“Welcome to the NHL, Columbus!”
For those of you in Central Ohio in the year leading up to the Blue Jackets arrival, you’ll remember that slogan as an ad campaign to create interest/excitement in the team.
It also happened to be the homemade sign scribbled on a piece of cardboard and left under a windshield truck of our satellite truck in Calgary back in June of 2000.
That was a special time, 12 years ago, when the Columbus Blue Jackets officially entered the NHL. You hear all the time about “getting in on the ground floor” of something, and being there to cover the team’s inaugural draft and expansion draft had that kind of feeling. It remains a highlight of my career.
It was a thrill for me, personally, even to be in Calgary. Sure, I had been to Toronto a couple of times, and I grew up just over an hour away from Windsor, but this wasn’t just any trip across the border.
I found myself standing in awe of the Saddledome. This was a building just 11 years removed from a Stanley Cup championship, and only 12 years separated from hosting part of the Winter Olympics.
The first night we were there, as we were walking down the street in search of a side of good ‘ole Alberta beef, Jeff Hogan handed me his phone. We had asked the team for any possible heads up on players they might consider taking in the Expansion Draft on Friday night. We knew it was a big favor to ask, but we had to try and produce a half-hour show around that draft, and we didn’t exactly have a treasure trove of hockey video.
I quickly jotted down the names Geoff Sanderson, Kevin Dineen, Robert Kron and Lyle Odelein among others. It was a surreal moment, knowing that these guys were the first legitimate NHL players in Blue Jackets history. We didn’t mention any of those names ahead of time, which was part of the deal, and besides a couple of names the Blue Jackets gave us ended up being taken by Minnesota.
The next morning, my alarm clock blared what can only be considered the second-worst way to wake up
after water-boarding. I can’t remember which Calgary radio station to blame, but I heard that stupid “Hamster Dance” all weekend long. On the radio…in cabs…in clubs…it made me wonder about Western Canadian culture, I can assure you.
One of the great things about the NHL Draft is the access the media is granted with the players leading up to the draft. There is traditionally a “Top Prospects Clinic” and a “Top Prospects Media Lunch” where the top ten players or so attend, and are available to interview. It gives you an opportunity to meet these kids, and get to know them a little bit before they are drafted. Dany Heatley was the big name that year, along with Rick DiPietro (who would go first overall), Brent Krahn, Marian Gaborik, Scott Hartnell and future Blue Jackets Rostislav Klesla and Raffi Torres.
Friday night brought the expansion draft, which was largely uneventful. Both the Blue Jackets and Wild had a pretty good idea of who they (and the other) were taking.
The real excitement began after it was over. We were producing a half-hour special that aired at 11:35pm ET that recapped the expansion draft, looked ahead to the entry draft, and just kind of welcomed the Blue Jackets into the NHL. Fox Sports Net was interested in airing the show as well, since they would have the television rights once the games began.
Well, the show was being produced entirely from Calgary, so no big deal, right? Wrong. The show couldn’t start at 11:30pm on 10TV because the newscast wouldn’t be over. However, it had to start at 11:30 on Fox.
I spent a good deal of that afternoon on the phone with FSN’s master control, trying to figure out a solution. I’ll spare you the details of how we made it happen, but somehow we pulled it off. It was flawless on both channels.
That was the easy part, though, compared with putting the show together. In order to air everything from Calgary (for FSN’s purposes), all the video had to originate from our sat truck. So, we had to have a ton of video sent via satellite from back here in Columbus to us in Calgary.
To this day, I don’t know how we got on the air that night, or how none of us killed any of the others. It was as tense and stressful of a situation as I’ve ever been a part of.
On draft day (back then the first three rounds were on Saturday, the rest on Sunday), it was a fascinating scene. Every general manager was present, as well as other front office luminaries. Some of the biggest names in hockey history were all right there. My head was spinning.
With the fourth overall pick, the Blue Jackets of course took Klesla. His English was pretty rough back then, but he sat down with us for an interview. While I don’t remember much of anything he said, there was a huge, half-page color picture of Jeff Hogan’s sit down interview with him, with the 10TV logo visible, in the following week’s issue of The Hockey News.
We also did interviews with Raffi Torres, who was Klesla’s teammate in Brampton in the OHL, as well as Brooks Orpik. Watching the joy on these kids’s faces—as well as their parents—was something I’ll never forget. It’s become one of my favorite parts of covering the NHL Draft.
That night, we ventured out on the town, and ran into nearly every kid that had been drafted earlier in the day. They were celebrating (I’m assuming with family…there were TONS of girls around, all of whom had to be sisters, right?) and it was yet another reminder of how special this entire experience was for each and every one of them.
While the newly drafted players were upstairs cutting loose, just about every NHL team executive I’d seen on the draft floor, was now downstairs at this club, “networking”.
I was single in those days, and vaguely familiar with the “club scene”. That joint in Calgary was the first time I had been in a club that was playing nothing but country music remixes. Yes, I heard the “Hamster Dance” when we there.
The big highlight for me on Sunday was getting to meet Jamie Macoun, who had played for the Flames when they won the Cup in 1989, as well as the Red Wings Stanley Cup champions in 1998. We had Macoun (who lives in the Calgary area) as a guest on Wall to Wall Sports. While R.J. Umberger and Ryan Kesler represent Ohio State in the NHL now, for the longest time, Macoun was the lone position player who had an NHL career of any length. He’s still the only former Buckeye to win the Stanley Cup.
When it was all done, it was time to blow off steam, and the Blue Jackets front office invited us to join them in the process. By the time we got to the bar, it was very clear they had been successful at the celebrating.
I thanked Doug MacLean for all his help, and access from the day he was hired through the draft. I informed him that I was leaving 10TV (ironically to go work for Fox Sports Ohio), which he half-jokingly told me “(Screw) You...go then!” I explained that I would still be covering his team, but he wasn’t hearing it.
Later that evening, MacLean told some of us that the day would come when he would get back behind the bench (the team would hire Dave King just a couple weeks later). Doug didn’t want to coach the expansion team, but once the Blue Jackets got respectable, he was going to take over.
While MacLean did name himself interim head coach in January of 2003—and full-time head coach after the season—the team never did really become respectable. Of course, MacLean removed himself as head coach midway through the 2003-04 season.
As I mentioned, the Blue Jackets brass had been “celebrating” for quite some time. When one of our staff members was talking to someone in the Blue Jackets front office making idle chatter, the statement was made, “looks like you guys had a pretty good draft…”
The response from this now-former CBJ employee (who had been over-served), was “how in the hell would you know?” Alright then.
That trip to Calgary is certainly an experience I’ll never forget.
I’ll share memories from Toronto at the 2002 Draft on Thursday.