The Weekend that Was
Prospects are everywhere. I walk up to the NHL’s official hotel to collect the Caps’ box of credentials, suite tickets and swag, only to encounter a handful of young hopefuls along the six-block walk. I stop for a short chat with Caps pro scouts Larry Carriere and Brian MacLellan, grab the box and head back to the hotel. Andy Mattice and I have a tremendous lunch at a place called Barley’s, burger and a beer joint with great selections of both.
After lunch, I’ve got an appointment with George McPhee. I head up to his room and we chat (with a few interruptions) about the draft, trades, players and the like. George is busy with phone calls, he’s got video of some NHL players set to roll and the team’s scouts are assembled in the other room. He is very candid during the course of our 10-minute conversation, and is even more so after I turn off the recorder.
I’m asked about dinner plans by a few different folks, but I politely decline. I’ve already got plans for the evening, and they don’t include the NHL’s annual pre-draft party thang. Ho-hum.
As I mentioned in a recent missive, last year’s musical interlude at the NHL Entry Draft was provided by Tom Cochrane and his band. This year, the Bottle Rockets got it done for me. Yeah, the NHL hired Yellowcard to play outside the arena on draft day. But I learned long ago not to let anyone spoon-feed music to me, lest I wind up liking the same crap the radio played when I was in high school my whole life. You don’t keep the same haircut your whole life, so why would you listen to the same music?
I’m a pop-culture junkie and a live music fiend, so whenever I’m in another city, I always look to see what sort of treasures the local music halls might be hosting. Columbus has yet to let me down.
Three summers ago I spent nearly a week in Ohio’s capital city, covering Team USA’s World Cup training camp. I stumbled upon a terrific (but sadly now defunct) blues club where I was able to take in two nights worth of Magic Slim and the Teardrops. Two nights worth of Slim might have rendered that building unsafe for future use, come to think of it.
This time around, I noted the Bottle Rockets were playing a place called Little Brother’s in the Short North section of Columbus. I rounded up a couple of cohorts (namely caps.com’s Andy Mattice and Corey Masisak of the Washington Times) and we headed up High St. in search of some pre-show vittles. The less said about that adventure, the better. The place we stumbled into served portions so small that all of us had to augment our meals with an order of fries on the back end.
Then it was up the street to Little Brother’s, a treasure of a place. Huge room with exposed brick walls, high ceiling, aged and worn hardwood floors. Funky decor, including a mural of Elvis on the can, reading the National Enquirer (headline: “Aliens Eat Cleveland”) with pills spilling onto the floor. Kiss’ Rock and Roll Over album cover behind the bar. Framed photos of the likes of Bobby Sherman and Emmett Kelly, to name but two. A couple Roberto Clemente shrines (I never mentioned this before, but I’ve been a huge Clemente fan since I was a kid and was crushed when he died. I’ve got a Santurce Crabs shirt with his number on the back), and tons of political/funny bumper stickers plastered on another section of fall. Also, a water cooler with plastic cups. You can instantly get cold, cold water without bugging the ‘tender. What a great idea.
Pool table. Andy, Corey and I start shooting a few games of cut-throat while the opening band finishes its set. My game is mostly “off,” but I do call and perfectly strike (and sink, with two witnesses) a complex combination shot involving no less than four balls. That’ll keep me going until I chalk up next time.
Just as we’re finishing up, the Rockets hit the stage with a killer cover of Neil Young’s underrated “Walk On.” After which they launch (get it?) into their own “Happy Anniversary,” one of the most regret-laden songs ever penned. I’m instantly happy there are no NHL GMs in attendance, because hearing this one would instantly render him unable to make another trade ever, except maybe to trade away all his team’s draft picks because he’d been rendered unable to ever make another draft selection.
