TORONTO — Hockey fans had to wait until about 10:15 p.m. ET Saturday night to find out which team won the 2018 NHL Draft Lottery but the results had been determined more than three hours prior to then.
Typically, the lottery results are unveiled all at once but this year the process was stretched out across the first two periods of Game 2 between the Vegas Golden Knights and San Jose Sharks to make the annual event more dramatic for the TV audience.
What people see on TV is quite different than what happens behind the scenes. Picks No. 15 through No. 4 were unveiled during the pre-game show and the three remaining teams were the Buffalo Sabres, Carolina Hurricanes and Montreal Canadiens. As those fan bases eagerly awaited the final results of the draft lottery, there was a group of individuals eagerly waiting to leave the slightly-too-warm-for-comfort NHL Draft Lottery room they were sequestered in.
Shortly after 6:30 p.m. ET the group, including NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, entered a room on the 10th floor at CBC headquarters.
It was a smaller room than the one used for the 2017 lottery in the same building. Last year, each of the teams involved in the lottery had at least one representative in the room. This year, however, due to the fact it was stretched out over two intermissions, there were only three team reps that participated — Senators assistant GM Randy Lee, Coyotes COO Ahron Cohen (who showed his team spirit on his socks) and former NHLer and current Red Wings director of player development Dan Cleary. The team representatives seen on television never enter the room in which the lottery takes place and do not know the results of the lottery until the TV presentation.
Bettman, wearing a navy suit, sky blue dress shirt, no tie and black sneakers with white soles, began the proceedings once everyone has settled in the room.
“Everybody ready? Then let’s do it,” he said.
To Bettman’s right are Lionel Coutinho, a senior manager, and Scott Clarke, a partner, at the accounting firm Ernst & Young, which supervises the endeavour, plus a lottery machine road tech to help facilitate the process.
Before reading some lottery legalese from a script, Bettman adds, “If anyone is not willing to stay here for 2-3 hours, leave now,” underselling how long Saturday’s sequestering would last.
There were five TV screens mounted on the wall Bettman stood in front of. The biggest screen was in the centre with two smaller screens on either side. The four smaller TVs simply had the 2018 NHL Draft logo displayed on them, while the featured screen displayed the list of each team involved and the corresponding odds they had of winning the first-overall pick.
There were six brown leather chairs with wooden trim situated in a semi-circle, chairs that would look classy in Ron Burgundy’s rich mahogany-scented apartment full of leather-bound books. Behind the row of chairs was a long, tall, curved bar table with accompanying high bar stool style chairs and along one wall were some refreshments.
Some people sat. Some stood. All waited with bated breath.
Once Bettman was done reading the lottery rules, Coutinho opened a sealed briefcase containing the 14 balls that the road tech, who did not want his name published, placed into the machine.
The entire process was filmed to ensure there was no chicanery.
Bettman said he is sometimes asked why they don’t air the whole undertaking live and it boils down to the fact what actually goes on is far less exciting than what you see on TV.
When the lottery machine is turned on and the balls begin to flutter inside the clear plastic casing, Bettman’s head bobbles along with them ever so slightly.
This is the third year under the NHL’s revamped lottery system in which the top three spots are decided by three separate draws with the winner of the first draw getting the first pick and so on and so forth.
Unlike last year, when the Devils moved up four spots from No. 5 to No. 1, the team with the NHL’s worst record and best lottery odds, the Sabres, came out on top with a winning number combination of 1, 4, 6, 14.
The Hurricanes made the biggest leap up the board by winning the second draw, leapfrogging nine teams and moving from the No. 11 spot to the No. 2 pick.
The number combination on the third draw was one that also belonged to the Sabres, so there needed to be a redraw.
Bettman said he could not recall a redraw ever happening in the past and Coutinho, who has done the past four draft lotteries, said this was the first redraw he had witnessed.
The Canadiens benefitted from the fourth draw and now hold the third-overall pick in June’s draft.
The lottery concluded shortly after 7 p.m. and the gentlemen from Ernst & Young went over the numbers once more to ensure there were no errors. Bettman’s attention then turned to monitoring the pile of cards emblazoned with team logos, ensuring they were in the correct order so NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly could avoid a Steve Harvey/Miss Universe moment.
