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Verdict: Generations of Blackhawks draft picks converge on Day 1

by Bob Verdi / Team Historian

Nico, Miro, Jusso, Urho.

These are names to be played later, but the one that matters most to the Blackhawks now is Henri Jokiharju, their first prize in Friday night's National Hockey League Draft at the United Center, where evidence of the sport's globalization was all over the board.

The Blackhawks have been watching Jokiharju for a while -- as recently as earlier this week at drills held nearby. But he's been watching them too.

"When they won the Stanley Cup in 2010, I saw them on TV," the Finnish right defenseman said. "It was maybe four in the morning at home in Helsinki. I became a fan of them then, the way they play, the style. Now to be selected by them, it's unbelievable."

What's more, the Flying Finn did not hear his name announced by your basic front office type. Stan Bowman, the Blackhawks' Senior Vice President/General Manager, did take the microphone to reveal the team's decision before a captive, energetic audience. But just as he was about to carry on, Bowman turned matters over to a pair of seminal draftees who have won three Cups in Chicago.

Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.

"That was awesome," continued Jokiharju, who promptly embraced father Juha, mother Sari, brother Juho and sister Linda in the stands -- a common sight on draft nights. In figure skating, performers adjourn to the infamous "kiss and cry" room to learn their scores. Hugging your loved ones after an Original Six franchise gives you the nod seems like more fun.

The Blackhawks, last year's regular-season Western Conference champions, were slotted to pick 26th but moved to 29th at the last minute, exchanging places with the Dallas Stars, who contributed a third rounder to Chicago's cause. Jokiharju was the prospect on Bowman's wish list, anyway.

"A prototypical modern defenseman" is how the boss described Jokiharju, who is 18 years old, weighs about 185 pounds and excelled as a blue-line quarterback for the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League. Bowman's had quite a week, as you might have noticed, and his pledge is to build with youth and speed.

"Change is not easy, but it is necessary," Bowman offered. "We want to get younger." Jokiharju looks like an altar boy, but it is said in various scouting missives that he can handle himself in traffic against ogres who don't look like they attend church.

Inside the United Center, the entire surface, usually designated for ice or a basketball court, was covered by tables, each one representing the 31 franchises -- Las Vegas' Golden Knights making their debut as they sought to build a future only hours after settling on a roster for their present. At each station, there were chairs for executives and scouts, computers next to piles of secret data, plus bottles of water. Everywhere. On such an important occasion, when choosing young men who could make or break your team, one must stay hydrated.

The stands on the east side of the arena were dominated by 10 rows of media folks, with the overflow occupying the press box. This is huge news, especially in Canada, a country that grinds to a halt on this night every year. Thousands of fans took over the 300 Level. The 100 Level belonged to family and friends of the draftees. This is where the fretting takes place, then the hugging. As a reminder, a giant video board at the Zamboni end of the building towered above the stage. There was the clip of Toews being tabbed by the Blackhawks in the first round of 2006, then another of Kane, No. 1 overall, a year later. As we mentioned, the significance of draft night cannot be underestimated.

Outside, in parking lots north of the United Center, hundreds gathered for a sun-drenched Fan Fest. A booth housing the Stanley Cup for photo ops was jammed, as were separate enclaves containing Blackhawk legends. Tony Esposito was posing for pictures, Denis Savard and Pat Foley signing autographs. Hall of Famers, all.

There were two rinks, one of them of the inflatable variety, for those bent on getting some exercise. Three-on-three hockey will do that. For us sedentary types, a massive stage above the masses, with the band Neon Trees providing entertainment. All of this action began a full three hours before the draft commenced, but judging from the crowds gathered along Madison Street, work was optional Friday for hockey fans in Chicago.

Many of them ventured inside at six bells, primed to boo every mention of ancient rivals. And the Nashville Predators.

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