RETRO RELAPSE is a series of older articles from various places where I used to write before Talking Pulp.
*Written in 2015.
The last few days were spent in Sunrise, Florida. It is only about an hour and twenty minutes away from my house and it is also a place I lived and went to middle school in for two years. My return there wasn’t to reminisce or to track down old friends, I went to where the Florida Panthers play, at the BB&T Center, as that is where this year’s NHL Draft was held.
My Chicago Blackhawks didn’t even have a first round pick but I didn’t care. It wasn’t even about that really. The NHL Draft was this close to my house and I wanted to go for the experience of seeing a professional sports draft, to banter with other fans, to gloat about another Blackhawks championship and to just kick back and hold on to the hockey season for an extra week.
What I got was more than I could ask for.
When I showed up at around 1:30 on Friday afternoon, it had just rained. The FanFest wasn’t yet up and running due to the weather but they got it up pretty fast. There was more for kids than adults but it was still a pretty cool setup. There were games and challenges and other things to occupy your time while waiting for the doors of the arena to open.
The best feature of the FanFest was the giant Coors Light igloo in the middle. I detest that beer but I assumed it would be cold inside. It was. It also had beer that wasn’t Coors Light. Granted, they didn’t have any craft beer because the Galactic Empire doesn’t sell merchandise from the Rebel Alliance but that $14.00 Molson was pretty refreshing in that cold igloo, as the Florida summer weather outside was stifling and awful.
The doors to the Florida Panthers team store opened and I made my way in for what was going to be an autograph signing featuring current Calder Trophy holder Aaron Ekblad, as well as Panthers’ great Bill Lindsay.
While waiting in the autograph line for over an hour, most of the fans crammed in around me were very nice and congratulatory about the Blackhawks and their third Stanley Cup in six years. My jersey was getting the opposite reaction to the one that I expected. It was cool though, because ultimately everyone was just there to have fun. The season is over, no bloodshed was necessary.
I hooked up with a few Edmonton Oilers fans who had flown in to South Florida just to be there when potential future legend Connor McDavid was drafted to their team with the first overall pick. These guys were cheery, happy and ready to party hard. They were also hardcore Canadian hockey fans that Floridians like me never get to spend much time with. Well, at least hardcore Canadian hockey fans closer to my age. Florida gets a lot of those old snowbirds but talking to them is like talking to a room full of Don Cherrys
The line moved forward, I met Bill Lindsay, who was nice and also very complimentary of the Blackhawks. I got his autograph and then moved on to rookie of the year Aaron Ekblad. Ekblad signed a 2015 NHL Draft puck that I bought in the store, shook my hand, posed for a picture, thanked me for being there and gave my Blackhawks the thumbs up as well. He was also sitting with his Calder Trophy, which he was awarded with just two days prior. It was beautiful to see up close.
I then went back outside to wait for the arena doors to open. I spent time with more Oilers fans, some Maple Leafs fans, a small army of Canadiens – who entertained me with a long diatribe about why no other teams beside the Original Six teams will always find themselves at the top of the food chain. I finally got the negative reaction to my Blackhawks jersey that I expected earlier, and of course it was from Boston Bruins fans. Weirdly, even Philadelphia Flyers fans were cool with my presence. They complimented Toews and Kane, I complimented Giroux and talked to them about how I did artwork for Flyers’ legend Bernie Parent.
I hooked up with another group of Edmonton Oilers fans and was astounded by the fact that so many of them traveled so far to be at the NHL Draft. This was the group I hung out with for the rest of the Draft.
We made our way in, we drank craft beer at the Miami Brewing Co. bar. We got pretty inebriated, spent too much on concessions, bought a bunch of crap in the stores and toured the facility. But then I got wind that the Stanley Cup was in the building. A few of the Oilers guys and I hightailed it to section 129 to see the Cup.
We got there, we got close to the front of the line. We waited for some time before Phil Pritchard showed up with his crew, carting in a very large crate. We all knew what was inside. Phil, officially known as “The Keeper of the Cup” put on his patented white gloves to the cheers of hundreds, if not thousands, who were now in line. He reached into the case and lifted out the Stanley Cup.
