When the National Hockey League Draft convenes at the United Center on June 23, officials and spectators doubtless will be taken with two monuments to excellence beside the building -- statues of Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull, Blackhawks Hall of Famers.
More than a half-century after they arrived in Chicago, they remain 1-2 as all-time scorers for this storied Original Six franchise that was digging itself out of a dark hole during the late 1950s. Hull debuted in 1957, Mikita's first full season occurred in 1959, and by 1961 the Blackhawks were Stanley Cup champions.
This represented a transformation for an organization so unloved and unsuccessful that several home games only years before were shifted to neutral cites -- Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Omaha -- amidst whispers that the NHL pondered relocating the Blackhawks to St. Louis.
Mikita and Hull shelved those rumors and filled Stadium seats. The Blackhawks were born again, and one might assume those two prodigies were draft choices for the ages. Except they weren't. The NHL Draft was not instituted until 1963, when it was held in the ballroom of a Montreal hotel, a quaint and private venue compared with the current internationally televised happening that will unfold over two days at the United Center.
The Blackhawks procured Mikita and Hull via the previous system whereby NHL franchises sponsored junior clubs. With new ownership able and willing to spend, one of General Manager Tommy Ivan's first moves was to develop an affiliation with the TeePees, an amateur organization in St. Catharines, Ontario. Ivan had his eye on one of their defensemen, Elmer Vasko, but his attention eventually swerved to Mikita and Hull.
"I was just a kid who'd left my home in Czechoslovakia at age 8," Mikita wrote in "Forever A Blackhawk," his recent autobiography. "I was making $25 a week with the TeePees when I started hearing about Chicago. The Blackhawks had territorial rights to me even before I knew what the heck territorial rights meant."
With their deft strategic maneuver, the Blackhawks not only acquired Mikita and Hull, but other players: Pat Stapleton, Matt Ravlich, John McKenzie, Vasko. The TeePees coach, Rudy Pilous, who converted Mikita from a right wing to center and Hull from center to left wing, also was promoted to Chicago, where he won that 1961 Cup.
But two years later, NHL President Clarence Campbell oversaw a policy that phased out sponsorships as a means of divvying up the talent pool of young players, virtually all of whom were Canadian-born. In what was then called the Amateur Draft, if a teenager was selected, that NHL team paid his (former) amateur organization $2,000.
There is a myth that the dynastic Montreal Canadiens were so dominant because they were guaranteed first call on all individuals within the province of Quebec, quite a fertile region. In fact, as a concession to their cherished brand, the Canadiens were granted the option of taking two players of French-Canadian heritage in 1963 before other NHL teams exercised their selections.
But the Canadiens passed on that privilege and chose Garry Monahan of the St. Michael's Juveniles in Toronto. He was 16 years and seven months young. Peter Mahovlich, from the same junior club, went next to the Detroit Red Wings. The Blackhawks, drafting fifth, selected Art Hampson, a defenseman from the Trenton (Ontario) Midgets. He never made it to the NHL.
Early on, the Amateur Draft did not evoke headlines, or much movement, as most of the best juniors had been grandfathered to their NHL sponsor clubs. Mahovlich became an excellent pro, but he was the outlier. In 1963, only 21 amateurs were chosen. In 1964, only 24. In 1965, only 11. Starting in 1966, the crop of available unprotected prospects gradually improved. Thus, the New York Rangers unearthed Brad Park.
For years, the draft was conducted at Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal, a slapshot across the street from then-NHL headquarters. In 1980, it moved to the Montreal Forum. Soon, it became portable. Toronto, 1985. Detroit, 1987. Minnesota, 1989. And beyond.
When the Blackhawks grabbed Jonathan Toews in 2006, the draft was in Vancouver. When they added Patrick Kane in 2007, again with their first choice, the site was Columbus. This month the league will come to the United Center, where statues of Blackhawk ambassadors Mikita and Hull shall overlook the modern way of doing business.
"Linemates in St. Catharines, Stanley and I, not knowing a thing about Chicago except we wanted to wind up there," Hull mused. "Now, they bronzed us. Amazing."