For the next two hours, the Rockets perform their catalog of workingman anthems in workmanlike fashion, rarely pausing long enough for applause or even to catch a breath. I thought to myself that it would be great if the Caps could find a few players who brought this sort of work ethic to the table (turns out they did, IMO). The Rockets continued to blaze their way through 10-plus years worth of orginals, and they came back for a couple of encores at night’s end. They closed with a fun reading of Three Dog Night’s “Never Been to Spain,” using covers as bookends for their impressive array of originals. It was a fun night, and one that I wouldn’t mind repeating when they visit Iota in Arlington on Aug. 13.
We slept a bit late on Friday, knowing that sleep would be in short supply for the rest of the weekend. We went out for coffee, posted the McPhee Q&A and spent the early part of the day poring over the sports sections of North American newspapers, looking for clues as to what might lay in store on the draft floor in the next two days. I tapped out some notes, and then Andy and I made a Subway run to get sandwiches for ourselves and Paul and Kurt. They were busy assembling the dozens and dozens of goodie bags full of stuff bearing the new Caps logo for all the media types in attendance. It was during a visit to their lair that I learned they’d won the Dillman Award that morning.
I showered, donned the suit, and then we all huddled in George’s room — scouts, staff, everyone — before hopping the shuttle over to Nationwide Arena. It’s a tense and nervous time, you know a big night is ahead, but you also know things can go wrong. We’re also used to having drafts that start and finish in the same day or that have three rounds the first day and the rest the second day. This business of one round in prime time with a short turnaround before the next day is tough.
Almost as soon as I entered the arena, I spotted Bill Daly. I went up and thanked him for his efforts in pushing through our press credentials for the IIHF World Championships in Moscow. Turns out one of his kids is a Caps fan.
Andy and I headed up to the media riser to set up shop, and we were deflated when we found that the wireless internet connection left a lot to be desired. The strength of the signal was extremely weak, and it flitted in and out. We weren’t the only ones having trouble, but it made for a troublesome evening. There were times when we tried to post updates to he live blog, only to lose everything. I had to make an adjustment and start typing everything in Word first, just so I wouldn’t risk losing it.
Before the draft started, there was time to mingle on the riser and renew acquaintances with colleagues and peers from around the league. We said hello to Jim Matheson, Luke DeCock, Dustin Nielson of Hockey’s Future, Mike Eidelbes and Joe Gladziszewski of Inside College Hockey(.com) and several other pals from the circuit. We also got to spend some time yakking with local boys Tarik El-Bashir, Corey, Eric McErlain and Greg Wyshynski. Soon enough, Gary Bettman stepped to the podium to get the proceedings underway.
I sat there knowing who the first three picks were going to be, and knowing who the Caps were hoping to get with the fifth. There was drama when L.A. general manager Dean Lombardi stepped to the podium; I honestly thought he was going to take Karl Alzner, the object of Washington’s desire. But Lombardi chose defenseman Thomas Hickey, paving the way for Washington to take Alzner.
No picks changed hands until San Jose moved from No. 13 (acquired from Toronto earlier in the day) to No. 9 by virtue of a deal with St. Louis. The Sharks took Logan Couture with that choice. A handful of “moving up/moving down” swaps followed, and I was asked (by one of several fans with whom I was conversing on IM) whether Washington might be interested in sliding up the ladder for one of the free-falling prospects (Alexei Cherepanov and Angelo Esposito). I had asked McPhee almost the same question a day earlier, and based on what he told me plus other intelligence I had gathered, I opined that it would be much more likely for the Caps to move down from No. 28 than to move up from that spot.
And that’s what ended up happening. McPhee had a deal in the works to move that pick for an NHL player even as the No. 27 pick was being announced. But the other club came up with a case of cold feet and scotched the swap. Sharks GM Doug Wilson then called and pried the pick loose with an offer of the No. 41 choice in the 2007 draft plus San Jose’s second-round selection in the 2008 draft. Believing the guy they had their eye on would still be available when they chose next at No. 34, the Caps made the deal.
