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NHL Draft

Meeting Wayne Gretzky caps great day for NHL Draft prospects

Nolan Patrick, Nico Hischier among players to speak with Great One prior to Game 4 of Cup Final

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

NASHVILLE -- They had been on the clock for nearly nine hours on Monday, shuttling from one interview and handshake to another at Bridgestone Arena.

And then, shortly after 6 p.m., four young men who are a few weeks from being selected at the 2017 NHL Draft presented by adidas met Wayne Gretzky and time pretty much stood still.

Forwards Nolan Patrick, Nico Hischier, Casey Mittelstadt and Gabriel Vilardi, the top four North American skaters for 2017 as ranked by the League's Central Scouting Bureau, lived a surreal Monday in Nashville.

They sat in the arena stands for some breezy morning conversation, first with Hockey Night in Canada Coach's Corner celebrity Don Cherry, and then with James Duthie of TSN shortly after noon.

Those chats bookended another round of general interviews that had followed their meeting a handful of Nashville Predators and Pittsburgh Penguins players.

The four were greeted by left wing James Neal, and defensemen Roman Josi and P.K. Subban in the Predators locker room, center Sidney Crosby and goalie Matt Murray outside the Penguins room, other players with both Stanley Cup Final teams pausing to wish them well at the NHL Draft later this month.

There was a pit stop for lunch and freshening up back at their hotel, where the day had begun with a 9:30 a.m. bus ride downtown, and then it was back to the arena at 4 p.m. for interviews with the NHL Network with Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final -- the first Final game any had attended -- a couple of hours away.

But at 6 p.m., semi-privately in the NHL Communications office on the arena's events level, they were greeted by Gretzky, the League's Centennial ambassador.

With Gretzky was his dear friend and former teammate with the Edmonton Oilers Paul Coffey, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and NBA icon Charles Barkley, a surprise visitor on this afternoon.

Of course, they all know of Gretzky's legendary accomplishments: 1999 Hall of Famer, four-time Stanley Cup champion, 10-time recipient of the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL's leading scorer, nine-time winner of the Hart Trophy as the League's most valuable player, twice winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the playoffs. Meeting The Great One would be an exclamation mark on a remarkable 24-plus hours.

Video: Nolan Patrick and Nico Hischier on the Combine, Draft

The four prospects had arrived in Nashville late Sunday afternoon for this whirlwind visit, touching down from Buffalo's two-day NHL Scouting Combine.

If Patrick, Hischier, Mittelstadt and Vilardi were exhausted from the grueling combine and delayed connecting flight out of Atlanta, growing teenage bodies nevertheless found the energy to lift knives and forks and make short work of enormous meals that filled at least a little, their eight hollow legs.

There are the wide eyes of a goal-scorer when he sees a large opening of the net at which to shoot. And then there were the saucer-sized eyes of Patrick when a steak-house waiter, listing the appetizers, came to "chilled seafood tower."

It was like Patrick had a breakaway with the goaltender pulled, and it was a soccer net.

One day and two nights in Music City for these four superbly talented centers, Sunday night into Monday night, included this private dinner -- seafood tower, steak, ice water and no dessert -- with a small group of League executives; a post-meal sightseeing visit to Nashville's legendary Broadway; a flurry of Monday interviews at Bridgestone Arena, including the annual prospects visits with Cherry and Duthie; how-do-you-do's with Gretzky and Crosby, among others; then Game 4 between the Predators and Penguins, the first Stanley Cup Final game for all four.

Not a bad day, all in all.

The first round of the NHL Draft, to be held June 23 at United Center in Chicago, will forever change the lives of these four players and 27 other young men. Dinner on Sunday and a full day in the public eye Monday showcased the impressive grounding and poise of Patrick, Hischier, Mittelstadt and Vilardi, who seem more than ready for what's to come and not the least bit overwhelmed by it.

They were at ease meeting Gretzky, if more than a little star-struck, and happily posed for photos that will become instantly cherished souvenirs.

Gretzky recalled the one and only game he played in Nashville in his final NHL season, skated for the New York Rangers on Feb. 15, 1999.

"I think I had six assists," he said with a grin of the Rangers' 7-4 win.

Five in fact, but who's counting?

Gretzky recalls being a teenager dipping his toe into professional hockey with the 1978-79 Indianapolis Racers and Oilers of the World Hockey Association.

If he had one piece of advice that he'd share with the four young men who are about to set sail into an exciting future, it would be this:

"I'd tell them that this is the greatest life in the world, and if you embrace it and work hard, you can enjoy all the fruits of it," he said. "But don't take it for granted."

The four prospects soon were headed upstairs at Bridgestone Arena for the madness that would be Game 4. It would be a short night back at the hotel hours later: Patrick, Mittelstadt and Vilardi were booked on 6 a.m. flights back home. Hischier had the luxury of sleeping in -- he wasn't flying until 8 a.m.

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