“Don’t drop them,” Bettman said to Clarke, whose job it was to walk the cards out of the room and hand them to Daly in the studio. “That would be very bad.”
Bettman would typically stay in the room with those sequestered during a draft lottery, but due to the change in format this year he left not too long after Clarke took the first 12 cards to Daly. Bettman, we were told, spent the remainder of the night in the league’s situation room as San Jose vs. Vegas continued.
When the pre-game show started at 7:30 the big screen was flipped to the TV broadcast of the lottery and everyone still in the room had to relive the results. While this was happening the room was relatively silent save for the voices of Daly and Daren Millard on screen and the odd gulp of water or bite of food.
By 8:00 p.m., before the game had even started, many sequestered were already starting to get antsy. There were beers available but nobody indulged…at least not until the dying minutes of the opening frame when a few cervezas were passed around. Others flipped through random sections of various Toronto newspapers that were scattered throughout the room.
When Coach’s Corner came on during the first intermission, everyone was interested to see what Ron and Don had to say. A smattering of chuckles spread throughout the room when clips of Brad Marchand threatening to lick his opponents were shown.
Someone blurts out, “How hasn’t someone clocked that guy yet?” and a few more chuckles ring out even though the atmosphere in the room isn’t overly jovial.
Last year there was little to no reaction from the team reps from New Jersey, Philadelphia and Dallas after they came out on top in the three lotteries, so you can imagine that it was an understandably unique and frustrating night for the team representatives in the room Saturday after each fell at least one spot in the draft.
“Once you see Carolina, you know you’re falling,” said a disappointed Cleary, whose Red Wings will now pick sixth.
Realizing there was still another period plus commercials to sit through, everyone found their own ways to kill time. Some conversation revolved around the Golden Knights team darting across the screen and their improbable inaugural season, while others were still discussing Tuukka Rask’s skate blade.
Thumb twiddling, small talk and watching an exciting playoff game are all effective ways to kill time. So is flipping through pages of the 1,001 draft lottery number combinations like you’re Neo from The Matrix.
The first three numbers drawn for the first overall pick were 1, 4, 14, in that specific order. After those three numbers were called, Buffalo, Arizona, Vancouver and Chicago each had two number combinations remaining that could’ve seen them win the top selection, while Ottawa had three potential winning combos. No. 6 was called and that meant it was the Sabres that became the lucky team with the opportunity to draft consensus top prospect Rasmus Dahlin, a player who said he enjoys watching Senators captain Erik Karlsson above all others.
Losing out on a talent like Dahlin was a tough pill to swallow for Lee and the Sens.
“You never want to have a year like this but it’s a deep draft and we’re going to get a really good player,” Lee said. “You try to envision Dahlin with Karlsson, [Thomas] Chabot…you have to respect the process and live with the outcome.”
The second period of the game, while exciting hockey, didn’t chug along at a fast pace. Four goals and nine penalties stretched out the stanza. Anecdotally it was the longest 20 minutes in the history of hockey and Cleary started planning a hypothetical prison break.
“What would happen if I just left?” Cleary joked while sizing up the room. “Would someone tackle me?”
The Newfoundland legend, who’s been dipping nearly the entire time, splits his wintergreen chewing tobacco into a cup then looks back down at the newspaper he has been both reading and doodling on.
Every few minutes you can hear someone release some frustration via an audible exhaling of breath. Cabin fever is setting in for many but everyone remains respectful of the process and sits quietly and patiently.
In the waning minutes of the second period, just before 10:00 p.m., there’s a knock on the door–a two-minute warning for when Clarke is to take the remaining three team cards to Daly on set.
The final six minutes of that period trudged along and when you’ve been stuck in the same room for approaching four hours, every post-whistle scrum delays your escape by precious minutes. Then Brent Burns scored to give the Sharks a 3-2 lead but Gerard Gallant had the audacity to challenge for goalie interference. Have you ever watched the dying seconds of a tightly-contested basketball game when one team keeps fouling and the final 17 seconds take what feels like 17 minutes to complete? This was the lottery’s equivalent.
With less than one minute remaining in the period, Clarke is summoned and leaves with the cards. Several minutes later Daly is back on the screen and everyone gathers their belongings. When the Sabres logo is shown on screen, everyone reclaims their phone, says their goodbyes and exits the room as calmly as they entered.
Another NHL Draft Lottery in the books.