted Finn. For the hundreds of people behind the scenes, most of the hard work was over, and they were free to sit back and watch, maybe occasionally troubleshoot, for a few hours. But come Saturday evening, they'd be dismantling the event and loading it into boxes, crates, and trucks--then flying to Chicago, to plan with United Center staff for the 2017 draft. After all, it's only 12 months away.