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Ranger greats witnessed draft day's evolution

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers

At the NHL Entry Draft on Saturday in Vancouver, dozens of top prospects will experience one of their greatest hockey thrills before a national television audience.

The 30 first-round picks will hear their names called by league executives. They will then be summoned to a stage, where they will don various NHL teams' jerseys and smile for hordes of cameras. They will be interviewed by media representatives from around the world, and they will share this unique "moment of a lifetime" with their family and friends who helped them get there.

This exciting and emotional scene repeats itself year after year at the NHL Entry Draft, but it wasn't always this way. Some 35 years ago, first-rounders had a very different draft-day experience, as Steve Vickers, the Rangers' first pick in the 1971 draft, vividly recalls.

"I was working at Riverdale Park in Toronto that day (June 10, 1971), cutting grass on a power mower," Vickers, the 10th overall pick, said. "I broke for coffee at around 10:30 in the morning and had a 15-minute break. My mother called me and told me I'd been drafted in the first round by the Rangers. I said 'thank you' and then I got back on my tractor and finished the job."

Vickers wasn't the only top pick for whom draft day lacked pizzazz. The 1971 draft -- like most others in the 1970s -- was conducted by conference call. No one at that time could have possibly imagined the kind of elaborate production scheduled for Vancouver.

"The draft is huge now," notes Gordie Clark, the Rangers' head amateur scout who will run the Blueshirts' draft table in Vancouver. "There's such an intense desire for parents to have their son get a full scholarship to college or be drafted."

Clark, who has been scouting NHL players since 1992, witnessed the draft's growth first-hand, and says that higher player salaries have played a big role in making it a more noteworthy event for both the fans and draftees themselves. Drafted just one year after Vickers, Clark also remembers the event's early days.

"Actually, I didn't even really know about the draft," said Clark, a former right wing taken by Boston in the seventh round of the 1972 draft. "I was just home in Saint John (New Brunswick) and I didn't even know where or when they were holding the draft. I remember I got a call at home from (Bruins scout) John Carlton and he told me I was drafted by the Boston Bruins. I was like 'Oh, man, that's neat!' "

One reason the NHL conducted its 1970s drafts by conference call was a rivalry with the old World Hockey Association. By keeping the draft a fairly secret event, the league hoped to prevent WHA teams from tampering with contract negotiations in an era when most contracts were signed within days after a player was drafted.

At the height of the WHA-NHL rivalry in 1977, the draft was so secretive that even Ron Duguay, the Rangers' second of two first-round picks that year, was among the last to know of his draft position.

"I had no idea where I was going to be drafted," said Duguay, taken 13th overall in 1977. "I had a good idea I would be drafted in the first round, but the from our (the players') perspective the draft was just a little nothing event. I remember I got a phone call one day from my agent to tell me that I had been drafted by the New York Rangers a couple of hours earlier. He told me my contract was already done and what I'd be making. And that's it. All in 10 minutes. That was it."

By 1978, the WHA was on its last legs, and the NHL decided to invite top prospects back to the draft for the first time since 1973. Among those making the trip to Montreal for the June 15, 1978, draft was future Blueshirts star Don Maloney, now the team's Vice President of Player Personnel and Assistant General Manager.

Maloney, the Rangers' first selection in 1978, was the second Maloney brother taken by the Blueshirts. His older brother Dave, a defenseman who is now a Rangers radio commentator, had been a first-round pick in 1974.

"Alan Eagleson was my agent," Don Maloney recalled. "He got a bunch of us (his clients) on a bus and we went up to Montreal together. I think he (Eagleson) represented 25 of the top 30 guys in that draft. Well, a week before the draft I already knew the Rangers were interested in me because Dave had told me. ... I remember we were at the draft in a big room in the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal. The only team I wanted to go to was the Rangers because my brother was there."

Maloney, then 19, got his wish when the Rangers took him in the second round, No. 26 overall. Although he was thrilled with the news, there wasn't much fanfare accompanying it.

"It wasn't the production it is now," Maloney said. "There were some tables at the front of the room, and when they picked you, you went up and shook the hand of the two people that were there. And there was one reporter there. An hour later, I flew back to Toronto."

More than 20 years later, Maloney's draft experience came full circle when he made history by becoming the first former Rangers draft pick to later run the team's draft table.

A year after the Rangers chose Maloney, the team used its first-round pick to take his good friend Doug Sulliman 13th overall. Although by this time top prospects were regularly attending the draft, not all felt the need to be there. Both Sulliman and second-rounder Ed Hospodar opted to skip the event. In Sulliman's case, it was because he was busy at a summer job.

"Doug and I were working at a hockey school in New Brunswick that day (Aug. 9, 1979)," Maloney said. "We were out on the ice together, and I got a phone call telling me that the Rangers had just drafted Doug Sulliman. So I came back to the ice and said 'Hey, Sully, you just got drafted."

In Hospodar's case, the decision to skip the draft came from the painful memory of having sat through a major-junior draft in which he was left hanging until the eighth round. When the NHL invited him to come to Montreal, he declined the offer.

"I was invited there, but I said there was no way I was going because I had such a terrible experience at that junior draft," said Hospodar. "So I went fishing all day, and when I got home my mom said (former assistant general manager) Mickey Keating had called from the Rangers to say they had picked me in the second round. She then asked him  ' Well, is that good or bad?' because she knew nothing about hockey."

These days, it's almost impossible to imagine a top-tier pick playing hooky on draft day, and this has been the case since the early 1980s, when the draft became national TV fare in Canada. By 1987, the present-day draft environment had become the standard, and a player picked in Detroit that year would go on to score one of the biggest goals in New York Rangers history, even though another chose him on draft day.

Stephane Matteau, then 17, remembers how he felt on that June day in 1987 as he sat in the stands with his friends at Joe Louis Arena and heard the Calgary Flames call his name with their second-round pick, No. 25 overall.

"I knew I was going to be drafted, but in which round, I didn't know," recalls Matteau, who seven years later helped the Rangers end a 54-year Stanley Cup drought by scoring the Eastern Conference Finals series-winner in overtime. " When I first heard my name called, I suddenly realized that I was getting closer to my goal."

That feeling, still cherished by Matteau, will be shared by a new generation of players in Vancouver on Saturday. And while the pageantry surrounding this draft might be grander, the moment's importance is no greater than it was back in the 1970s when names like Vickers, Duguay, Maloney, Sulliman and Hospodar began their journeys to the Blueshirts.

"It was an exciting time then, and it's an exciting time now," said Maloney. "It's my favorite time of year, truthfully."
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