After a quick chat with McPhee, we headed up to the Capitals’ team suite. Alzner and his family were still there, as was Capitals center Dave Steckel and his wife. A graduate of Ohio State, Steckel lives locally. We ate some food and spent some time getting acquainted with Alzner’s parents and sister, all really nice folks. Then we headed back to the hotel. After a quick drink in the lobby, we got back to work. By 4 a.m. we were finished and eager to get our four hours of sleep before meeting in the lobby for the last six rounds on Saturday.
A shower and the hotel room coffee did little to shake the effects of a short sleep, and it was difficult to resist the siren song of one of the more comfortable hotel beds I’ve had the pleasure of gracing. But we ambled down to the lobby and boarded the shuttle for the arena at 8:30. By 9:00 a.m. we were all set up on the riser and ready for whatever the day would bring. The riser was much more sparsely populated for the second day; apparently there is little interest in picks 31-211. Washington started the day with nine picks remaining — including three of the first 16 — so we were eager to see how things would play out.
The Caps grabbed Josh Godfrey with pick No. 34. He’s a defenseman with a booming shot who plays for Sault Ste. Marie of the OHL. After being passed over in the draft last summer, Godfrey and his right-handed cannon accounted for 33 goals (24 in the regular season and nine more in the playoffs) this season. We went down to the interview area to meet and interview him and he came across as so many recent Washington picks have: good kid with character.
Before we could make it back to the riser, we learned the Caps had moved the No. 41 choice. We had to nose around to find the details of the deal. Turns out the Caps shipped the No. 41 to the Flyers for the No. 84 and Philadelphia’s second round choice in 2008. Andy and I were marveling at what was going on here. Washington came to Columbus with 10 picks. And it still had 10 picks. But it had also added two valuable second-rounders in what is perceived to be a much deeper draft in 2008. One scout we know said the No. 50 pick in ’08 could be the equivalent of a No. 20 or so in ’07.
The Caps then exercised the No. 46 pick to take defenseman Teddy Ruth from the U.S. National Team Development Program. Ruth is a kid who greatly impressed me (and the Caps as well) during his interview with the team at the combine in Toronto earlier this month. Sharp, polite (calls everyone “sir”) and is confident without being cocky. He’s headed to Notre Dame in the fall, and it will be interesting to watch him progress. Another kid who oozes character and leadership.
When the No. 84 came along, Washington grabbed center Phil DeSimone. He’s another kid who was passed over last season, but he went out and finished second in the USHL scoring race and garnered player of the year honors. DeSimone is already 20 and he is headed to the University of New Hampshire. While with Sioux City, DeSimone centered Max Pacioretty, a 2007 first-rounder who went to Montreal with the No. 22 choice. At New Hampshire, DeSimone may find himself on a line with No. 2 overall choice James vanRiemsdyk, who went to the Philadelphia Flyers.
When the Caps next pick came rolling around at No. 95, there was a bit of a lull. I mentioned to Andy that George had probably pulled off another deal for another ’08 pick. Sure enough, that was the case. The Caps sent the No. 95 pick to L.A. for the No. 154 pick and the Kings’ fourth-round pick in 2008. That concluded the day’s dealing for Washington.
The Capitals’ next pick was at No. 108. Washington chose Brett Bruneteau, and when I heard the name I wondered whether he might be related to Mud Bruneteau, whose place in NHL annals has been secure for seven decades now. I saw that Brett Bruneteau was born in San Francisco, and figured there was no connection. But it turns out that Mud Bruneteau — whose goal ended the longest game in NHL history more than seven decades ago — was Brett’s great-uncle. And that Eddy Bruneteau, a longtime pro who also played in the NHL, was the kid’s grandfather. Good chance that the league will go namby-pamby on us at some point in the near future and go to the shootout for tied playoff games. If so, Bruneteau’s place in hockey history will be permanently etched. As for Brett Bruneteau, he’s bound for the University of North Dakota in the fall of 2008. Meantime, he has been traded from Omaha to Indiana, so he’ll skate for the USHL’s Indiana Ice in 2007-08.
