TORONTO — The NHL Draft Lottery is always an exciting time for hockey fans, but the inner workings of it are relatively mysterious. Does everything happen live on TV? Are there actually Ping-Pong balls with numbers on them, or does a computer determine the winner? Can anything go wrong? Why does the info never leak before we see it on TV? Is it rigged!?
What happens behind the scenes on draft lottery night isn’t experienced by many people, but this year one member of the media (*slowly raises hand*) was granted fly-on-the-wall access at the 2017 NHL Draft Lottery.
So, here’s how it went down on Saturday night.
More than an hour prior to the start of the televised draft lottery segment a group of approximately two dozen people, including NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, members of his staff, some of the production crew, plus various representatives from the teams involved in the lottery are gathered up. These representatives are different than the ones we see on set during the TV broadcast. For example, Kris Draper, Detroit’s special assistant to GM, was the Red Wings’ on-screen representative while the team’s director of player development Shawn Horcoff was in the sequester room.
We get escorted up to the top floor inside CBC headquarters in downtown Toronto. Once you’re there, you’re taken up two more flights of stairs and you wind your way through a labyrinth of hallways. You pass through several heavy, red doors until you reach a room. The room.
We all walk into the room at roughly 7 p.m. ET. There are nine television screens mounted on the wall, one big screen in the middle surrounded by four smaller screens on each side. On eight of the nine screens there’s a 2017 NHL Draft Lottery logo. The TV in the bottom right corner was showing the Senators-Rangers game in which double overtime had just gotten underway.
A couple of couches and chairs are situated in a “U” formation pointed towards the TVs and there are several platters of food on small tables–if you’re going to be sequestered in a room for upwards of 90 minutes there better be snacks.
Before you get settled in, you are asked to put your cell phone and any recording devices you might have into a manila envelope and label it.
If you’re the only member of the media there and you have nothing to record with that means you crack open the notebook you got from the 2017 world juniors but haven’t used yet (hat tip to the IIHF for the swag) and await what’s next.
As if the hockey gods knew something important was about to take place, Jean-Gabriel Pageau scored the double-OT winner for the Sens basically at the exact moment Bettman was set to begin the proceedings. The draft lottery is serious business and the fewer distractions the better.
When it was time to start, you could feel the mood change.
We’ve seen what winning the draft lottery has meant to markets like Edmonton and Toronto in the past two years and even though this year’s draft class isn’t getting as much shine, there is still a great deal riding on the lottery for the team representatives in the room.
“They’re nervous. Not me,” Bettman told Sportsnet prior to the trip to the room. “They’re the ones who are nervous because there’s a lot riding on this. We’re going to take a fair amount of uncertainty and give them certainty. Some of them are going to be ecstatic, some will be disappointed.”
Bettman speaks matter-of-factly throughout the entire night because to him it’s just another day at the office, so to speak.
“I like having Bill Daly do the reveal on television. I don’t need or want the profile in this case,” he said. “I’m more than happy to supervise to make sure the processes are complied with.”
Before he begins to read legalese from a paper that explains how the draft lottery works and what was about to take place, he asks if anyone has any questions. No one did. Then he says if you don’t want to be stuck in the room you can leave. Everyone stays.
To his right are a lottery machine and two representatives from the accounting firm Ernst & Young, which is tasked to supervise the number-drawing operation.
It’s quiet. The type of quiet where a simple sniffle bellows like a gust of wind and a cough roars like a passing train. A vibration from a cell phone would sound like a foghorn if they didn’t confiscate all phones.
It’s secretive. At any moment I was expecting to glance down at someone’s hand and see a Stonecutters ring.
Throughout all of this, Bettman is calm, cool and collected. He is sporting a cream dress shirt, black and cream-checkered blazer, black pants and black sneakers–casual yet professional, reflecting his demeanour throughout the lottery.
