TORONTO — Hugh Weber had been sitting on some really big news for nearly two hours, and in that time, he’d been celebrating internally, smiling to himself, sipping on red wine and waiting until he could share the moment with someone who’d actually appreciate it.
He clapped, solitarily, when it finally went public. And then, a couple of minutes later, the New Jersey Devils president went for it. Weber walked over to the Standard Daily Model machine that had earlier shot up four ping pong balls determining his Devils would get the first overall pick in the NHL Draft later this year, and wrapped his arms around it for a big hug.
Finally, someone to share the moment with, to celebrate that the Devils had won No. 1, once again.
That'll do lottery balls, that'll do pic.twitter.com/cUa4EuPq6q
— Hugh Weber (@hughweber1) April 10, 2019
And you’re probably wondering why Weber had to keep this news secret, why he knew before Devils GM Ray Shero did, and before potential No. 1 pick Jack Hughes did, and before the rest of you who were watching the broadcast on Tuesday night did. That’s because all of this went down — the top three picks selected, using that machine — around 7:30 p.m. ET, though it wasn’t announced until more than an hour later, on Sportsnet.
This writer got a sneak peek at what happens behind the scenes when those ping pong balls are selected, as one of 20 people locked in a small room on the 10th floor of the big CBC building in downtown Toronto, one in a group of people who weren’t allowed to leave that room with the heavy white door until the results were broadcast. Among notable attendees were five people who represented NHL teams with a stake in the game, two accountants and one NHL commissioner. The coolest among us was Gary Bettman’s grandson, Matthew, who looked sharp in a button-up shirt and gleaming white sneakers.
Bettman is a great host. “Welcome,” he said, with a hearty handshake and a smile, to the random media member the NHL decided to admit. He sported very comfortable-looking black sneakers, a matching jacket and pants, but no tie, and the top button on his blue and white checkered shirt was undone. “Enjoy the show,” he said.
It was quite the setup at this show. There were nine televisions, for starters. On a table just as you walked in, there were two buckets of beer on ice, a bucket of white wine on ice and four bottles of red at room temperature. Beside that table was a white fridge with a taped-on sign reading: “Additional beer & pop in fridge.” At the back of the room, you’d find an array of fruits, meats and cheese and brownies. There were also sandwiches labelled with signs that said “yum!” and “enjoy!” (We did). The NHL was prepared.
And let’s be serious, anyone in their right mind who was locked in a room with Bettman for nearly two hours would’ve pondered the idea of hammering some beers with the commissioner. That’s a great story on its own. But, two things: There was no bathroom in the room — we were all warned before we got in there to be sure to relieve ourselves just before 7:30 p.m., so a lot of liquids in there makes for a tricky situation. And, secondly, the commissioner left shortly after the proceedings, because he had other things to attend to on a busy night.
But back to the process of determining these top three picks: The trouble the NHL goes to in order to ensure this process is entirely fair is impressive. First off, you have to seal your phone in a giant envelope and write your name on it, and you can’t have it back until after the results are public. Do you have an Apple watch? Throw that in the envelope, too. No leaking the news until it’s broadcast, just before 9 p.m. ET.
Bettman also has a TV camera in the room to document everything, “so there are no questions,” he says: He holds up a copy of today’s Toronto Star to show the date — “you got it?” he asks the camera man. “Thank you.” He has the camera scan the room and show each person in attendance. Then he reads from a script about what’s to come: That there are 14 lottery balls, that each of the first three picks will be selected via four balls drawn at a time, and that there are 1,001 possible four-number combinations that can emerge, regardless of sequence. Teams are given four-number sequences, which are all randomly selected.
Not one, but two black mini suitcases of ping pong balls are here in the Lottery Room, each ball numbered and weighing exactly the same as the next. (The sets are identical, so Bettman chooses one). The idea that some lottery balls may be sticky or weigh more than others to favour one team over the others makes Ernst & Young auditor Scott Clarke widen his eyes and say, “What?!” Asked what team he was hoping won, he replied, “I am agnostic.” Like we said, it’s all very fair. It’s the auditors like Clarke who scan the numbers and announce which team wins with the corresponding ping pong balls.
Edmonton, of course, has been very good at this event, but the Oilers didn’t have a representative in the room Tuesday: Detroit, Chicago, Colorado, Anaheim and New Jersey all did.
