Any trip that starts with a stop at Niagara Falls has to be a good one, right?
That is precisely how our coverage of the 2002 NHL Draft in Toronto began. Ryan Miller, photographer Scott Doelling and myself loaded up a van, and snaked our way around Lakes Erie and Ontario.
We had a travel day on the drive there, thus the stop at Niagara Falls. I’ve been there four times, and it never gets old. It’s a reminder of just how beautiful nature can be, and how important it is to stop and enjoy it once in a while.
After that, we headed to the border crossing, which is usually pretty uneventful. I was now behind the wheel, as we cautiously pulled up to border crossing agent. Keep in mind this was just nine months after 9/11, so even though U.S. Customs was more difficult, both sides were still a high alert.
We handed the agent our ID’s, and waited for the customary, “Why are you traveling to Canada?” question.
For some reason, I thought the agent would be pleased to find out we were going to cover the NHL Draft. In my mind it was like I was wearing a toque, while listening to Gordon Lightfoot, drinking a cup of Tim Horton’s and eating poutine while receiving excellent health care. I might as well of said to her, “we’re just like you, eh?” in a stupid MacKenzie Brothers accent.
Yep, I was the stupid American.
Meanwhile, all she heard was “working at the NHL Draft”.
“I’ll need to see your (work) visas,” was her reply.
I couldn’t even get out the explanation of why we didn’t need them; before she tersely informed us that she couldn’t let us into Canada without it. Then she started looking more closely into the van, noticing all our equipment in the back.
Now I was really starting to get nervous. It felt like the flop sweat was coming down my forehead as quickly as the Falls behind us. To make matters worse, she reached for her telephone.
Somehow, I finally got through to her and explained that yes, we were going to work at the NHL Draft, and yes, we were going to be paid for that work, but that the compensation would come from our American employer, properly taxed by Uncle Sam.
“Oh,” was all she said, handing us our ID’s, and opening the gate.
I thought everyone in Canada was supposed to be nice?
On Thursday, we had a busy day. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman had a news conference, and one of the topics was going to be in-arena safety. As you recall, in March of 2002, Brittanie Cecil died from complications of a head injury suffered when she was struck by a puck that left play in Nationwide Arena.
The announcement of netting in arenas was made that day, which was obviously big news in Columbus.
Later that day, we went out to Mississauga for the “Top Prospects Clinic”, featuring players such as Jay Bouwmeester, Scottie Upshall, Joffrey Lupul, Steve Eminger, and future Blue Jacket Rick Nash.
Let me just tell you. I lived in Chicago, and drove plenty there downtown and in the loop. I’ve driven plenty in Southern California, both in the Los Angeles and San Diego area. I’ve driven San Francisco. I’ve driven the Beltway in Washington D.C. I’ve never seen anything like the traffic and driving conditions in the Greater Toronto Area.
At the Top Prospects Clinic, we interviewed Maple Leafs legend Wendell Clark, who was the first overall pick in 1985 right there in Toronto, by the Leafs. I had always rooted for the Leafs (except for when they playing my Red Wings…old Norris Division rivalries die hard), so this was a thrill interviewing Clark, and asking him about the experience of being the first overall pick in the draft. We had no clue the relevance that interview would have in just two short days.
We stayed at the Intercontinental Toronto, which is attached to the Toronto Convention Center. That Thursday night, when we went back to the hotel to freshen up after the 6pm show, we saw a bunch of people in tuxedos and evening gowns; so of course, we immediately start making prom jokes.
That is, until we realized who the people in those tuxedos were. The NHL Awards were that night (a much more low-key affair than the current Las Vegas set up) right there in the convention center. All these NHL stars were staying in our hotel.
The following morning, I stepped onto the elevator to go down for breakfast, and was greeted with a robust, “Mornin’ bud” from the passenger already on. As I said “good morning” right back, I realized it was Ron Low, who had just been relieved of his duties as head coach of the New York Rangers just two months before. That didn’t seem to bother him…at least not on this morning.
