Hoarse voice, aching fingers, near religious checking of Twitter during bathroom breaks-- the NFL draft isn't really a ton of fun when you think about it. Obviously the promise of new players, hopes renewed, and the start of the long road to football's return are things that I cherish, but it's hard to say the event of the draft itself is especially fun. Distilling the NFL draft you have a three day event where we sit around and watch hour, upon hour of coverage in order for the fleeting combined hour when the Carolina Panthers are on the clock. The first round and all its pageantry is entertaining, but those when you hit the 4th round onwards it can become a real slog.
Friday night I decided to sit down and devote myself to a draft I didn't really have a good grasp of, the NHL. I'm a dedicated, die-hard Carolina Hurricanes fan, and make the trek to Raleigh at least four times a year to catch the Canes live, but I've never really had a good idea of the draft except for the top prospects.
Sitting down with a good IPA, my laptop, and a mind open to entertainment I was treated by one of the most bizarre, interactive, and greatest sports drafts I've ever seen. This isn't a football story, but a sports story-and there's a lot the NFL could do to make their draft infinitely more watchable, albeit far less profitable.
An ode to Canadian charm
This is by no mean a jab at our friends up North, but rather a reverence for their more relaxed, home-spun style of reportage. In all the grand seriousness of the NFL there tends to be a lot of stratification and unspoken rules, where ‘no comment' and ‘unnamed sources' rule. The National Hockey League has all the same intrigue, rumor, and subterfuge, except the broadcast team aren't afraid to straight up ask a general manager (on air, mind you) how a rumored trade is progressing, only to get rebuffed. A salty Toronto GM Brian Burke was quick to remind the announcers that he couldn't respond to trade rumors that his team was trying to acquire Vancouver goalie Roberto Luongo, yet without missing a step the announcers quipped "Well, we're going to keep asking you", Burke gruffly responded "You asked me this morning also". Simply put: This would never happen in the NFL, because no GM would ever talk live on the air during draft day.
The draft location
I love the romanticism of seeing a good Radio City Music Hall montage, paired with the strains of the most popular New York themed song of the time, but the draft has become predictable. Jets fans boo everything, we see the same faces every year, and the whole affair is rather somber. In contrast, this year's NHL draft was in Pittsburgh, which completely flipped the whole evening. The booing when rival Philadelphia were on the clock was so loud that the general manager could barely hear his scouts on the phone, and when Washington (also a hated rival) made their selection you could see the announcement being made quickly so their GM could get off the stage, which leads to the next point.
General Managers announce the selection
Nobody is going to forget who the commissioner of the National Football League is. Yes Roger, we know you're the big boss. I understand the need for him to open the draft, and start all the pomp and circumstance, but to announce every 1st round pick takes away some of the magic. In contrast, the General Manager of each NHL team gets to announce his own team's pick. This is fantastic because you can read the face and intonation of every selection. It's easy to tell from a mile away when the team is upset their prized forward got taken in the pick before, and coupled with live coverage of the GM on the phone trying to work a trade it's amazing to see the crestfallen front office settling for the next best guy. Concurrently, it's easy to see when a team is over the moon for their selection as they try to hold back their joy while their player of the future is putting on their team's sweater.
Commissioner Gary Bettman only announces trades
What takes the wind out of the sails of draft-day trades in the NFL is that they pop up on the screen during the coverage, and are referenced by Roger Goodell when he's next supposed to see the podium. In comparison, there's an ‘Ooooooh snap!' nature to the commissioner walking out in the NHL with no spoiler, because you know something big is about to happen. This weekend my beloved Hurricanes made a huge trade for Jordan Staal, who played for Pittsburgh-Bettman loved riling up the ground and teasing the trade before dropping the bombshell that one of their best players was gone. It was an excellent moment.
Speed is the key
One of the knocks on TV hockey is that the game is too fast to really be able to follow, and it's a fair critique. The best way to watch the NHL is live, but that speed of play was echoed in the breakneck pace of the draft. We're talking a full, seven-round draft that started at 7PM on Friday night, finishing around 10PM and then running from 9AM to 1PM on Saturday. That's seven rounds in seven hours. Compare this to the NFL where you're looking at a four hour first night, a five hour second night, and then an eight hour (at least) third day. Sure, the NHL draft went especially quickly this year, but still I'll take a 7hr commitment over a 17hr marathon.
Issues you would never see in any other sport
What do we worry about when a player is selected- Did he get into a bar fight? Get caught with some weed? Yeah, those are the kind of character issues we have to deal with. In the NHL there was one big overarching problem "Is he Russian?" When the broadcasters first announced how the ‘Russian scare' would impact the draft I assumed they'd put ICBM's back in Cuba, but it turns out there's a very real fear a team will draft a guy and he simply won't turn up. The Russian league, or KHL pays roughly the same (sometimes more), which leads to a natural fear that promising Russian players will bolt for their homeland after getting their draft exposure, rather than honoring their selection. This led to some amazing post-selection interviews with players struggling with broken English to give half-convincing words about how they're ‘excited' to play in _____, knowing full well some of them may leave.
Is it for you?
Look, the NHL draft isn't for everyone. Even a staunch follower of the sport like me only knew a handful for the players selected, but as a spectacle it was really pretty brilliant. There's a reason I'm not the NFL commissioner, because obviously Football is the biggest game in town and has no sign of slowing anytime soon. However, there's a lot they could learn about making the draft more watchable for fans. Having a looser, more relaxed environment, coupled with moving the event from city to city meant there was a little more excitement in every pick, and when normally I wouldn't care who the Minnesota Wild were selecting, it meant that I was glued to my seat trying to psychoanalyze the GM making the selection.