Just spent two terrific days on the floor of the Xcel Energy Center, working the NHL's 2011 Entry Draft. There are lots of great perks to working on the X's Guest Services staff, but this weekend was one of the best non-game experiences ever.
For a hockey nerd like me, being at the NHL Draft is like attending the Academy Awards. Except that instead of saying things like, "Look, there's Tom Cruise" or "Look, there's Sharon Stone" we said things like "Look, there's Mike Babcock....Hey, there's Bobby Clarke...Wow, that's Cam Neely." All the coaches we see standing behind benches and the GMs we see sitting in the press box during a long winter with the NHL Center Ice package are right there in the flesh!
Just a partial list of sightings (and yes, I feel like a stupid teenage groupie...I've gotten over it and so should you):
and the list goes on....
Part of my job was checking everyone's credentials, making sure they weren't on the floor without the appropriate pass. So when a person approached, instead of looking at their face like you normally would, I would first glance at their torso, to see if they had the proper credential hanging around their neck. Early on the first day, a man moved into the periphery of my vision, and the first thing I noticed was that he wasn't wearing a credential. The second thing I noticed was that he was sort of wandering aimlessly, just looking around and not talking to anyone and looking as though he might not belong there. I was about to step forward and ask if I could help him find his proper spot. That's when I focused on the face, made eye contact and realized it was NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. Stepping back from the brink of a major faux pas, I managed to say "Commissioner, we're honored to have you here," and got a "Thank you, glad to be here," in return.
My next contact came when Penguins Coach Dan Bylsma came over near my post and had a conversation with a couple of fellows. When he finished, he turned around, paused, and made eye contact. I've always felt a little kinship with Bylsma because that "sma" at the end of his name - just like Droogsma - means we both have Dutch heritage. Normally in my job, we try to stay out of conversations in these situations, but I decided to make an exception and dive in. I stuck out my hand and said, "Nice to meet you coach. My last name is Droogsma, and it's always nice to see another Dutch boy do well." He lit right up! We ended up having a couple minutes of conversation about the Penguins' injury-filled season, our Dutch background and his recent Adams award as coach of the year. After a moment a woman from the Penguins PR department came over to take him to an interview, and I said, "Sorry, didn't mean to take your time." He said, "No, anytime for a Dutchman," and then turned to the PR woman and said, "You know what they say about the Dutch, don't you?" She said no and he told the oldest Dutch joke in the book: "If you're not Dutch, you're not much." A good laugh, another handshake and he was on his way.
A short time later my friend Gary Harker came by. Gary scouts the Upper Midwest for the Toronto Maple Leafs and is a great guy to talk hockey with. I've mentioned him before in this blog, and I almost always learn something when I have a conversation with him. We were discussing various draft prospects, the atmosphere in the X and making a little small talk when he suddenly asked, "Have you ever met George Armstrong?"
George Armstrong's claim to fame is that he was captain of the Maple Leafs when they won their last Stanley Cup in 1967. He played 21 years for Toronto, and was captain for 11 of them. He still scouts for the Leafs, and he and Gary sit next to each other at the Leafs' draft table. Gary brought him over to meet me.
This was exciting. I started thinking about some of the great players Armstrong had played with: Frank Mahovlich, Dave Keon, Johnny Bower, etc., etc. After introductions, I decided to ask about Bower, a goaltender I admired as a kid, and who is famous for having lied about his age to get into the Canadian Army as a 16-year-old and subsequently serving in Europe. (I wrote about Bower a couple years ago here.) As soon as I asked about Bower, I knew I had started the conversation right:
"Johnny and I were roommates for 11 years," Armstrong said, and went on to reminisce about the four Stanley Cups they won together, various road trip escapades and other stories. Then I wanted to ask about another former Maple Leafs player, and said, "You must have overlapped with Tim Horton at some point, didn't you?" Horton is the former Leafs and Buffalo Sabres defenseman who founded the doughnut chain that bears his name, and who was killed in a car accident while still playing in the NHL. When I asked about him, Armstrong's demeanor got a little more serious.
"Timmy and I played in the minors together and we went to the Leafs together," he said. "When I got married, Timmy was the only hockey player in the wedding." He then went on to share stories about Horton's personality, character and business sense.
We also had a chat about Dave Keon, who succeeded Armstrong as Leafs' captain. I told him I had watched Keon later play as a Minnesota Fighting Saint in a building (the old St. Paul Civic Center) that had stood right where we were now standing, and he told me about the estrangement between Keon and the Maple Leafs organization. We talked about old goalies, old coaches, and he went on and on for about 15 or 20 minutes.
(Part of Armstrong's charm - at least I found it charming - is that he's absolutely unable to speak without being amazingly profane. You have to imagine every sentence I've quoted here as being sprinkled with f-bombs about every fifth word. It's an all-purpose noun, verb and adjective for him, and Harker said he's that way all the time. It just comes naturally and, oddly, doesn't sound out of place.)
The rest of the weekend was a great treat, watching the drama surrounding the reactions of all these 18-year-olds as they had the moment they've dreamed about most of their lives; Hearing their name called at an NHL Draft. They would stand up, hug their dad, moms, other relatives, etc. who were there to share the big moment.
My favorite reaction came when the Montreal Canadiens chose a young man name Nathan Beaulieu. He had been projected by some to go among the top 10 or so after an outstanding career in Quebec junior hockey, but he fell to the 17th spot before Montreal selected him. He went to hug his mother, and she just erupted in tears. It was like she had been holding in all the pressure that had been building on her son as he slid down the board, and now, all of a sudden, her baby boy had not only been chosen, but had been chosen by the Canadiens, and she just couldn't keep the emotions bottled up anymore. He gave her a huge hug, and I think it's that image I'll remember the longest from a memorable weekend.