Monday, June 25, 2007
Kudos to Canada and the NHL draft
By Bill Simmons
On Friday, I was flicking channels at 4:15 p.m. PT, stumbled across Gary Bettman's mug on Versus, realized he was introducing the 2007 NHL entry draft and immediately fired up the laptop for a running diary. Why? I don't know. I don't follow hockey anymore. I couldn't name 20 players. But here's what transpired:
4:19 PM (in progress): Tragically, I missed most of Bettman's speech before he announced the Blackhawks were on the clock. But here's how it probably went down:
"Ladies and gentleman, we're coming off another wonderful season highlighted by the most damaging TV contract in professional sports history and a finals between an obscure Canadian team and the 357th biggest market in the United States. And now, we're about to introduce a 5-foot-9 American kid who's built like Bailey from "Party of Five" as our first pick. I couldn't be happier -- 15 years ago, David Stern sent me to the NHL to ruin this league and I have delivered in spades. Thank you, thank you very much. Thank you, you're too kind. And now, the 2007 draft!"
4:20: Just so you know, we're getting TSN's feed from Canada for the draft. That's what happens when you blow your summer budget on "Survivor: Borneo" re-runs.
4:21: As we wait for Chicago's pick, one TSN announcer confidently decides, "This is a crucial time for the Blackhawks," and another adds, "This is a big pick, this is a big pick." They both have kickin' Canadian accents. How have I been missing the NHL draft all these years? I feel like someone introduced me to Patron tequila all over again.
4:22: Here's a cool wrinkle for the first round: Before every pick, each GM walks up to the stage flanked by four cronies, then stands in front of the podium and announces his pick. Imagine if the NBA did this and we could see the likes of Elgin Baylor and Kevin McHale announcing their own picks? Can we make this happen?
Anyway, Chicago GM Dale Tallon is "proud" to introduce tiny Patrick Kane as his No. 1 pick. This kid looks like an altar boy. I'm not kidding -- he actually looks like an altar boy. I hope his tremendous upside potential involves puberty. More importantly, what the hell happened to the NHL? As if things weren't already bad enough, the league's No. 1 overall pick is an undersized American who looks like the third singer in a boy band? Can we start sending them FEMA money or something?
4:23: We've already heard three "or-gan-EYE-za-shuns" so far. I'm in heaven. Can't believe I haven't done an NHL draft diary before. As far as oversights go, that ranks right up there with waiting three years to start watching "The Wire" and "24."
4:24: Hey, did you ever notice that hockey is the only sport that has guys named "Dale" and "Darren?"
4:27: Flyers GM Paul Holmgren looks exactly like Juergen Prochnow. I don't know what this means. He uses the No. 2 pick on American LW James vanRiemsdyk, whose last name sounds like a Dutch porn movie. Does every NHL lottery pick look like an extra from "Dead Poets Society" or was it just these first two?
4:28: Announcer No. 2 tells us, "He's a good, strong, solid NHL player, and, uh, they've got a good player here." These are the moments when you appreciate Mel Kiper Jr. They don't happen often. Still waiting for graphics telling me the names of these announcers.
4:31: All right, we've officially reached the point when this draft is much funnier on TV than it could ever be in print. We just had this exchange:
--Announcer No. 1 (excited): "[vanRiemsdyk] developed really quickly, he really came on in the past year. How long has he been on your radar?"
--Holmgren (monotone): "Uh ... [thinking] ... for a long time."
4:33: Good God, it's Wayne Gretzky! I didn't even recognize him. His face filled out. He looks older and more serious. He stole Al Gore's haircut. ... I mean, he suddenly looks like a wealthy importer/exporter or something. Whatever happened to the happy-go-lucky guy who wasn't afraid to break out blond perms and middle parts? He picks center Kyle Turris, who's so young-looking that I kept expecting the Great One to hand him an ice cream cone and an autographed box of hockey cards. Will we see one pick with chest hair in this draft? I wish I could bet Janet Gretzky on this.