Being that I am a Blackhawks fan, I felt all Blackhawks fans should’ve got first dibs. We are the champions, mind you. However, the line went in order but it was only about five minutes before I got to stand next to (and lightly touch) the Stanley Cup. I posed for pictures, stared in awe and almost got emotional standing next to the most prized trophy in all of sports. There truly is nothing like the Stanley Cup and to be next to it, just a week after the Chicago Blackhawks lifted it in glory for the third time in six years, was pretty astounding. Seeing my own reflection staring back at me over the names of Blackhawks players and all the other greats who won the Cup was one of the greatest moments of my life. I felt like Samwise Gamgee after the One Ring went into the fires of Mount Doom, knowing that I had been a true companion on the greatest quest ever taken.
My inebriated Edmonton pals and I then made our way to our seats.
The NHL Draft kicked off and it wasn’t much time before the Edmonton Oilers selected Connor McDavid as the number one pick. It was to be expected, as McDavid has been compared to Wayne Gretzky and Sidney Crosby. It is also interesting as McDavid is starting his career in the same place that Gretzky did. Furthermore, the Oilers’ greatest success came with Gretzky as their star and there hasn’t been a whole lot of success since. To many Edmonton fans, including the crew I found myself a part of that night, they see Connor McDavid as a savior. Whether that is true or not, remains to be seen but it will be an interesting story to watch over the upcoming years.
A few of these tough-as-nails Edmonton guys had a tear in their eye. I can’t blame them. Fuck, they love their sport, their team and they really need this. I hope they get back to the glory that has long eluded them.
Also, as expected, the Buffalo Sabres selected Jack Eichel at number two. He would’ve been the first pick in any other NHL Draft. The fact that he was number two, says a lot about McDavid and regardless, this is an amazing draft class that I got to witness, live and in person.
The third pick, Dylan Strome went to the Arizona Coyotes. He’s another kid that probably has nothing but greatness ahead of him.
Pick after pick kept coming. Every time, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman came to the podium he was booed harshly, but that is the norm for him. Most people do it because it has become the fashionable thing to do. By around pick twenty, when the booing had mostly subsided, there was this old knucklehead who kept screaming obscenities at him. I asked him why he hated Bettman so much.
He says, “Don’t you fucking watch hockey?”
I said, “Yes.”
“And you have to ask a stupid fucking question like that?”
“I’m just curious as to what specific thing he did that pushed you into hating him.”
“All of it!”
“Well, like what? Like what are the three worst things he’s done in your opinion?”
“What? Are you defending that douchebag?”
“No. I don’t like him all that much either. But you’re really heated, man.”
“Yeah, he sucks!”
“Look at him!”
“So you don’t like how he looks?”
“Look fella, why are you up my fucking ass about this?!”
“Never mind, I just thought you could elaborate.”
“Fuck off! I’m watching the fucking Draft!”
The Florida Panthers picked 11th. After their pick, the arena pretty much cleared out. That’s Florida sports fans for you. Well, the Tampa Bay fans stayed and were still in abundance. They were still waiting for their pick but they stuck around through the entire first round and even came back the next day. So I guess the Lightning fan base is sort of the antithesis to the typical Florida sports fan. Good for them, even though my team just beat them in the Stanley Cup Finals, I respect them and their team. They have a very bright future.
After the first round, I found out that my Edmonton pals were staying at the same hotel as me. One of their girlfriends, who wasn’t drinking much, actually offered to drive me back to the hotel in my car, so I wouldn’t be inconvenienced. We all met up after the first round and partied around the hotel. We then went back to my room, as I was upgraded to a suite due to overbooking, and we partied like rabid sons of bitches.
We all rolled out of bed at 7 a.m. and returned to the BB&T Center for rounds two through seven.
There were a lot less fans on the second day. A lot less press too. These rounds went by super fast and after a few hours, the NHL Draft was over. The day was less eventful than the first but that is probably because we were all hungover and exhausted. I drank a ton of caffeine that morning.
I hugged my Edmonton friends, we parted ways and I hope I get to see them again at a later date. Hopefully during an Oilers-Blackhawks playoff game. Or maybe I’ll make it all the way up to Edmonton one day.
I then got in my car and drove the hour and twenty minutes home. After walking through my front door, I crashed.
It was a great, fun weekend. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
Now I have to count down the days of the off season. Hockey can’t get here soon enough.