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NHL's Keon shepherds top prospects at Cup Final

by Tal Pinchevsky

NEW YORK -- Leading up to the New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings facing off in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final on Monday at Madison Square Garden (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, RDS), top prospects Aaron Ekblad, Sam Reinhart, Leon Draisaitl, Samuel Bennett and Michael Dal Colle enjoyed a whirlwind day in the Big Apple.

As part of a prospects tour of the Cup Final that has been going on since 1993, these players got to watch practice and meet players from each team. The players may change every year, but there is one constant that has remained at the annual event.

NHL senior manager of public relations Dave Keon has led prospects through the Cup Final and the NHL Draft since that first class, which included top pick Alexandre Daigle as well as Chris Pronger and Paul Kariya. The process remains a major eye-opener for these hand-picked future draftees.

"Today for these guys is a huge day. They're two weeks away from getting drafted by an NHL team. All they've ever done their whole life is want to play in the NHL. For most of them, this is the first time they get to see something like this," Keon said. "The first class, Daigle was a real beauty. Chris Pronger too, he was a real character. Paul Kariya was very quiet."

Since that first class 21 years ago, Keon has acted as an NHL welcoming committee for many of the League's biggest stars, including Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Patrick Kane and Tyler Seguin.

For a few select prospects, it's an introduction to the League that often includes a nice steak dinner, plenty of media and visits with established NHL stars at the Cup Final before participating in a variety of activities in the days leading up to the 2014 NHL Draft, which starts June 27 at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.

"It's always a little hectic because we try to do so much. We cram in a lot of stuff. We've taped with [CBC personality] Don Cherry, we've seen both teams and met some players, which is kind of the carrot for these guys. They get to meet their heroes," Keon said. "They asked to meet [Anze] Kopitar, they met [Drew] Doughty. [Dustin] Brown was another guy who came through the program, so did Rick Nash. A lot of times it's the older guys, guys they've been watching since they were little kids. Those are the real cool experiences for them."

The son of Toronto Maple Leafs legend Dave Keon Sr., Keon hasn't tired of seeing these prospects stare in wonder as they catch their first glimpse of the NHL's inner workings. That will continue Monday night, when the five prospects attend Game 3 of the Cup Final. For Draisaitl, it will be the first NHL game he has ever attended.

The memories will continue leading up to the draft, especially when future draftees spend a day taking batting practice at the local baseball stadium in what is now a rite of passage for the world's top hockey prospects.

"Brett Connolly hit a home run in Anaheim Stadium that was pretty awesome. Even the batting coach for the Angels was impressed," Keon said. "The year that Ovechkin and Malkin were drafted, we went down to Durham Stadium, where Bull Durham was filmed, and took batting practice with Team USA. Those guys didn't even have running shoes, but when they got in the batter's box they wouldn't leave. They just loved it."

For each of these young players, a new chapter will begin when his name is called at the draft in Philadelphia. Until then, they'll be getting a crash course in how the NHL operates, with Keon playing the role of professor.

"When they were in the dressing rooms, they were just like, 'Oh my God, I can't believe it.' Not just the dressing room, but the crush of media," Keon said. "They're going around the bowels of the stadium realizing what it takes to put a Stanley Cup Final on. They're just awestruck."

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