With their fifth-round pick, the Capitals chose right wing Brett Leffler of the WHL’s Regina Pats. Leffler patterns his game after that of Toronto’s Darcy Tucker, which is a good thing as far as I am concerned. And this is about the point in the draft where you’d like to see a team taking a stab at a guy who could become that sort of an irascible irritant a few years down the road.
The last four Washington choices came in the draft’s final two rounds, with two selections in each round. Goaltender Dan Dunn came to the Caps with the No. 154 choice acquired earlier in the day from Los Angeles. Caps scout Steve Bowman cracked later on that Dunn is the son of noted hockey writer Dickie Dunn, who is renowned in hockey circles for “just trying to capture the spirit of the thing.” While he may be a descendant of a fictional hockey scribe, Dunn is built like Hall of Famer Ken Dryden. He played in the OPJHL last year, and is off to attend St. Cloud St. in the fall.
One of Dunn’s teammates at Wellington of the OPJHL joined him in the Caps’ fold at pick No. 180. Center Justin Taylor split 2006-07 between Wellington and the Dale Hunter-coached London Knights of the OHL. With some of London’s top players headed on to other locales in 2007-08, Taylor could be in for a serious bump in ice time and responsibility this season. He is a skilled center who certainly bears watching.
In the seventh round, the Caps nabbed a pair of high school kids who are college bound in 2008. Washington chose center Nick Larson at No. 185 and left wing Andrew Glass at No. 199. Larson hails from Minnesota and will attend the University of Minnesota while Glass hails from Massachusetts and will play his college hockey at Boston University.
We chatted with a relieved McPhee after the draft. The entire process is so taxing on general managers and their scouting staffs, and the split of round one on Friday night followed almost immediately by the next six rounds on Saturday morning did no one any favors. After George gave us his take on the day and the draft, we packed up and headed for a quick visit to the suite. By the time we arrived, Godfrey and Ruth had departed. We learned that Alzner and his family returned to the suite for Day 2 and that he was able to meet Godfrey and Ruth and their families on Saturday.
After eating some food, we walked back to the hotel and started about the business of posting info on Washington’s final nine picks to the Web site. At 5:30, we were to meet McPhee and the entire Caps scouting and hockey ops staff in the lobby, so we didn’t have time to finish it all. We got as much done as we could, and dragged our tired bodies downstairs.
We split up into groups, grabbed a few cabs and headed out to the suburban mansion of Kris Wagner, the league’s best director of scouting operations. Wags and his wife Jen had prepared a feast of royal proportions, and welcomed about two dozen guests into their home to consume mass quantities. We had some beverages and a plethora of delicious delicacies, and rehashed the weekend’s activity in small and rotating groups. It’s always good to debrief after the draft, and this is a great way to do it. These guys are tight, they get along well and it’s sort of a tradition that we all wind down together somewhere after it’s all said and done.
Of course, a lot of them are also former pro athletes. So the stories start flying, and the jokes start bouncing around and then the competitive juices commence to flowing. And outlets are found (or created, if necessary) by which these juices can be released. So, outlets were found, juices were released, and side-splitting hilarity ensued.
And cigars were smoked. That’s all that needs to be said about that.
Before midnight, Andy and I were back at the hotel putting the finishing touches on the weekend’s Web content. By the time we finished, we had time to pack up our stuff and grab about three hours of sleep.
We flew home. Without episode, and uneventfully. I was on the ground in Baltimore and in the company of my wife and kids before 10:00 a.m., which is some 15 hours ahead of last year’s pace when the incomparable Corey Masse and I endured a 19-hour travel oddyssey/episode on our return trip from the draft in Vancouver to the airport in Baltimore. A three-page letter detailing our trials and tribulations later earned us a $100 credit on Air Canada.
Trouble is, in order to use it, we’d have to fly Air Canada again.