4:39: During the Gretzky-Turris interview, Announcer No. 1 asks Gretzky, "Are you comfortable having a guy on your team who still goes to school with a Batman lunch bag?" Then he pulls out Turris' Batman lunch bag. See, I told you these kids looked young! You didn't believe me.
4:42: Boy, there are some spectacular hairdos in this draft. The guy who just announced L.A.'s pick looked like somebody threw an egg filled with hair at his forehead and it splattered everywhere. The Kings reached for defenceman (that's Canadian for defenseman) Thomas Hickey at No. 4, which is apparently the equivalent of the Grizzlies taking Big Baby Davis or Josh McRoberts at No. 4 in Thursday's NBA draft. Everyone's shocked -- Hickey was ranked anywhere from 13th to 40th on the various draft lists. That leads to Kings exec Dean Lombardi's admitting to TSN's crew that they tried to trade down and failed.
(Los Angeles Kings hockey ... feel the excitement!)
4:46: Just learned that the draft is taking place in Columbus, Ohio (home of the Blue Jackets). This would have been my 52nd guess, just ahead of Nashville and right behind Anchorage.
4:50: After an indescribably awkward introduction by GM George McPhee, Washington grabs defenceman Karl Alzner at No. 5. (Note: I'm using Canadian spelling from now on.) Why have we seen so many funny Canadians over the years -- Mike Myers, Dan Aykroyd, Phil Hartman, Jim Carrey, Lorne Michaels, Norm MacDonald, the SCTV guys, etc. -- and yet, everyone in the NHL is sweepingly uncomfortable, stilting and humorless? Have we ever figured this out?
4:51: The Oilers use the sixth pick on Sam Gagner (son of Dave). We're now six-for-six for two-parent families at the NHL draft -- a higher total than the last five years of the NBA draft combined.
(Speaking of stats, we've seen at least 25 crazy hairdos, comb-overs, dentures and bushy mustaches already. We're at the point when Gene Keady and Gene Shalit could be sitting in the audience and I wouldn't even notice them. From a comedy standpoint, I'm giving the NHL draft a 27 out of 10 right now. And that might be low.)
4:52: Just for fun between picks, Bettman slips on a T-shirt that reads, "WHAT DO I HAVE TO DO TO GET FIRED?"
4:57: TSN sideline reporter Farhan Lalji interviews Dave Gagner in the stands. Here's how it kicks off:
--Farhan: "We're here with the proud Papa. Dave, you were taken 12th in the draft, your son was taken sixth, who's better?"
--Gagner: "Well, that means he's twice as good, right?"
(Gagner laughs, the sideline reporter is completely flustered by the ad lib for some reason. Two beats of silence ensue. Finally ...)
--Farhan: "Sounds like it."
(Note: There's a possibility Farjan blacked out there and forgot where he was. I'll believe anything. By the way, we also learned from Gagner that his son is delighted to go to Edmonton because he really wanted to get picked by a Canadian team. You have to love the NHL draft -- it's the only time people actually hope to go to Edmonton.)
5:03: On the clock at No. 7, the hometown Blue Jackets! This might be the lowest moment of my life: I'm actually excited to see who they take here. As the crowd chants "Let's go Jack-ets [clap clap clap-clap-clap]," their GM tells them in a monotone voice, "Thank you ... what a fantastic day in Columbus." It really ranks right up there. They take European winger Jakub Voracek, who hopefully won't get corrupted by the Columbus night life. Keep your fingers crossed for him.
5:06: Enjoyably mundane interview with Columbus star Rick Nash, who has a scruffy beard and an "I hope they can't tell I'm hung over" vibe going. He's about three years away from signing with the Kings and dating one of the Duff sisters. Let's keep an eye on him.
5:07: Cool, even the NHL draft has the "Top Prospect Who's Plummeting And Looks Like He Might Puke" factor in their draft. This year, it's a Russian winger named Alexei Cherepanov, who looks like the Russian mob will be waiting in his hotel suite tonight if he doesn't go top eight. The best adjective for him right now is "squirmy."
