The Surprisingly Entertaining NHL Draft; Could The NBA And NFL Learn Something?

The NBA Draft will take place on Thursday night and it will again be a huge moment in the future of the Cleveland Cavaliers. In Cleveland, pro sports draft nights are often the biggest days of the sports calendar. The NBA Draft is great theater, and at the very least, an entertaining fashion show that will ripen in the archives.

Once again, this year’s NBA Draft will be held in the New York metro area. David Stern will be announcing the picks from a podium at the Prudential Center in Newark — where, oddly, no NBA team plays or exists. The NFL Draft is firmly established in New York as well, clicking on all cylinders for three days at Radio City Music Hall. While the NFL has moved around to different venues to accommodate more people, it’s been held in NYC for nearly 50 years. New York has a monopoly on the two biggest professional drafts

On Friday night, I happened upon the 2012 NHL Entry Draft on the NBC Sports Network. This is a sport and an event that’s far from my wheelhouse but I decided to leave it on for a little bit. For me, it turned out to be pretty surprisingly fun and dramatic to watch. I immediately thought the NFL and NBA could take a thing or two from how the NHL has set up their draft. It’s rare to say that either Roger Goodell or David Stern should look to Gary Bettman for anything, but from a fan perspective, I loved a few of the wrinkles in the NHL’s selection event.

First, the NHL Draft rotates around the country, going from one franchise’s arena to the next. Columbus hosted it at Nationwide Arena in 2007. This year, it was at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, which has one of the most loyal and widespread fan bases. I realize the NFL and NBA have the logistics of a week in New York down pat, and they’re successful in drawing crowds each year. But would it hurt to move things around? New Yorkers have enough events going on, and I imagine if you have been to one draft, you probably aren’t going to continue to patronize it year after year. If the draft came to your local city, it would be a huge offseason date for fans, sure to draw a crowd of interested people looking to take in a live rare event in the fantasy sports era. It could also be highlight and spotlight for some of the moribund franchises in the NBA and NFL.

Because you’re rotating cities, you will generally have a sizable livewire crowd. It was entertaining to watch the Penguins fans erupt after Gary Bettman announced a trade involving one of their star centers, Jordan Staal. He had been the topic of trade rumors for much of the offseason, and things certainly heated up during draft week when he turned down a 10-year contract proposal. It came to a head on draft night when the Pens pulled off a blockbuster deal that sent the arena into a buzz. You obviously won’t always have these deals happen in front of a home crowd, but that home crowd can always find the home team or divisional implications of trades.

Next, whether the NHL forces them to or not, each franchise has a huge contingent on hand at the actual draft. It’s like 30 giant Thanksgiving tables set up across the arena floor with each team’s general manager and his cadre of scouts, advisors, and team reps sitting shoulder to shoulder. It really had a glorified fantasy draft feel to it, where all your buddies meet up at a bar or a friend’s house and huddle over picks and trades and then react (or keep a poker face) to the stream of developments. It was really cool to see the Penguins pull of this trade and then have the camera immediately pan to their table of Mario Lemieux, GM Ray Shero, and others as the crowd erupted. There’s just no real hiding.

The other leagues typically have some unrecognizable no-names sitting at phones to make sure the logistics of the process continue smoothly. I realize it would not be feasible to have these NFL war rooms all set up in one place, for three days. But it would be fun to have a set of recognizable team representatives on hand and in communication with their headquarters through the first night of picks. It would especially add an extra bit of entertainment given the multitude of trades we saw in the NFL’s first round this year under the new CBA.

The NHL also sends these recognizable team reps and GMs to the podium each time to make their selection, much like a fantasy draft where you call out your own pick. Each GM makes a few off-the-cuff remarks — either about the crowd, the host city, or maybe a note of congrats to the recent championship winner — before making their selection. The prospect is almost certainly in attendance and comes down out of the crowd for pictures with the brass and dignitaries of his new team. The commentary before the pick was occasionally funny and added a little extra entertainment compared to the rote announcements for each pick made by the NBA and NFL commissioners (although, admittedly, David Stern has injected some creative commentary at the podium in recent years). It was fun to see Lemieux, his GM, and about 10 others meander through floor to get to the podium, smirking with their chests puffed out after pulling off that trade.

Lastly, because you’re rotating sites, the host gets to boo the hell out of their rivals as they come on the clock, and then have to make an interminable walk to the podium and make their pick in person. This was particularly great on Friday when the Philadelphia Flyers came on the clock. The Flyers and Pens are, of course, bitter rivals coming off one of the nastiest postseason series in any sport in a long time. As a casual hockey follower, I remember sitting there with my mouth agape watching that chaotic Game 3 of their second round series this past spring. It was one of the more remarkable things I had seen in sports in a long time. With that as the background, Flyers GM Paul Holmgren had to make his way to the podium in Pittsburgh amidst a shower of boos. You could barely hear him as he made a few cracks about the crowd before making the pick (video here and a great one here). It was a really cool and entertaining moment. Can you imagine Pat Riley strolling to the podium at the Q? Or that ten-minute period when the Steelers are on the clock?

I realize both the NBA and NFL drafts are successful machines right now. But there are always ways to spice things up, especially when it comes to a night that’s essentially reading names off a card. I never thought I’d be entertained by the NHL Draft — it’s a sport that I don’t know much about picking a crop of future stars who I’ve never heard of. But yet, I was fascinated by their draft setup on Friday. It  would be great to see the NBA and NFL experiment a little more.

  • I went to the draft in Columbus back in 2007, and it was a blast. Truly one of the most unique sporting events of my life. I totally agree that the NBA and NFL should consider moving their drafts around as well. It was so much fun interacting with fans of different teams and just following the events of the night from the arena as they were happening. It was a great time.

    Also, I love that the teams announce their picks themselves. There’s a tradition that the team rep making the announcement thanks the home city and congratulates the Stanley Cup champions. How great would it be if the NBA did this? I would love to hear Dan Gilbert come out to congratulate the Heat, haha.