Thank you to everyone who DMed me well wishes after my hip replacement surgery. I am feeling much better now. On a 1 to 10 pain scale, the post-surgical pain last week was damn near a 10. Right now it's a 2 by comparison. My next goal, apart from being better able to sleep, is to get back to walking again.
Now onto today's topics at hand. The NHL Entry Draft was held on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week and today marks the start of free agency. Those things have a very different meaning to the names in the news this week than they did for me when I was a player in the Bedrock Hockey League, where woolly mammoths resurfaced the ice after dipping their trunks in a large tub of water.
As a teenage player, the only draft I had to worry about was when my mother would leave the kitchen window open in the Boston autumn. After that, the only draft that concerned me was a letter from Uncle Sam and an all-expense paid trip to Da Nang. American kids were rarely even a blip on the NHL Entry Draft radar screen back then.
After I attended the University of Pennsylvania and worked my way up as an enforcer winger/defenseman from the lowly North American Hockey League to the American Hockey League and Central Hockey League to the World Hockey Association (sometimes moving up, back down, and then up again), I was eventually chosen in the Dispersal Draft after the NHL and WHA merged and the majority of WHA teams were disbanded.
My old Cincinnati Stingers coach, Jacques Demers, was with the Quebec Nordiques by that point. The Nordiques, along with the Whalers, Oilers and Jets -- out of which, only the Oilers still exist 41 years later -- were one of the four WHA franchises absorbed into the NHL after the merger. Jacques liked me and appreciated the job I did for him in Cincy so, with the very last pick of the Draft, he talked the Nordiques into claiming my NHL rights. The next season, 1979-80, I played in 21 NHL games and dressed for multiple other games without getting a shift.
As for free agency, well, I knew a lot more about that than Drafts. Back then, at least for me, being a "free agent" was a polite way of saying "unemployed". I got used to tryout camps, in-season PTOs and AHL contracts with NHL options held by the parent team. I did, however, negotiate on my own behalf, a contract with the Nordiques that paid me in U.S. dollars rather than Canadian dollars (or, put another way, in green rather than in Technicolor).
Before that, I got myself a one-way deal with Cincy that enabled me to have the last laugh when, post-Demers, the Stingers had me bouncing from one minor league outpost to another in order to try to get me to quit. I'd remind them that every town has a post office and to keep those checks coming. Every hotel room and rental house had a telephone, so call me when you need me. Eventually, I was back in Cincy.
So, to me, free agency meant that one door was closed and I had to work my tail off to open the next one a crack. The Draft meant nothing, because I wasn't part of it, and even the WHA Dispersal Draft meant only that I'd be fighting, quite literally, to get a spot on a new team. Training camp was the real target and the big prize, ultimately, was fulfilling my dream to play in the NHL.
The NHL Entry Draft back then, even for most of the players who were chosen, was a whole different experience than it is today. It was not televised. Players were not there in person, wearing a just-bought suit, with their parents, siblings and girlfriends nearby. Countless draftees were working non-hockey summer jobs or working on their family farms when they were summoned to the telephone -- whether the day after the Draft or sometimes even a day or two after that -- and informed by an NHL general manager or scout they'd be chosen by their organization.
The exceptions were the highly touted prospects who went at the top of the Draft. The ones who got signing bonuses and went directly to the NHL. A down-to-earth kid, like my former HockeyBuzz colleague Brad Marsh, used his signing bonus to buy a truck that he was still driving late into his 1,000+ game NHL career. Other kids, who were ill-prepared for lay ahead and had no concept of the need to manage money, made far less prudent choices for how to spend their money.
The top prospects who were chosen by teams in the more glamorous markets with bustling cities and lots of nightlife options, were especially vulnerable. They though the money would keep rolling and rolling their way. That's not how it worked, especially not in hockey. It wasn't a sport where you got rich, back then.
Teams back then had no knowledge or interest in protecting their investment -- or helping steer the kids the right way -- so it was left up to a veteran leader on the team to look out for them. Sometimes, there was such a player on hand (Phil Esposito, for one). Often, though, team life existed in four places: the rink, the bus, the hotel (or your place of residence), and the local bar.
