RALEIGH, N.C. — If there’s anything you can say about the NHL selecting Raleigh, N.C., as the location for this year’s Entry Draft, the city has some pretty passionate fans. That was extremely obvious on day one.
Beginning at 10:30 in the morning, fans were flocking into the RBC Center in its general admission sections. Around the arena you could find lines of 100-plus waiting in line to pick up free autographs from current Carolina Hurricane players.
And the enthusiasm didn’t stop there.
From the reading of the role call five minutes before noon — a varied reaction awaiting just about every NHL team — until the end of the first round the capacity crowd did its fair share of screaming.
When commissioner Gary Bettman (whose appearance was accompanied by some boos, though much less than in past years) announced the magic words, “We have a trade,” without even knowing the details the ‘Canes crowd roared.
“I think you’re going to like this one,” said Bettman, foreshadowing Carolina’s trade up to the fourth spot from No. 8 to take left wing Andrew Ladd. When Ladd name was announced, the crowd hit a penultimate high for sound.
“They don’t even know who they’re cheering for,” said one writer.
Minutes later, when Phoenix Coyotes managing partner Wayne Gretzky made his way to the podium to announce the fifth pick, the Carolina crowd gave an impressive, high-decibel standing ovation.
“I wasn’t expecting it,” said Gretzky of the reaction. “Coming to the draft, this is a day to honor the parents and families and scouts who work hard to go the rinks each and every day, and this isn’t really about Wayne Gretzky. So I was really taken aback, but it was a nice gesture.”
For the record, the loudest out-of-town representative? The fans of the Washington Capitals. Washington is only about three and a half hours from Raleigh and it was obvious that plenty made the trek.
After fans cheered a series of messages from Carolina Hurricanes players and personnel, there was a noticeably polarized reaction to seeing Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski’s face on the arena video screen. While Carolina fans may be united behind their hockey teams, the same can’t be said for their passionately split loyalties to their basketball teams. Basketball powers Duke, North Carolina and North Carolina State are in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill triangle, each separated by no more then 20 minutes.
Gretzky’s Appearance Draws Attention
When Gretzky decided to make an appearance this year in the media room, the attention of almost every writer and journalist in the RBC Center went his way. Gretzky answered questions on everything from his team’s draft selections to the Canadian World Cup team (of which he is general manager) to the lack of offense in the current day NHL (to which Gretzky commented, “You may never see another 50-goal scorer”).
The bad news was that Gretzky’s presence took all of the media away from the draftees that were paraded to the media room. That included incoming collegian Ray Sawada (Cornell) and Michigan State’s David Booth — both of whom passed through the interview room without anything but a few quick questions.
Obviously the “Great One” has the ability to control the game, even when he’s no longer playing.
Bonk for Weller?
Few people heard of Shawn Weller heading in to Saturday’s draft. But the Clarkson-bound left wing has potential to be pretty well remembered by the city that drafted him, Ottawa.
Weller landed with the Senators when they traded Radek Bonk straight up to Los Angeles in return for the 77th selection.
“I was sitting with my player rep Matt Kaetor and he said, ‘This guy must be pretty good if they’re trading away Bonk to get him,’ and then all of a sudden they called my name,” said Weller.
Bonk, by the way, won’t be suiting up for the Kings any time soon; 15 minutes later they traded him away to Montreal along with goaltending prospect Cristobal Huet in return for Mathieu Garon, considered by many a goaltender with a lot of potential.
When Blake Wheeler was selected fifth overall by the Phoenix Coyotes on Saturday he became the highest American high schooler drafted since Brian Lawton was the top overall draft pick out of Mount Saint Charles (R.I.) in 1983.
Wheeler is a two-sport athlete at Breck, also starring on the football team as a tight end. Those days, though, are in the past.
“Football is over for me,” said Wheeler, who said he needs to also reevaluate where he’ll end up next year. It’s likely he’ll leave Breck so that, minimally, he’s not around a bunch of high school players looking to take a run at a first-round draft choice.
“Somewhere I’ll have to finish my senior year of high school,” said Wheeler. His plans, though, won’t change to head to Minnesota a year from now.
“I hope that doesn’t change,” said Wheeler of playing for the Gophers. “That’s one of my dreams of my hockey career to play for the University of Minnesota.
“I don’t know if that will change, but there are some great college players who have played in the NHL.”
Next Time Take A Cab
Lew Mongelluzzo was uncharacteristically late getting to his spot at the Ottawa draft table. Mongelluzzo, a former assistant coach at Princeton and the general manager of the 2004 gold-medal winning U.S. World Junior team, said his bus driver got lost on the way to the arena from the hotel.
“We finally had to pull off for directions,” he said. “It took us an hour and a half to get here.”
On the same bus? Wayne Gretzky.
“We were fine. We were an hour late, but we made it,” Gretzky said.
Adam Wodon contributed to this report.