Read an Excerpt
MY PLACE IN THE WAR ROOM
I’ve always been fascinated by drafts. It doesn’t matter which sport, which pro league, I just pore over previews and forecasts and lists for hours at a time. It goes back to high school. I remember picking up a Sport Magazine and reading an analysis of the San Diego Chargers’ draft one season back in the ’70s. In the twelfth round, the Chargers selected John Van Reennen. He was designated a defensive lineman by the club even though he had never set foot on a football field–he was a six-foot-seven discus thrower from South Africa. I still remember the comment attached: “That’s the Chargers’ draft–the Sahara Desert.” The geography was wonky, but the allusion appropriate: It was as hopeless a flyer as ever was. That I can still remember this more than thirty years later tells you how much I care about drafts: too much to be socially acceptable. Yes, obsessing about drafts could be a symptom of career bachelorhood, or a root cause–early on, I learned not to bring it up on first dates.
I’ve tried to figure out why drafts intrigue me and can only take an educated guess: caring about a game or a team is an emotional exercise, while caring about drafts is much closer to an academic one. The latter is how I lean. Drafts lend themselves both to history and statistics. Fans of sport will sit around and talk about the great teams of the past–I’ll want to talk about the great drafts. (First in my heart: the Pittsburgh Steelers in ’74 netted four Hall of Famers; in all, five starters on four Super Bowl—winning teams.) They’ll talk about great players–I’ll want to talk about how they were landed. (How good was the guy the Philadelphia Phillies took in the first round, if they waited till the second round to take Mike Schmidt?) Or I’ll want to talk about how they were missed. (I’ve gone to the wall defending Houston’s selection of Akeem Olajuwon at No. 1 over Michael Jordan, but Portland’s bypassing of His Airness for brittle-boned Sam Bowie is unconscionable then, unconscionable now.)
Long before I started on the hockey beat I studied the NHL draft–not just memorizing names and draft slots, but actually studying, looking for trends, looking for patterns. I could have told you that historically and on average there’s a greater difference between a player selected first through tenth and another selected eleventh through twentieth than shows up between a second- and fourth-rounder. (Seven out of the top ten draftees will play 400 games, compared to three to four of the second ten. In the latter instance, the difference is marginal, somewhere in the range of 15 out of 100 second-rounders reaching the 400-game benchmark while 11 or 12 of 100 fourth-rounders will get that far.) Some people sit down with crosswords and come up with solutions; I sit down with old draft lists and look for patterns, trends, systems.1 Though there’s more sports gambling than society can reasonably bear, the aspect of pro sports that runs closest to horse-race handicapping is the draft. And if NHL scouts ever reminded me of fixtures in another sport, it would be the railbirds at the racetrack.
It sounds dead goofy (but it shouldn’t surprise you at this point): I was more excited about covering my first draft than I was about covering my first Stanley Cup. I’ve reported from a dozen NHL drafts over the years. The first was in Edmonton back in 1995. That was the draft in the wake of the lockout-shortened season. The Stanley Cup playoffs extended into late June, so the 1995 draft was the first to be staged in July. Ottawa had the first pick in the draft and opted for Bryan Berard; the Islanders, going second, tapped Wade Redden. A season later, before either played in the NHL, the two franchises swapped one for the other. Not the oddest thing that ever issued out of a draft, mind you. That would be the second draft to be undertaken in July, the Sidney Crosby draft of 2005.
It was another draft put together after a lockout, the one that made the 2004—05 season something like a war year. The draft had been scheduled for Ottawa that year, but, lacking a collective agreement, the league scuttled its plans to hold it out at the Senators’ home arena in Kanata. When the league and players’ association finally patched together a deal, the draft was the first item on the agenda–that is, if you don’t count the league-wide lottery, a televised spectacle that had thirty general managers and team governors sitting around waiting to hear their franchise’s name called. If that was silly, it was no more so than the draft, which was staged in a conference room at the Westin instead of a proper arena venue. Only a dozen or so invited players were allowed to attend, and they had to wait together in a green room until their names were called. The league came up with all kinds of reasons for going small with this momentous event, but everyone was convinced that it was done this way to spare Commissioner Gary Bettman the longest, loudest booing in the annals of sport.
I had covered the drafts, as others do in the sportswriting dodge. The reporters were always on one side of a chest-high fence, the management and scouting staffs of the thirty teams on the other. I can only presume that the board of governors narrowly rejected Lou Lamoriello’s proposal to line the fence with razor wire. At various times during the draft-day proceedings, a general manager or coach would stand by the fence to drop a few quotes in the reporters’ notebooks. Maybe a few reporters had cozied up to a source who occasionally offered a little inside stuff on background. Other than that, the vast majority of stuff on the floor never made it up to the fence. What went on at the tables and in the days leading up to the draft was not for publication. It was, in a way, like court coverage that offered only verdicts, and no opinions or accounts of the deliberations.
