VANCOUVER, B.C. — A Friday-night hockey crowd inside Rogers Arena was pumped and ready to erupt, aided by recorded vintage rock music from the Canadian band Trooper that blared over the venue’s loudspeaker imploring fans to “Raise a Little Hell.’’
And raise some they did, once NHL commissioner Gary Bettman took the stage to officially open this month’s 2019 NHL draft. With no puck drop scheduled like there would be for an NHL game, thousands of jersey-clad, banner-waving fans resorted to the only energy release possible: Mercilessly booing Bettman whenever he opened his mouth.
Drowning Bettman out with catcalls is a longstanding NHL fan tradition elevated to extremes at these drafts — where there’s no goal-scoring, fighting, or bodychecking for hockey lovers to emotionally react to. Which raises the question of what the attraction to this two-day event actually is; something especially worth asking now that owners of Seattle’s incoming NHL expansion franchise want to host the draft in June 2021.
Vancouver apparently decided a pure Canadian love of hockey would get the crowds out, while Bettman and other limited side entertainment would take care of the rest. Whether Seattle can rely on that formula — or even get its logistical act together in time — will be determined these next 12 months in a city that lacks Vancouver’s half-century of NHL history and likely the sheer numbers of impassioned local fans who will show up just to root for team roster betterment.
Seattle Sports Commission executive director Ralph Morton agreed our city would likely require more than showcasing just the draft itself.
“I’m confident that we’d be able to knock it out of the park,” Morton said. “We just have to make sure that we understand the parameters and the specifications of the event. What are the elements to the way we can do it?”
Morton said he’s had only preliminary hosting discussions with NHL Seattle but feels an Emerald City event should be focused on the “birth of a team” and not just a draft for all 32 clubs. He noted Seattle would also be hosting an expansion draft to pick its roster just before the main draft and figures that would generate more than enough local interest.
“It’s not just the draft,’’ Morton said. “This is a lot of who our team will be. It would be like getting to see Russell Wilson picked by the Seahawks before he became Russell Wilson, only this would be the entire team selected.’’
Vancouver didn’t need any extras, the hockey passion seemingly everywhere. Savvy fans even hounded Hockey Hall of Fame employee and so-called “Keeper of the Cup’’ Phil Pritchard for autographs as he walked the arena concourse near a special Stanley Cup display.
Just before the draft’s opening round June 21, Vancouver resident Cheryl Kwok, 34, and friends Curtis Joe, 23, and Tim Hsia, 34, mingled at a “Party on the Plaza’’ outdoor festival adjacent the arena. Kwok sported a New Jersey Devils sweater and a sign saying “Welcome to New Jersey, Jack’’ in anticipation of prospect Jack Hughes eventually being selected No. 1 overall by her favorite team.
“It’s history in the making and it’s happening right here in Vancouver,’’ Kwok said. “We’re seeing the stars of tomorrow right here and we’ve got to show them support.’’
A few feet away, Jamie Metz, 46, of suburban Langley, B.C., walked with his wife, Stacey, 43, and their daughters, Elise, 7, and Emmie, 2, all wearing Edmonton Oilers jerseys. “My older daughter plays on an all-girls team and we thought this would be an inspirational thing to see, with all of these young players being drafted,’’ Metz said.
But like many fans, they’d also come to render a verdict on their club’s draft performance. Born and raised in Edmonton, Metz and his wife are longtime fans of the now-struggling Oilers and helped their younger daughter carry a homemade sign that read: “My parents saw you win 5 cups … I will settle for 1.’’ Their older daughter, who plays for the Langley Lightning, carried her own sign: “Worst 6 years of my life! Come on, Oilers, make my 7th,” with an image of the Stanley Cup at the bottom.
Later, inside the arena, similar fan judgment was instantly passed as the first round played out.
An audible crowd gasp greeted the Detroit Red Wings’ surprising No. 6 overall pick of German defenseman Moritz Seider. Likewise, several Canucks fans buried their heads in their hands when their team picked Russian winger Vasili Podkolzin — a skilled-but-polarizing figure because of lukewarm statistics — at 10th overall.
There were no such outbursts the first 17 years of the draft, starting in 1963, all occurring behind closed doors in Montreal hotel rooms or nearby league offices. It wasn’t until 1980 at the Montreal Forum that 2,500 fans attended the first public draft, while the event wasn’t televised live until 1983 in Canada and 1989 in the United States by SportsChannel America.
Now, it’s a full-on live and made-for-TV event with accompanying logistical headaches.
Of prime concern is securing enough hotel and conference space.
Michelle Collens of Sport Hosting Vancouver, a city-managed facilitator of major events, said her group needed to show the NHL it could block between 5,000 and 6,000 rooms per night over a three-to-four-day period. That was to accommodate 1,400 staff members from the 31 teams, 150 NHL staffers, 2,300 family members and agents connected to draft-eligible players, plus media members and an expected influx of hockey tourists.
