The annual NFL and NBA drafts generate much anticipation and great fanfare. For the most part we are familiar with the players being selected, having watched them play for years with their college teams—or in the case of college basketball players, at least one year. Other professional sports hold drafts as well, of course, but these tend to garner the attention only of serious devotees, not casual fans.
Curious to experience the ambience of one of these other drafts, in June I went to the NHL Draft at the American Airlines Center in Dallas. In April, the NFL had held its draft at AT&T Stadium in nearby Arlington, and the proximity provided an opportunity to compare and contrast. The first round of the hockey draft, which took place on a Friday night, was a sellout, with the crowd being a mix of Dallas Stars ticket holders and NHL insiders, plus a few hockey pilgrims. One noticeable difference between the crowd at the NHL Draft and an NHL game was the number of suits rather than hockey sweaters. When I say the “number” of suits, I don’t mean the number of different suits, as at least among the draftees it was largely the same suit. I began to wonder if there had been a 31-for-1 special at a nearby men’s store specializing in a blue, European-cut garment.
The pure hockey-ness of the gathering was palpable. Numerous historical and contemporary hockey heroes were highly accessible. The stewards of the sport were on display at the team tables on the arena floor. The community outreach of the draftees in the several days before the draft was admirable. The hospitality of the Dallas Stars organization was extremely warm—though not as warm as the 102-degree weather outside for the fan festival.
The international flavor also distinguished the NHL Draft from its NFL equivalent. The first six picks came from six different countries, the first three from Sweden, Russia and Finland. I did pity the interviewer doing the on-site interviews with Swedes and Finns, who are not the most loquacious of interview subjects.
Much was spoken of the hockey “family,” and the draft did have something of a family reunion feel. That sense was brought home poignantly at the start, when the NHL honored the Humboldt Broncos, a junior hockey team in Saskatchewan that lost many of its team in a bus crash in April. That moment even brought a temporary halt to the otherwise incessant booing of Commissioner Gary Bettman. As he said in his intro, “We have some important business to do with regard to Humboldt, then you can boo me all night.” The crowd respectively honored the memory of the Humboldt team—and then took Bettman up on his offer to boo him all night. No one ever came to a draft to hear from a commissioner.
Nevertheless, with a fast-paced program (only three minutes between picks), the variety of nations represented and an upbeat mood in the building, the NHL Draft remained true to the ethos of hockey—an ingredient of a professional sports draft that should not be overlooked.