5:08: Should we break the news to TSN that you're always better off hiring a cute female for the role of sideline reporter? I think so.
5:10: Up next: my old hockey team, the Boston Bruins. I broke up with them in 2001 because their owner (Jeremy Jacobs) is a heartless miser; now I'm an NHL widow. And you know what? I'm fine with that. I'm not even feeling any pangs of remorse because new Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli looks like Machine from "8MM," or because the great Cam Neely is introducing this pick. ... That's right, center Zach Hamill, ranked 16th on TSN's list. Awesome. Anytime you can get the 16th guy at No. 8, you gotta make that move. Burn in hell, Jacobs. Burn in hell.
5:14: Bettman announces the first trade: St. Louis swaps No. 9 to San Jose for No. 13 and two other picks. With that settled, Bettman proudly announces that the NHL is expanding to three more cities: Wilmington, Del.; Primm, Nev.; and "an up-and-coming town about 40 minutes from Milwaukee that I can't remember right now." Good news.
5:15: Note to TSN: You might want to run announcer IDs while they're talking every once in a while. Just a thought.
Meanwhile, the Sharks grab centre Logan Couture, the fourth guy in nine picks who gets the "you get the sense he'll be wearing the 'C' some day" praise from Announcer No. 2. That's a fancy way of saying, "He's a leader." I'm going to start using that in my everyday vernacular. There's a polished counter guy who just started at my local Starbucks ... you really get the sense he'll be wearing the "C" some day.
5:17: Put it this way: If you're a former NHL player, you have a hideous comb-over and you're NOT working as an NHL executive, you should be taking this very personally.
5:21: Prolonged shots of the two draft sliders in the crowd: Cherepanov (now frantically talking on the phone to the Ohio Russian Embassy asking for asylum) and Angelo Esposito (the consensus No. 1 last year until his intensity issues made teams cool on him). Not only is Angelo a playmaking center, he has the most Italian-sounding sports name since Vinny Testaverde. Angelo Esposito!?!?!?!? David Chase would have turned that name down in the Sopranos' writers room for being "too over-the-top."
5:22: Bettman announces the league's new five-year satellite radio contract, explaining, "I can't tell you the name of the company yet, and it's not XM or Sirius, but let's just say that this company definitely has a satellite."
5:23: The two-parent streak continues as Florida takes defenceman Keaton Ellerby at No. 10, the toughest player in the draft by all accounts. Also, we just heard Announcer No. 3 say the word "PROH-cess" (translation: "process"). Here are my top eight words that are much more fun when a Canadian says them:
8. Process ("PROH-cess")
7. Against (a-GAY-anst")
6. Go ("goo")
5. Organization ("or-gan--EYE-zah-SHUN")
4. Handicap ("han-dee-cupp")
3. About ("ah-boot")
2. Franchise ("frayn-ch-EYE-zzze")
1. Kudos ("coooooooo-dooooooooooze")
(Note: There's comedy, there's high comedy, there's transcendent comedy, and then there's anytime a Canadian guy says the word "kudos." Just trust me on this.)
5:25: The breakout star of the draft: TSN analyst Pierre McGuire, who's screaming right now that Cherepanov's free fall is "unconscionable!" and adds, "I know he's Russian, I don't care!" He's like Darren Pang after six Jack-and-Cokes.
5:37: Farhan Lalji interviews my new favorite hockey player -- Angelo Esposito -- who has slicked-back, wavy black hair, a hairy upper lip and one of those "Whadda YOU lookin' at, huh?" looks on his face. He's missing only a thick gold chain and two tomato sauce stains on his dress shirt. I love this guy. (Note: I'm half-Italian, I can make these jokes.) If the Bruins had grabbed him, I would have seriously considered jumping back on the bandwagon. Does he make his own sauce? You're not a true Italian unless you can make your own sauce. Why didn't Farhan ask him this?
