NHL draft has been transformed

Bob Cohn
| Tuesday, June 19, 2012, 12:30 a.m.

In 1963, the Montreal Canadiens took Garry Monahan with the first pick in the first NHL Amateur Draft, a choice that surprised many in the hockey world. But none were caught more off-guard than Monahan, who had never even heard of the draft until the Canadiens called to deliver the news.

“I was 16, and I don't remember any talk of any draft,” he said. ‘When they phoned me and said they had drafted me, I didn't know what the hell they were talking about. It had to be explained to me.”

Monahan, who sells real estate in Vancouver, B.C., quickly caught on. He went on to play 12 seasons with five NHL teams and later starred in Japan. Meanwhile, as the league expanded from six to its current 30 clubs, the draft grew in importance and scope. Once an intimate gathering of a few team executives in Montreal at a hotel or the league office, the NHL Entry Draft, as it is known now, has become a well-hyped, franchise-building staple, a nationally televised (in two countries), traveling hockey carnival.

“I've seen the transformation from this closed-door, meeting-like atmosphere of 21 teams to the point where I think our draft is unique,” said NHL vice president of communications Gary Meagher, who has attended every draft since 1981. “We took it from a hotel ballroom and made it a public event.”

After five years at the Montreal Forum starting in 1980, the draft morphed into a moveable hockey feast held at various NHL arenas. In 1984, the draft was televised for the first time, in Canada, and the league invited draft-eligible players and their families. Also, the Penguins got Mario Lemieux. Five years later, U.S. television covered the draft for the first time.

The draft in 1997 came to the Civic Arena, which was recently demolished. The Penguins' new home, Consol Energy Center, hosts the 2012 draft on Friday and Saturday. Consol will be filled with key executives from the 30 clubs — conducting their business right on the floor — plus 140 draft-eligible players, about 2,400 family members and several thousand fans. The Penguins estimate a crowd of about 10,000.

Outside the arena, the club will stage a draft party in the old Civic Arena parking lot and set up a skating rink with synthetic ice on the plaza outside Consol's American Eagle gate.

“It's a celebration on so many different levels, but the most important level is these 17-year-old kids and their families being able to come to one place,” said Meagher.

The draft itself also has undergone changes after it was first designed to create a more equitable system than the old one, that is, teams signing bushels of amateur players and assigning them to their junior teams,

With the NHL now selecting players uncommitted to any club, Monahan was the first of just 21 picks taken over four rounds in the first draft. But as junior sponsorships ended, the number of draftees grew. In 1969, 84 players were selected, nearly as many as in the first six drafts.

In the old days, teams would draft until they were tired of it and the number of rounds fluctuated year to year. Now the rounds are fixed at seven. Eligibility ages have changed, albeit slightly. A significant change was in 1979 when the “amateur” draft became the “entry” draft after the World Hockey Association folded and the NHL for the first time signed professional players. The influx of Americans and Russians and other Europeans has deepened the talent pool. The lottery was introduced in 1993.

Only once since the draft became a road show has the script deviated, caused by a lockout that wiped out the season. Instead of an arena, the draft took place at an Ottawa hotel. A bizarre and complicated lottery determined the draft order, and the draft order itself was changed. Instead of starting over in the second round as usual, it snaked up from the bottom of the first round, meaning the team with the first pick would not pick again until No. 60.

That team was the Penguins. But neither they nor their fans seemed to mind having to wait, because with the first pick of the 2005 NHL Draft, the Penguins selected Sidney Crosby.

Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at bcohn@triblive.com.

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