As soon as I heard that the 2014 NHL Draft was going to be held in Philly, I knew I had to be there. The free tickets to the draft were in demand, but since we are Flyers season ticket holders, my husband and I were able to secure a few. It was strange walking into Wells Fargo Center that Friday evening and not seeing the familiar sheet of ice. Instead, the floor was filled with neatly-aligned tables while the rest of the arena was dimly lit in purple. The floor soon filled with men in black suits. (I was disappointed to see only a few women walking around the arena floor and press row.) It was exciting being at my first league event, and it was interesting seeing fans of other NHL teams wearing their favorite teams’ jerseys.
Things were relatively calm until NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman took the stage. Let the booing begin! The boos were deafening and did not stop throughout his entire introduction, including the part where he was thanking Philadelphia for being such a good draft host. I know….booing Mr. Bettman is a tradition and even he expects it. And he really should not be surprised: three lockouts during his 21-year tenure are nothing to be proud of. However, one cannot deny that the NHL has seen major growth in popularity and revenues during his time as commissioner. During the roll call — when a representative at each team’s table announces who will be making that team’s draft picks — each team name announcement was following by a loud “sucks!” from the crowd. I know that this is a Flyers fans “thing” that happens at every Flyers home game. I do not participate but I guess I “get it.” I think most people see it as a sign of how passionate Flyers fans are about their team. But this was not a Flyers game, it was an NHL event that was hosted by the Flyers. I was a bit embarrassed to be a Flyers fan due to, in my opinion, boos that lasted way too long, and interruptions to the roll call that were unnecessary. I am a Flyers fan first, but I am also an NHL fan. I know….Philly sports fans have a reputation to uphold….snowballs and Santa Clause and all. But I think that one can show passion for one’s team without being rude.
The atmosphere was electric as the Florida Panthers were on the clock to make the first draft pick of the night. There had been rumors all week that new Flyers GM Ron Hextall was going to make a splash by trading up (from number 17) for the first pick. But that trade never materialized and Florida made the first pick by selecting Canadian defenseman Aaron Ekblad. (Apparently the Flyers and the Panthers were working on a deal. Reportedly, the Panthers wanted Wayne Simmonds but, thank goodness, Hextall was unwilling to include him in the deal.) I watched the draft on TV last year, but being there in person was very exciting. I especially enjoyed seeing each team’s promotional video that was played during the three minutes each team had to come to the podium and make its selection. Most of the vidoes were excellent, and the one for the Oilers actually made me want to visit Edmonton and attend an Oilers game(!) It was great to be there for the beginning of professional hockey careers for these young men. I know the stats…most of them will never skate on NHL ice, and even if they do it won’t happen for years. But still, this night represented quite an accomplishment for them. I noticed the facial expression of one of the prospect’s mothers as his name was called and he hugged her. She expressed pride and relief, as if she was saying to herself, “All those years of driving him to hockey practice at 5 am finally paid off.”
Wells Fargo Center was buzzing by the time it got to the Flyers’ pick at number 17. Hextall stepped to the podium accompanied by huge cheers from the crowd. And then, in an instant, 18-year-old Travis Sanheim went from being a junior hockey defenseman to being a professional hockey player who will hopefully be a Philadelphia Flyer one day. It was fun watching Sanheim, who like most of the other prospects is just a teenager, walk to the podium accompanied by the loud cheers of the many Flyers fans in attendance. And, when he put on the Flyers jersey and shook hands with the Flyers brass, he became one of ours. As he made the media rounds and met the Flyers’ management and scouts, he was suddenly a star. Prior to the beginning of round two of the draft on Saturday morning, my husband and I ran into Sanheim, who was in his Flyers jersey walking around the Wells Fargo Center concourse signing autographs and meeting fans. He signed our Hockey News prospects issue and I congratulated him and wished him luck. Here’s hoping that he will be part of a home-grown Flyers defense that could be one of the best in the league in a few years.
Most of the picks in the first and second rounds were from Canada and Europe as expected. However, I was very pleased to see so many picks from the US, especially the US National Team Development Program. I later read that over 30 percent of the 2014 daft picks were American–one of the highest percentages ever in an NHL draft.
Attending the draft was a blast and I am so glad to have been there. It was special to be part of the Flyers faithful there to welcome new members of the organization into the fold. The Flyers are holding their development camp at their training facility in NJ this week and these new draft picks are there. And so the story begins.