5:29: The mighty Whale (I refuse to call them "Carolina") take RW Brandon Sutter. ... Yup, from the famous Sutter family. He's the son of Brent.
"I would NEVER go against the Sutters," Announcer No. 3 tells us. Me, neither. That's one place where the NHL kills the NBA -- the NBA doesn't have a famous family like the Sutter family. Unless you count Shawn Kemp's kids.
5:30: Brandon Sutter gives a quote that sums up every interview so far: "I just go out and play and have fun with it and, you know, uh, I just wanna be a hockey player, so this is my dream."
(My theory on why all hockey players are so boring: It takes three beers to loosen them up because their brains are rendered senseless by the stench of sweaty, stinky hockey equipment. It's like the smell of death -- you can't get it out of your nostrils once it gets in there. Hence, they're on autopilot until that fourth beer makes the stench go away. And then? All hell breaks loose.)
5:34: The Habs pass on the hometown kid (Esposito) and take an American defenceman (Ryan McDonagh) at No. 12. Delighted, Announcer No. 3 calls Ryan a sleeper and tells us that "his uncle is the famous Super Bowl winning quarterback, Steve Walsh." (You mean, the Steve Walsh with the noodle arm who carried a clipboard on a Super Bowl team? That Steve Walsh?) By the way, there's a 100 percent chance that Angelo is going to beat the living hell out of McDonagh if they meet in a junior hockey game next year. Can Janet Gretzky give me odds on this?
(Note: That's two Janet Gretzky jokes already. ... Don't think I won't go back for thirds.)
5:35: Prolonged shot of a distraught Cherepanov in the crowd. Ever notice how young Euros and Russians always have the hairdo with the tail in the back and the bangs in the front, or as I like to call it, "The Jagr?" It's a mortal lock.
5:38: Playing the role of Blues GM John Davidson today, none other than Dr. Phil! That's a surprise! They take Swedish centre Lars Eller, who just downgraded from Swedish beauties to Missouri girls in the span of three seconds. You have to feel for Lars. I don't remember a porno series called "St. Louis Erotica."
5:44: Colorado grabs USA defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk. Can we call him Shatty? I think so.
5:48: They keep showing ads for Stouffer's throughout the draft. I could have predicted this if I'd thought about it long enough. Although this should have been the ad:
--Canadian dad: "What are we having for supper tonight? I'm not a-GAY-ainst sandwiches."
--Canadian mom: "I don't feel like going through the whole cooking PROH-cess ... I'm making French bread pizzas."
--Canadian dad: "Coooooooo-doooooooooooze!"
5:49: Defenceman Alex Plante goes to the Oilers at No. 15. More importantly, I finally figured out who Oilers GM Kevin Lowe looks like -- Ed Norton in 20 years! It's uncanny. I'm really enjoying myself. Have I mentioned this? We're ending this diary after Cherepanov and Esposito get picked because I could sit here typing for another 12 hours. And frankly, nobody wants that.
5:54: Bettman announces another trade: Anaheim deals the No. 16 to Minnesota for the No. 19 and No. 42. Also, he announces new corporate sponsorships for the NHL with Enron, Betamax, CMGI, Conseco, Free FM, Pan Am Airlines and ESPN Mobile.
5:55: My new favorite moment of the draft: Farhan Lalji interviewing Cherepanov and his interpreter in the stands. Here's the transcript:
--Farhan: "How difficult is it for Alexei right now to still be on the board?"
--Alexei (in Russian): "They're going to kill me! I'm going to be killed!"
--Interpreter: "There's nothing he can do, it's unpredictable."
--Farhan: "Do you think the transfer agreement issue between the Russian Federation and the National Hockey League is playing a part in this?"
--Alexei (in Russian): "Of course! Let me hide in your basement, Farhan! I'm begging you! They're going to kill me!"
--Interpreter: "Some part of it ... yes."