Fourteen balls, numbered 1 to 14, are stored in a locked briefcase before being placed in the lottery machine one at a time. The machine randomly selects four balls. The resulting four-number series is then matched against a chart that shows all possible combinations and the teams to which each is assigned. All number combinations are assigned to teams at random by Bortz & Company. The entire process is filmed for legal purposes.
Bettman reads out the first four numbers one by one. One. Five. Six. Eleven. The gentlemen to Bettman’s right find the corresponding number combo and say, “Devils,” indicating New Jersey will hold the first pick on June 23 at the Chicago’s United Center.
There was no cheering from the Devils representative, nor was there any cursing from anyone disappointed in not getting that top pick–at least not out loud anyways. Bettman glances up at the biggest TV screen, which has a list of the teams and their odds of winning, and lets out a subtle “wow” as he reacts to the Devils’ 8.5 per cent chance of winning. He then adds a simple “okay” before the balls were placed back in the machine and they move on the second selection.
Five. Six. Eight. Twelve. Philadelphia Flyers.
The second-overall selection resulted in a couple gasps and a confused, “What?” The Flyers had just a 2.4 per cent chance of getting the No. 2 pick.
Two. Six. Eight. Thirteen. The Dallas Stars pick third.
Three shockers considering none of the four teams with the highest odds to win–Colorado, Vancouver, Arizona and Vegas–ended up with a top-three pick.
“I think the player you could potentially get at four or five could turn out to be every bit as good as the player you get at one or two,” Canucks president Trevor Linden told Sportsnet earlier in the day, preemptively softening the blow of losing the lottery.
The entire ball-drawing process takes less than 10 minutes and when it was done Bettman thanked everyone in the room for being there as witnesses.
The next step was equally important: Making sure the team cards were in the correct order for the television broadcast. That process took nearly three times as long as the lottery itself since they double- and triple-check the order and Bettman was involved in every step along the way.
“I just want to make sure the procedure goes right. That there’s no problem; that there’s no controversy,” Bettman said. “You never want to be in a situation where the wrong logo is in the wrong place like the Academy Awards or what happened to Miss Universe, so I just want to make sure that everything goes smoothly. The results are the results. We have a lottery that tries to keep this as random as possible, weighted of course, but at the end of the day whoever wins wins.”
By approximately 7:40 p.m. ET they had finalized the cards but we’re all still trapped in the room for another 40 minutes because we can’t leave until they announce the winner on TV. So the NHL staff, and production crew and all the nervous team reps essentially just become a group of quiet hockey fans watching pre-game content on Hockey Night in Canada.
The atmosphere is no longer filled with tension; instead, it’s like the beginning of a party where people don’t know one another–a smattering of small talk and the occasional trip to the snack table.
Any awkward silence there might have been, however, was quickly halted by the sound of the commissioner making small talk.
He eventually approached me and asked, “So, what did you think?”
I respond: “Well, the number six was the only number to pop up three times and the Devils won. Coincidence?”
Bettman chuckles and raises his eyebrows. “The number of the devil.”
As the minutes roll on, the chatter becomes louder and more people are feeling peckish. At 7:54 p.m. ET, Scott Clarke of Ernst & Young takes the carefully organized cards and heads down to the studio. Bettman follows but everyone else has to stay and continue watching the broadcast. We can see the finish line when a collective groan floods the room as the broadcast cuts to a commercial before the order of the top three teams is revealed. Everyone retrieves their phones the moment Bill Daly flips the card to reveal the Devils logo and we have our freedom by roughly 8:20 p.m. ET.
For Bettman, the 2017 NHL Draft Lottery takes place at a perfect time of year for hockey fans.
“There’s nothing better in any sport than our playoffs. It’s thrilling, it’s exciting, it’s entertaining and it’s unpredictable,” he added. “The fact that we have a draft, expansion draft, the draft lottery, an awards show, and by the way we’re getting ready for next season, including getting a schedule out around the time of the draft. It’s exciting.”