As we sat down to eat, we noticed this couple canoodling at a table over their meal. We gave them a pass…after all, the guy who just won the Hart Trophy the night before (Jose Theodore) can do whatever he wants.
Finished with breakfast, we headed out to the lobby, which was packed with players, families, and other celebrities. There’s Detroit’s Niklas Lidstrom having a conversation with Willie O’Ree. Michael Peca was chatting up Jarome Iginla. It was all surreal.
That afternoon, there was the “Top Prospects Lunch”, where ten of the biggest names expected to go high in the draft are introduced, and you can do interviews with them. At that point, Columbus was still scheduled to pick third overall, so there was still quite a few guys that were possible picks. Bouwmeester was considered likely to go first overall, so we made sure to interview him. We spent a lot of time with Rick Nash, who was extremely impressive as a recently-turned 18-year old.
Nash grew up in the Toronto suburb of Brampton, and you could see just how special this all was to him. He was soaking it all in, and was very polite, and genuinely excited to answer our questions.
We asked him what he knew about Columbus as a city, as well as the Blue Jackets. He told us how impressed he was with Doug MacLean, and how bright of a future he thought the organization would have, and how honored he would be to be drafted by them.
We also interviewed guys like Ryan Whitney, Chris Higgins and another future Blue Jacket, Upshall.
It didn’t match the stress level of what I explained in Calgary in trying to put a special together
, but rushing through downtown Toronto to get our only opportunity to interview Doug MacLean came real close.
The only time we could get him was at 4pm at the hotel the team was staying in, not too far from the media hotel and convention center. We had our van, and were at the Air Canada Center, which is where we were doing our live shots from. With a live hit coming around 5:08pm, time was tight to say the least.
I had the bright idea to drive, that way Ryan and Scott could jump out of the van, run up to Doug’s room, and get the interview without us having the hassle of finding a place to park.
While that idea was solid, navigating traffic through downtown Toronto during Friday rush hour was not. We got back to our truck with maybe 10 minutes to spare.
Saturday morning at the draft, when we walked into Air Canada Center, there was already a buzz that the top pick was going to be traded. Florida held that pick, and it was widely believed they were going to take Bouwmeester, while Atlanta (picking second) had its eye on goaltender Kari Lehtonen.
We knew from talking to MacLean the day before, that the Jackets really, really liked Nash, and they really, really wanted to take a forward after drafting defenseman Rostislav Klesla in 2000, and goaltender Pascal Leclaire in 2001.
The buzz that morning, though, was that a couple of other teams were talking to Florida about moving up. I’ve told this story a couple times before, but as we were settling into our seats on the media riser, word of a trade began to spread. I could see one reporter’s laptop on TSN.ca, which had the headline of a trade for the top pick, but I couldn’t see who made the deal.
Then another reporter turned to me and said, “You’re from Ohio, right? Looks like you guys are getting Rick Nash”. He showed me his laptop, which I could clearly make out that Columbus had indeed swapped picks with Florida to move up to number one overall.
Clearly, it was one of MacLean’s best moves. The only cost was giving Florida the right to swap picks with Columbus in the 2003 Draft, but the Panthers ended up finishing worse than the Blue Jackets that year, so Florida’s own pick was higher.
It didn’t really matter to Florida or Atlanta, both of whom drafted the player they wanted.
I’ll admit, though, it gave me goose bumps to hear Doug MacLean announce Rick Nash as their selection. To be there in person for such a large moment in franchise history was very rewarding.
Columbus went on to select others that weekend who would eventually go on to wear the Union Blue. Joakim Lindstrom, Ole-Kristian Tollefsen, Lasse Pirjeta, Jaroslav Balastik, Greg Mauldin and Steve Goertzen all were taken in 2002.
The excitement that weekend was palpable. You really got the sense that the Blue Jackets were on the right path, and had the cornerstone of their franchise for the next 15 years. It’s a shame that it hasn’t worked out that way, and now here we sit 10 years later, with that cornerstone about to be shipped off.
On Friday—time willing and barring any kind of breaking news—I’ll pass along some stories from the 2007 Draft right here in Columbus.