In the spring of 2006 I set about trying to get to the other side of the fence. I set about getting access to a team’s war room leading up to the draft. I had no expectation of success. Nothing like this had ever been done. Oh, a few years back the Carolina Hurricanes allowed a camera into their conference room at a combine, but only a short clip made it to air. And Leafs TV, the digital cable channel owned and operated by Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, had a more extensive “inside” look at a scouting staff in conference. It was nothing more than a showcase for Barry Trapp, a blustering forty-year veteran of pro hockey and the Leafs’ head amateur scout at the time. The Leafs had control over the editing of the feature, so the team got out there only what it was happy to make public. These two limited exceptions notwithstanding, what happens on one side of the fence stays on that side of the fence–even more so than the old line about what goes on in a locker room.
I made calls, left messages and fired off emails saying: “Dear Lou/Bob/Darcy/Ken, etc., Could you see it in your heart to allow me into your meetings before the draft, so I can show the public exactly how you go about your business? And if there’s anything at all confidential, I won’t tell anybody. You can trust me. After all, I’m a reporter. Best to the wife and kids, Gare.”
For a couple of weeks I didn’t get so much as a returned call. Not from organizations and executives I knew only in passing, not from general managers that I’ve known for years. The first–and, as it turned out, the second-last–response came from Doug Armstrong, the general manager of the Dallas Stars. Looking back on it now, I think Doug wrote back to me simply because he was concerned about my mental health. He emailed a message saying that he was going to refer me to Tim Bernhardt, a former Maple Leaf goaltender who has worked for the Stars for a good, long stretch. I thought that this might be promising; I was on good terms with Tim, and he’s an interesting and shrewd guy. When Tim and I finally spoke, I told him that I wanted to be inside the team’s room at the Central Scouting combine and sit on interviews with the draft’s top prospects. Sure, Tim said, but there’s one problem–Dallas doesn’t interview players at the combine. The Stars bring in a few players for interviews with a sports psychologist, but not at the combine. When I asked about sitting in on meetings where the scouts were going to go over their lists, Bernhardt told me that was one door the Stars weren’t about to open. “We just don’t do that crap,” he reassured me.
Yeah, pretty soon I was resigned to the fact that no team was going to do “that crap.” Then one day I got an email from Doug MacLean, the general manager of the Columbus Blue Jackets. All it said was, “Let me talk to Don Boyd about it.”
Hope. Doug MacLean has always been the NHL’s most media-friendly executive. It seems like he does two or three radio or television hits every day. He figures one of a general manager’s jobs is to sell the game, not surprising given the two markets where he’s worked the last ten years (Florida, then Columbus). Well outside the hockey mainstream. I first met him when the Florida Panthers brought him in as coach during the franchise’s third season and MacLean took a team loaded with journeymen and other people’s leftovers to the Stanley Cup final. That bought him a couple of more seasons in Florida and later a chance to build the Blue Jackets from the ground up. Some execs can claim to be with a club since Day One, but MacLean was uniquely positioned–he was general manager of the Blue Jackets for two seasons before they actually had a team on the ice. Not just there for the birth but also the gestation period.
As personable as MacLean is, the Blue Jackets don’t get many hockey fans’ pulses racing–and casual sports fans might be surprised that there’s an NHL team in the capital of Ohio at all. The Blue Jackets are overshadowed in their own division by the always-powerful Detroit Red Wings and the emerging Nashville Predators. And the Blue Jackets are overshadowed in Columbus by the Ohio State University Buckeyes’ basketball and football teams, perennial contenders for Big Ten and national titles. Going into their sixth season, MacLean’s team had yet to make the playoffs. They had assembled a few interesting players, particularly a towering and tough winger named Rick Nash, the No. 1—overall selection in the 2002 draft. But most of the Blue Jackets were, like the team itself, not quite even middle of the pack.
Going behind the scenes with the Blue Jackets might not have seemed like much of an opportunity. Frankly, not many people were all that wound up about the team that’s in plain sight. Maybe if the Detroit Red Wings had signed on, I could go into the fact that their staff had landed great late-round finds like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. Maybe if the Buffalo Sabres had signed on, I could explain how they’ve managed to draft more players currently playing in the NHL than has any other franchise (almost all of them with more scouts and more money). But as Donald Rumsfeld decreed: “You don’t go to war with the army you want. You go to war with the army you have.”