After his Combine interviews, two NHL teams promised the teenager they would take him if he was still available when it was their turn to draft. One of those teams was picking 19th, the other 22nd. The prospect was available at 19, and again at 22, and still in the bleachers at 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29….
“He’s in a full-blown pizza sweat. He threw up and everything. Really affected,” agent Mike Liut recalls of a client he’d like to keep anonymous.
Naturally, general managers’ plans change in the frantic days from Combine to Draft Day. But kids remember the promises.
The prospect believed he was a first rounder. He got picked 30th overall that fraught Friday night, the final selection of Round 1.
An hour after the mayhem and hoopla, Liut asked his NHL-bound client if he’d be disappointed had he gone 31st.
“Yes,” the kid said, with certainty. A pause. “Well, I guess it really doesn’t matter, does it?”
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The NHL Draft is a stage walk, a crisp sweater pulled over your head, an official-apparel ball cap, a smile and the snap of a camera. Then poof. It vanishes.
Within minutes, the young hockey player’s mind shifts: OK. How am I going to make this team?
“The draft is gone. It’s so fleeting,” Liut says. “Everyone is proud, and they should be, but it’s not a finish line. It’s a starting gate that feels like crossing the finish line.”
The face of the freshly drafted always looks the same. And the devilish Liut can get all his prospects to say what he knows they’re thinking as they shake hands with the commissioner on national television and their smartphones rattle with congratulatory messages: I’ve made it.
“I can get every one of them to say it,” Liut chuckles. Then he dumps a bucket of reality on their heads. “Yep. You’re on the stage. Let me introduce you to a few other guys on the stage. This is Alex Ovechkin. This is Carey Price. This is Duncan Keith. That’s the draft.”
Patrik Laine, Liut’s most prized client in the 2016 Draft, wants to go first overall. It’s his dream, he says. You better believe there are others who have a goal of going top 5, or top 10. A kid who’s certain so-and-so will pick him if he’s hanging around at 13.
None of that matters.
Alexandre Daigle went first overall. So did Gord Kluzak. Detroit plucked Pavel Datsyuk 171st and Henrik Zetterberg 210th. Henrik Lundqvist and Joe Pavelski each went 205th. Jamie Benn at 129. In 2005, Sidney Crosby went first overall and Patric Hornqvist went last overall. They both drink from the same Cup.
“First overall and the hype of the draft is for the media and hyping the game. Marketing. All important things, but not to distract the players with that,” Liut explains. “It’s a puff piece. Marketing. And it’s a great marketing. It’s all good, right up until they think they’ve made it.”
For 12 seasons, Liut starred in net for the Blues, Whalers and Capitals. Now he’s the managing director of Octagon Hockey. The agents sit their new clients down and talk goals. It goes something like this:
Agent: “Say you go first overall but never play a game in the NHL. Have you met your dream?”
Prospect: “No. Playing in the NHL is my dream.”
Agent: “OK, you play in the NHL but never score more than five goals in a season. Will that meet your dream?”
Step by step, Liut gets the kids to articulate what they really want: to have a long career, to be dominant, to lift the Stanley Cup. None of which has anything to do with draft order.
It’s not draft day that Liut invests time preparing young players for; it’s everything else. He pulls on Finnish client Mikko Rantanen‘s 2015 draft year as an example: fly to Combine in Buffalo, fly home, fly to the Draft in Florida, fly home, fly to Avalanche rookie camp in Colorado, fly home, fly to the Three Nations under-20 tournament in Lake Placid, fly home, fly to training camp, fly home at Christmas to win world junior gold.
“Six trips across the ocean in seven months,” Liut says. “That’s a lot of jet lag.”
Hockey can eat up an 18-year-old prodigy’s summer and swallow his holidays. Rantanen went 10th overall but only got a nine-game look with the Avs before being sent down the AHL.
The scuttlebutt around draft order — the latest: members in the Jets organization favour picking Jesse Puljujarvi over Laine at No. 2, according to Nick Kypreos — is great fodder for fans and media, but the players themselves need to look beyond Friday night and get focused for training camp.
Three Junes ago, Seth Jones slipped to fourth when the world had him penned in at No. 1 or 2. Prior to the lottery, Liut envisioned scenarios where Laine jumped to No. 1 or fell to No. 4.
“It happens, and it’s not relevant. Does it bother them? I’m sure. These kids are ultra competitive. These aren’t kids that sit on the sideline. They’re in the thick of it, and we respect them for it, but you have to temper that,” he says.
“The draft: It’s perfunctory. You’re going to get drafted.”