“Are there any questions?” Bettman asked, after he’d explained the rules. “I hear no questions, I see no hands up.”
It was show time.
A pair of pliers was used to open the top mini suitcase of ping pong balls, and then the case was held up to the camera. “Straighten out the 11,” Bettman said. “OK, take them out, one at a time.”
All 14 are dropped — one by one, each announced by Bettman — into the machine. “We’re ready,” Bettman said, “start the machine.” The blue “blower” button was pushed, and the balls were airborne, dancing around.
When the first four balls were selected, and New Jersey won, Weber did a very good job of tempering his excitement. He smiled and rubbed his face, got a handshake from an Anaheim representative, and then sat back in his cushy chair and laughed, quietly. New Jersey’s 11.5 per cent chance (third best) had come through.
Nobody from the Rangers was there to celebrate quietly. When the Blackhawks got the No. 3 pick, starting with a 2.5 per cent chance that increased only a bit after the first two were selected, somebody in the room said: “Wow.” Adam Rogowin, vice president of communications for the team, stood there, straight-faced. “Just out of respect,” he said, later.
Bettman asked that everyone remain in the room until the results were announced on TV, he said “sorry” to those who didn’t win, and shook Weber’s hand and said, “congratulations.”
Now it was time to wait. “Alright,” Weber said, before he poured himself a glass of red, “this’ll be the longest two hours of my life.”
He was a heck of a lot more nervous than he thought he’d be. The former New Orleans Hornets president, who’s been in that same role with the Devils since 2013, said since the team was eliminated from the playoffs, they’ve been in meetings about what next season and the years ahead will look like. “We knew the value of talent in this draft specifically,” he added, no doubt pointing to the prospective top two, the wildly talented duo of Hughes and Kaapo Kakko. (He wouldn’t say who they’re picking, though: We tried our best to find out).
“If you have a plan like we do to try to win the Stanley Cup,” Weber added, “you need a bit of luck to go your way as well.”
The Devils, of course, won this thing two years ago, and selected Nico Hischier, who had 47 points in 69 games this year, second-best on the Devils roster.
As he was waiting for the news to go public, Weber’s mind was racing with next steps. He was thinking ahead to the draft, about how he had to call the owner and the head of marketing. “People are excited now,” he said. “You miss the playoffs and fans say, ‘Oh, you disappointed.’ Well, we say we have a bigger plan, and this is validation. For our fans, this is a huge wind in our sails for us to get back to winning hockey.”
Of course, he didn’t for one second go in there expecting to win the No. 1 pick. Weber went in there with tempered expectations, almost expecting the worst. “Of course,” he said. “Wouldn’t you?”
Well, the Blackhawks didn’t. Riding in here with a 2.5 per cent shot at that No. 1 pick, Stan Bowman told Rogowin that he had a feeling they were going to get the third overall pick. That’s because the draft this year is in Vancouver, and the last time it was held in Vancouver, Chicago had No. 3, and they selected a guy named Jonathan Toews, which worked out swimmingly.
“He said it twice, that he had a good feeling,” Rogowin said, from the Lottery Room. “I was like, ‘Alright, I like that. I like that.’”
And so, the team prepared: They scheduled a radio interview for Wednesday morning for Bowman, a press release had already been drafted and a camera crew followed Bowman and the team for the day for a behind-the-scenes look. “Why not be confident?” Rogowin asked.
He volunteered to represent the team this year, but he’s hopeful he won’t be back next year. “This is not a room you want to be in,” as he put it. It’s a good point.
Ten teams in the running for the No. 1 pick didn’t have anybody in attendance in that room on Tuesday. “People don’t want to be locked in here for one and a half hours,” Bettman said, although he preferred the set-up on Tuesday compared to previous Lottery rooms he’d been locked in. “It’s a little nicer than the room last year,” he said, with special mention of the fancy brick wallpaper, which he called “the brick façade.”
The commissioner and his grandson had already left the room before the top three picks were announced on TV. Watching what he already knew had happened unfold, Weber sat and swivelled a little in a black computer chair.
As the No. 1 pick was announced, he clapped four times in an otherwise silent room, aside from the TV. “Sorry guys,” Weber said. And then it was done and everybody knew.
Weber tore open the envelope holding his phone, which was blowing up, and he immediately started typing away, smiling.
“It’s still soaking in,” he said, before he went in for a hug with the Standard Daily Model machine. “I don’t think I’m going to sleep for a while.”