“We needed a buy-in from our hotels, as the draft does happen at a high-capacity time of the year for our tourism industry,’’ Collens said. “We had to make sure it would fit with other business already booked.’’
Ultimately, nine hotels each hosted the staffs of three or four individual teams. Beyond rooms, teams needed guaranteed access to meeting space within the hotels.
Also, conference space had to be secured for a 500-person coaches conference and various league meetings and media events.
“You have to make sure that the ballrooms and the meeting spaces of the hotels they’re taking are available to accommodate that for the people coming in for it,’’ Collens said. “Then, you’ve got the families and the fans. The NHL is definitely looking for cities that are a destination that will attract people to come and watch their show, as opposed to just coming because their son or family is in the draft.’’
David Blandford of the Visit Seattle tourism group said it’s too soon to know whether blocking 5,000 hotel rooms nightly over four days is workable. While Seattle has about 14,000 hotel rooms, other groups want them as well.
“The trick is, what are committable rooms and what are non-committable rooms?’’ Blandford said. “It depends on time of year, which would be June and that’s high season for us. It depends on which conventions are booked. We sometimes book them out 10, 13 or 14 years in the future.’’
Seattle also won’t have a $1.8 billion expansion of its convention center completed in time. The NHL’s requirements were small enough that Vancouver’s convention center wasn’t needed, but the renovation here means smaller convention space could become scarce.
Another critical variable is whether a $930 million KeyArena renovation finishes by its June 2021 target.
Oak View Group (OVG) CEO Tim Leiweke, spearheading the makeover, expects to know by first quarter of next year whether that deadline is doable. “We’re working on it,’’ Leiweke said. “We want this to happen.’’
The NHL can wait until next June before making a call. But a Seattle draft won’t happen without the arena, given the vast space required for TV optics and draft-day operations.
Each top prospect in Vancouver was allotted tickets for 80 family and friends to attend, and first-round selections were given individual arena luxury suites to celebrate in.
There were also eight different podium “pods’’ set up side by side for drafted players and team officials to be interviewed by media — the scene becoming chaotic at times as teams bumped into one another jockeying for podium space.
Workrooms and arena seating was needed for 350 accredited media members and an additional 171 staffers with TV rights holders. More arena space was taken up in the lower concourse for the Stanley Cup showing and an additional upper concourse display of NHL awards trophies — which proved popular for fans looking to do something between player picks besides booing Bettman.
“Vancouver fans have been all in,’’ Cup keeper Pritchard said as the second draft day unfolded Saturday morning. “You could see the turnout last night and today it’s been huge. They’re into history and they’re into the aura of the game.’’
For purists loving hockey and the people in it, the draft offers unusual proximity to players and team officials — with fans mingling in the concourse with new draftees and seeking their autographs while also chatting up recognizable former players now working for teams as they strolled by.
The space requirements inside the arena’s seating area meant the Canucks made only about 5,500 tickets publicly available for the draft’s opening round. Those sold out in 10 minutes, and resale websites were still commanding minimum $200 prices come draft day.
There were more tickets available for the draft’s second day, when rounds 2 through 7 unfolded at rapid-fire pace minus the previous night’s pageantry. As draft names were being called inside, Chris Stolz, 29, stood in a concourse lineup snaking around a corner and up a stairwell waiting to get to an autograph table manned by Canucks defenseman Quinn Hughes — older brother of the Devils’ first overall pick the night before.
Stolz said the lighter feel to Saturday’s event was nonetheless fun and worth the 240-mile drive he’d made from Kelowna, B.C.
“Just watching the players get drafted and then seeing them out here (in the concourse) you really get a feel for what they’re going through,” he said.
Still, Vancouver’s event lacked a ‘’Fan Fest’’ similar to those held the prior six drafts featuring outdoor concerts, concession stands and bigger hockey displays. Organizers decided there wasn’t enough space on congested downtown streets and instead staged the smaller “Party on the Plaza” with a Canucks alumni autograph table, a handful of activity booths and some roaming mascots.
Seattle could certainly improve on that, given the public space in Seattle Center adjacent to KeyArena. And having top music acts perform also seems a given, with concert promoter LiveNation partnered on the KeyArena redevelopment.
Also, having Hollywood producer Jerry Bruckheimer on NHL Seattle’s ownership team could lead to a greater celebrity presence and overall show. Bruckheimer and NHL Seattle president and CEO Tod Leiweke met in Vancouver with the media right before the draft began.
“We’re here to learn, but we’re also here to check out this event,” Leiweke said. “We know they’re about to do a fantastic job. We hope to have that very same opportunity in a couple of years.’’
But they’ll need to get on it fairly soon. While booing the NHL commissioner might fill some entertainment needs, plenty more must come together these next 12 months for those jeers to happen locally.
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