NHL robs itself of excitement ... again
For the sheer spectacle -- from the unbridled joy to the crushing disappointment -- it's hard to beat the National Hockey League's annual entry draft.
Unlike the other three major professional sports leagues, every year the NHL gathers en masse to meet, greet and celebrate its new crop of stars. Scouts and agents, players and their families -- and yes, even fans -- in one big, nervous, nationally televised pep rally.
For a league that does so much wrong, the draft has been worthy of praise.
But not this year.
Draft weekend, the one that was supposed to have been held in Ottawa on June 25-26, was formally canceled by the league on Thursday.
In all likelihood one will be held before the NHL resumes play, presumably in the fall, but it won't be the same. There won't be the arena-inflating joy of a young man's reaction when his name is called over the public address system. There won't be the future's-still-bright exhale of relief by a player falling down the board when he is finally picked. There won't be the heartbreaking sadness of a player in a rumpled and sweat-stained suit, sitting in the near empty arena on the second day as player after player is selected, his dream fading as each name goes by.
Even if you're not a hockey fan, the drama of the draft is palpable.
Yes, if losing the Stanley Cup was a kick in the teeth, losing the draft is a shot in the shins.
But since Thursday's announcement formally canceled the festivities but not the draft, the next challenge for the league (apart from negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement and fixing the on-ice product, of course) is ensuring it doesn't screw up the process, especially considering the pool features the most important young player since Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Eric Lindros -- Sidney Crosby.
Without an order of finish from which to create the lottery system, as well as the rest of the selection order, it will be up to the league to find an equitable solution, a task that will have long-term repercussions for the "new" NHL given the presence of Crosby, the runaway junior hockey player of the year and consensus No. 1 pick.
"Obviously we have a unique year where there's a great player coming out and all 30 teams would like to get that player. I'd prefer that Carolina automatically gets the first pick. So that's my preference. But for the most part, any ideas you're going to get are going to be self-serving," Carolina Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford said jokingly Thursday.
Coincidentally -- and sadly -- teams thinking only of their own needs instead of the needs of the league as a whole that has created the mess in which the NHL currently finds itself.
The Washington Capitals drew the first overall pick last June and used it to select Russian phenom Alexander Ovechkin. Although the Capitals weren't the worst team in the NHL in 2003-04 (that distinction belonged to the Pittsburgh Penguins), they won the weighted lottery system that determines the order for the 14 NHL teams that do not make the playoffs. The Capitals had 59 points, one more than Pittsburgh and tied with the Chicago Blackhawks, who drafted second and third respectively.
The weighted system prevents clubs from moving up more than four positions and dropping more than one -- which works just fine if you've actually played the games on which the lottery is based.
But what if you've wiped out an entire season?
Do the Columbus Blue Jackets, Capitals, Blackhawks and Penguins, the four worst clubs a year ago, deserve a better chance at drafting Crosby than the defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning?
To ensure the parity the league holds so dear, the utopia at the core of their demands for a salary cap, it's unthinkable that the league would settle on plain old luck of the draw, which could send Crosby to Tampa, or Philadelphia, or Detroit, or Toronto, or any other well-heeled team (unless of course you happen to be a coach, general manager or fan in that city and think that one hat, 30 slips of paper, is the way to go).
"If you asked 30 different general managers you'd get 30 different answers," said Atlanta Thrashers general manager Don Waddell, who anticipates the topic will be hotly debated when NHL GMs meet in Detroit April 7 and 8.
Waddell, whose Thrashers never have made the playoffs but set a franchise record with 78 points last season, said that every team should get a shot at the No. 1 pick but teams that didn't make the playoffs should have a better chance.
Blue Jackets general manager Doug MacLean, whose 4-seasons-old Blue Jackets also never have made the playoffs, suggests selection order be determined by a team's performance over a period of time, not just last season.
"I guess I'm saying that because hopefully that would be advantageous to us," he said.
Another wrinkle is replacement players. If the league does implement its own CBA to employ replacements there's no guarantee there will be a draft. The status of draft-eligible players under those circumstances is still being discussed.
"Obviously we've given a lot of thought to the various scenarios," NHL executive vice president and chief legal officer Bill Daly said Thursday.
But have they considered ...
Given the NHL lockout is about bridging the gap between the rich and the poor, it would be apropos to use a weighted lottery based on reported financial losses, not on ice wins and losses. The teams would be placed in order of financial distress, with the 14 teams in the most dire straights having the best shot at the No. 1 pick. Bet the NHLPA would love to see owners make their cases.
Then, instead of conducting the draft via conference call (zzzzzzz ....), how about holding the draft on the eve of training camp. Pick four locations next to major North American airports or one central location for each division. Tell the agents representing the top 150 or 200 draft eligible players to have their clients show up at the nearest airport with their gear packed. Hook up a video conference system, invite the media and fans and sponsors. When the player's name is called he hops on a plane and heads to his team.
Unfortunately, the reality is that whenever the 2005 draft takes place it will more closely resemble the other major sports', with teams hosting parties or events in their own facilities and the proceedings being directed electronically from a central location, likely the NHL's headquarters in New York or Toronto.
"I think each individual market will have to create its own excitement around the draft," Rutherford said.
Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.