(By the way, after enduring Farhan for two hours, I'm going out on a limb and saying the original sideline reporter called in sick.)
5:57: Minnesota takes centre Colton Gillies at No. 16. I'm digging some of these names. Colton Gillies. Keaton Ellerby. Logan Couture. I swear, Steven Seagal played a character with one of those names.
(Wait, that's a sweet Minnesota Wild jersey Colton's putting on! What a beauty! It's a blood-red sweater with green patches on the arms, a green bottom and a circular green and white logo in the middle. Very handsome. Have you seen those? That's the first NHL jersey I've liked since the Original Six. Look, check out the picture.)
6:02: Finally, the Rangers grab Cherepanov at No. 17 -- we'll get to see his hair and Jagr's hair unite forces. This might get me watching hockey again. OK, maybe not.
6:03: One of the best parts of the draft: They all have to take their jackets off so they can slip on the jerseys. Of course, Cherepanov is rocking the stage with gray slacks and a tight black T-shirt right now -- he looks like one of the waiters at an outdoor cafe in Soho. I thought the Rangers might rescind this pick for a second.
6:03: Hmmmm ... the Rangers already had a sweater ready with Cherepanov's name on the back. That's a little fishy. How did they know a top-five guy would slip to No. 17? If Esposito "drops" to the Penguins at No. 20, we'll have moved right into the Fishy Zone -- two marquee teams "fortunately" getting two marquee prospects? Even David Stern wouldn't have been this blatant. Then again, this would mean Bettman is working to make the league better and more interesting. Scratch that thought.
6:04: A little past the two-hour mark, we finally get a graphic telling us the name of Announcer No. 2: It's Bob McKenzie. Now we just need to find out if his wardrobe was sponsored by Target or JC Penney's.
6:06: Bettman announces that Calgary just traded the 18th pick to St. Louis for the No. 24 and No. 70. He also announces the NHL has just reached agreement to expand to three more cities: Key West; Death Valley; and Bogota, Colombia.
6:08: The Blues grab American defenceman Ian Cole, prompting Announcer No. 3 to play the "they like going off the board" card again. Apparently nobody's allowed to criticize teams unless they're Pierre McGuire, so they have to use code phrases like "off the board" and "another unconventional pick by a guy who's been fired six times." Kinda makes me wish Stephen A. Smith was here. OK, maybe not.
6:10: Pierre just capped off his Cherepanov/Rangers analysis by saying, "Glen Sather is smiling like a cheshire cat." Haven't heard that one in a while. Canada might be 15 years behind the United States in every respect -- this would explain the ongoing affection for Bryan Adams -- although that time-warp factor is also one of the reasons Canada remains my second-favorite country behind Australia.
(Some of the others: the superb national anthem, Bobby Orr, the NHL draft, Molson commercials, the Edmonton crowd, the city of Montreal, John Candy, Canadian money, Canada Cup '72, the sneaky sense of humor from every Canadian not associated with the NHL, Phil Hartman, the Rougeau Brothers, the sweeping love of beer, Don Cherry, the nickname "the Great One," the way they kicked the crap out of the Soviets during the famous Canada-USSR junior hockey bench-clearer in '87, Norm MacDonald, and gambling at any Canadian casino because you always feel like you have 40 percent more money than you actually do. This should be its own column.)
6:13: The defending champs (Anaheim) take centre Logan MacMillan at No. 19. Yet another name for the Jack Horner All-Stars, right? I'd have to give Logan the edge over Colton Gillies. I'm smiling like a cheshire cat right now. Are we sure these aren't stage names made up right before the draft?
6:18: With the 20th pick, the Penguins select ... my new goomba, Angelo Esposito! That couldn't have been more rigged. Ah, who cares? This league needs all the help it can get. Angelo, on behalf of 50 percent of my body, you make us Italians proud.
As for the rest of the NHL, I'll see you in 12 months for the 2008 draft. And not a second before.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His book "Now I Can Die In Peace" is available in paperback.