I remember when I was in camp with the New York Rangers on a tryout. They had a highly touted prospect on hand, and he was going wild living in the Big Apple with the windfall of his signing bonus. I saw him showing off and, quite literally, burning his money. He lit a cigar with a $100 bill.
Fast forward 45 years. The money is way bigger. The attention is 24/7. The temptations and distractions are ever-present and, potentially, more lethal. It exists even in the smaller markets, which are kind of on par these days to how the big markets were many years ago. And the big market lifestyle. It's like you're living the life of Hollywood celeb. The highest-touted players live in luxury lofts downtown, right in the center of all the nightlife.
How well-prepared are the kids for all this? With a few exceptions, their agents don't really care. Never did, never will. The "super agents", in particular, have a lot of clients. Once a deal is done, the agents take their cut. After that, except for a periodic and obligatory check-in (which may come from an employee underling agent in their firm), you're out of sight and out of mind until your next negotiation comes up.
NHL teams do a little better job these days of prepping the kids. I know they have a certain amount of counseling about the dangers of the internet and social media -- things that simply didn't exist when I played, and thank goodness for that (both for myself and my teammates). They are coached to some degree, both by agents and teams, about being careful in the media, and sticking to pat, "safe" cliches.
For the most part, though, this is rather limited and takes a back seat to coaching about diet and fitness as well as on-ice skills development. Don't get me wrong. I think it's great that NHL teams employ developmental coaches and have fitness/diet counseling. But I think they over-rely on the developmental coaches to step outside of their comfort zones and play the role the off-ice watchdog vet used to play in terms of wising the kids up to the dangers out there. Some of these development coaches are really good at it, innately, and are in the kids' ears before they ever set foot in the NHL. Others not so much. The time to counsel these kids is when they're the most likely to listen, which is before they set foot in their first camp, and before the money really rolls in.
Teams invest so much in young players on the ice. But off-ice development, or the lack of it, really can help or hinder a career. I've seen it so many times, on both sides of the coin. Some kids, especially the collegiate ones who also take academics seriously, adapt faster than others. Some are pretty immature off the ice when young, but it clicks for them as they get a little older. Some never mature, and they have shorter or lesser careers for it.
My point is, why leave it to chance? I think every team should encourage its young players to live with a responsible, willing veteran for the first two years of his NHL career. Someone to hold him accountable. Someone to show how to manage day-to-day life off the ice and balance that with the demands of hockey. Someone to lead by example with his workout routine and diet. Someone to show what it means to be a professional.
I do not typically watch much of the NHL Draft on TV; maybe the first pick or two or checking in if I know a player's family and I'm curious to see where he's picked. This year, with my hip replacement rendering me immobile for a bit longer, I watched both days.
As a hockey lifer and a hockey dad, I found myself watching these kids one by one, and hoping for the best for each and every one; off the ice as well as on the ice. I found myself hoping they get the best guidance, the most complete preparation and advice possible. I hope each one has good influences and good mentors, so that they maximize their chance to let their on-ice development and health (it takes some luck to avoid career-altering injuries) be what determines their destiny in chasing their dreams of a pro career.
Final thoughts here: I am going to go off on a little tangent, as I am wont to do.
Quinton Byfield seems like a tremendous kid with a good head on his shoulders in addition to being blessed with size, athleticism speed and talent. Can we PLEASE, on his behalf, let him just be a hockey player first and foremost?
It will be doing him a disservice if the ratio of attention to his hockey potential versus his racial background skews too far to the latter side, especially once he's playing professionally in the Los Angeles market. There's already going to be enough pressure on him to live up to the expectations of being the second overall pick of the NHL Draft.
I don't know Quinton or his family. He seems like he really might be able to handle all that's going to be coming his way both on-ice and off-ice. But I just hope he is lead by example and deed as a hockey player and human being, and be judged on those merits. If we ever get to a point someday where it's genuinely true that "Hockey is for Everyone", we won't be parading this fine young player as a campaign slogan or spokesman unless HE wants to be that.
If he does want to embrace that mantle, more power to him. Just don't force it on him.
A 2018 inductee into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, Paul Stewart holds the distinction of being the first U.S.-born citizen to make it to the NHL as both a player and referee. On March 15, 2003, he became the first American-born referee to officiate in 1,000 NHL games.
Visit Paul's official websites, YaWannaGo.com and Officiating by Stewart