Dec. 4, 2009 was the day the NHL announced to the world -- and the Los Angeles Kings announced to their fans -- that they would be hosting the NHL Entry Draft in June 2010. Like so many Southern California hockey fans, this news had me quaking with anticipation. As a Kings season-ticket holder, I would be front and center as part of an emotion-filled weekend for the 210 youngsters from around the globe whose careers would perhaps take a giant step forward (and perhaps peak) over a couple of days on a SoCal weekend. There will be successes, there will be failures -- and most assuredly there will be surprises. We will share in some of them immediately, and others may take years to assess. The draft is the ultimate crapshoot for some. I love the action.
This is not my first experience with the draft. In June 2003, having recently been downsized from an executive position within the Universal Music Group, I clung to my ancillary passion and hopped a jet to Tennessee. With the assistance of Kings PR chief Michael Altieri, I attended, and actually participated in my first NHL Entry Draft at the Gaylord Entertainment Center (since re-named more times than the Kings have made the playoffs in that time period). My assignment was to blog about the experience for a niche website that catered specifically to Kings fans. I was 48 at the time and
my draft experience in Nashville was fantastic. I was received warmly by then-Kings head scout Al Murray and was given the opportunity to speak candidly with him and a number of other Kings executives. Also, not long after I had arrived, I was given some "inside information" about the impending return to L.A. (via trade) by forward Jozef Stumpel, and in posting that tidbit, and having it substantiated shortly thereafter, I had instant credibility as a "source" by these diehard fans that perused said site with fanatic fervor.
The Kings had three first-round selections in 2003, and while no scouts or execs tipped their hands to me, the spectacle of the draft was dazzling -- and I hung on every first-rounder from Marc-Andre Fleury (No. 1, Pittsburgh) through Shawn Belle (No. 30, St. Louis) The Kings grabbed their trio of prospects and I was given access to Dustin Brown, then an 18-year-old forward from the Guelph Storm of the OHL, within hours of him being selected with the 13th pick. (there was a huge sigh of relief from this Kings fan when the Rangers, with the 12th pick, selected oversized forward Hugh Jessiman from Dartmouth; seven years later, Jessiman remains the lone first-rounder from the Class of '03 who has yet to play an NHL game.) Seven years later, Brown stands tall as the team captain.
Two other first-round picks for the team that year, Brian Boyle and Jeff Tambellini have moved on and are still searching for the elusive success that others have found at the highest level this game has to offer (unfortunately for this Kings fan, the rival Ducks made their Stanley Cup chances stronger with picks named Getzlaf and Perry). Even if those scouts had tipped their hands to me, I doubt I could have convinced them that those two were significantly better choices, and frankly, I don't know that I knew that at the time anyway. I attended both days' festivities in Nashville and remember being so impressed with the Predators organization and the NHL's ability to turn an offseason event like this into something local fans, in what most consider to be a "non-traditional hockey market," could really sink their fangs into (see the Predators' logo for imagery.)
Flash forward just about seven years to the day -- and the anticipation, for this hockey fan, is still palpable. While finances, employment situations, and border crossings made it so that I wasn't able to attend subsequent drafts, with my good friends, and voracious Kings fans, Tom Darcy and Pat Perry, each year I've made it a point to gather us in one of our respective living rooms, armed with our magazines, laptops, scouting reports and cell phones, to sit glued to the our TV sets and watch the festivities. We'd pace as if we were there and privy to the hushed conversations that GM Dean Lombardi and his NHL compatriots always seemed to shroud with maddening secrecy. When they would return from a maddening commercial break, and Gary Bettman would saunter up to the mic to announce to us personally, "We have a trade..." it was as if, on cue, we had to then collectively hold our breath as we awaited news that might cause us to finally jump ship and after 40 years, suddenly switch our allegiance as only the best bandwagoners can.
This year, Pat will be watching from home. Truth be told, he lives awfully close to the Honda Center, but in all these years has never turned away from the team that gave him so many memories at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, and the handful of games at the Long Beach Arena before that. Tom, who I first met at a Kings game in 1976, when we sat scant rows apart in Section 12 at the GWF, maligning Hutchison, Goldup, Hampton and Co., now works across the street from Staples, in the newly refurbished downtown business area that AEG has seemingly successfully turned into a bustle of activity beyond those occasional nights a sporting event or musical concert graces the large arena.
He'll walk across the street and meet me, and we'll take in the 2010 Entry Draft. We're both fans of the entire League, despite our focus on the Kings. We pay attention. We travel to road games, follow the Kings minor-league teams in both Manchester (I flew to New Hampshire three times between March and May) and Ontario (not far away in Southern California); we monitor box scores, we read dozens of websites catering to minor, junior and foreign hockey. We speak daily, reminding each other of drafts from years past. Old VHS tapes with faded marker on fraying adhesive saying "NHL Entry Draft 1983... 84... 85..." clutter our shelves. The tapes may or may not play, but given the chance to relive the agony (along with a very small dash of ecstasy) of hearing names like Duncanson, Redmond and McBean --- and knowing that at the time, we had hope, and a fervent belief that "the Cup is ours" --- or could be --- if these kids just play up to our expectations!
We love our hockey, we love our Kings -- and this weekend, we're love having the draft here. We hope our team adds to the talent base put together by newly re-upped GM Lombardi, and coach Terry Murray and build on this year's dramatic success, brought on in no small part by draft choices named Doughty, Kopitar, Quick, Simmonds, the aforementioned Captain Brown, and a decade-old pick named Frolov. Whoever gets called to the podium this weekend to don the Kings sweater and hat, and pose with the brain trust that finally has us trusting, after a good 40 years of futility, it's going to be a fun event, and a great weekend in Los Angeles. A rare draft flows through the warm corridors of a new downtown, and the chance to hear 29 other NHL teams' executives thank this city, its hockey team, and its devoted fans for a weekend filled with first class hospitality will put a broad smile on this generally curmudgeonly old fan's face, knowing that it's a long way from long nights at the Forum and the Sports Arena, and still, even further from those top 5 picks we've enjoyed over the past couple of seasons!