NHL Draft 2002: Surprises All Around

Sometimes in life, expectations are simply too high. When I found out that I was traveling to Toronto for the NHL Draft — the hotbed and home of hockey — I know exactly what happened to my expectations: they went as high as a collegian ranked near the top of the Central Scouting Service rankings.

So as the hour of 1 p.m. rolled around and a quick twist of the head saw a half-empty Air Canada Centre, disappointment was suddenly in store. Remembering past drafts in Boston in 1999 and Quebec in 1993, I remember packed houses. I remember that in Boston, tickets to the event were free — yet “sold out” in the matter of a day at the FleetCenter.

So to think that barely half the seats in the Mecca of professional hockey were full was a bit of a let down.

Thankfully, though, within minutes my disappointment was forgotten.

The show that is the draft is exactly that: A well-choreographed, movie-like production. Sure there are lulls between picks that on TV look transparent when covered by highlight reels and interviews. But being in attendance certainly doesn’t disappoint.

Heck, after NHL Vice President Jim Gregory read off the roll call of teams to alternations of cheers and jeers, the first speaker of the day, Toronto Maple Leaf President Ken Dryden was enough of a highlight for me. I remember watching Dryden play as a kid, and as a college hockey fan, Dryden’s contribution at Cornell makes it impossible not to edify him.

Jay Bouwmeester was the consensus No. 1 pick, until a trade threw the NHL Draft into turmoil. Bouwmeester was eventually selected third by Florida.

Jay Bouwmeester was the consensus No. 1 pick, until a trade threw the NHL Draft into turmoil. Bouwmeester was eventually selected third by Florida.

Dryden was replaced at the microphone by “the Commish” — NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman — who walked onto the stage to a chorus of “boos” similar to his entrance wherever he goes. But those boos were quickly replaced by rousing applause when it was announced that the draft was dedicated to ex-BU Terrier Mark Bavis and Ace Bailey — now well-known as the two Los Angeles Kings scouts killed aboard one of the two flights that crashed into the Twin Towers on September 11th. Having grown up in the same town as Bavis and remembering well the nights that Bailey would visit the building when I worked in the American Hockey League in New Haven, it was hard not to get choked up.

But the emotions subsided and the draft opened the way everyone would want — with pandemonium. Before a pick was made, the Florida Panthers swapped the No. 1 overall pick with Columbus — holder of the No. 3 selection for the right to also swap for the Blue Jackets’ first-round pick next year. The rumbling began and within seconds was enough to shake the building.

As Columbus arrived at the stage and announced the pick, the gasp went through the media platform — Central Scouting’s No. 1-ranked player, Jay Bouwmeester, was overlooked in favor of second-ranked Rick Nash from London. God bless trades — they make draft day fun.

“It was amazing,” said Nash, who is the first No. 1 overall pick from the OHL since Boston chose Joe Thornton in 1997. “I was sitting there, just thinking about Bouwmeester going first to Florida, and next thing you hear, ‘There’s been a trade.’ My stomach sort of went and I didn’t know for sure [that I’d be number one]. It was like going on a big roller coaster.”

The roller coaster, though, might have been what Bouwmeester had in his mind. Two minutes after Nash’s name was called, Kari Lehtonen, a goaltender from Finland, provided the draft’s second upset, as the Atlanta Thrashers picked him second overall. Finally as the third pick came, the Florida Panthers still had their man in Bouwmeester and truly all was well again in the hockey world.

For a college hockey junkie like myself, certainly all was well when BU’s Ryan Whitney was picked, as predicted, fifth by the Pittsburgh Penguins. And as the afternoon slowly wore on, and three more collegians were selected in the top 15 (Eric Nystrom at 10, Keith Ballard at 11 and Chris Higgins at 14), certainly college hockey had again made its statement at the NHL Draft.

The biggest surprise in all of that was seeing Minnesota’s Ballard cap off a banner year as the No. 11 selection overall — far above his CSS ranking of 17, which, when you factor in the international players and goaltenders, means you’re expected to fall to the second round.

It was also nice to see Higgins’ family react in the stands just off to my left. So many people worried his stock had dropped as the year wore on. But Higgins held tough and became yet another American college player (similar to Lowell’s Ron Hainsey) to be drafted by Montreal.

As pick after pick was announced, truly the glamour of the day wears a bit. The stands begin to empty, the applause for each name grows less and less. But the story of the emotions of players never dies. There is the excitement of the first-rounder like Higgins, but there’s also the disappointment of the players who remain in the stands all day to never hear their names. As Nash said, it’s a roller coaster indeed.

But, when summing up the day, maybe it was Bouwmeester who, in describing his anxiety, said it best: “I think everyone was [surprised], but there’s nothing you can do about it. You just watch how it unfolds and that’s all part of the excitement, I guess.”

I guess so, too.