This weekend I was lucky enough to go to my first NHL draft for the first round in Philadelphia. When we entered the arena, not much was going on as there were about two hours to go until the event started. We got some food and wandered into a section without a security guard; we didn’t realize we were sitting in the draftee and family section, and we happened to be sitting right by Alex Tuch, who gave another misplaced fan like ourselves an autograph. We then got up and made our way up to the mezzanine.
Being a Rangers fan in Philly, I made sure to wear a blank, neutral shirt to Wells Fargo Center specifically to avoid being heckled by Flyers fans (or worse). But I saw many fellow Rangers fans donning their jerseys and shirts, so I figured maybe the atmosphere would be a lot different at this event than it is during the season. But I was wrong.
When we found our seats in the mezzanine, all was relatively quiet – until roll call. The “Let’s go Flyers” chant erupted until they announced each team’s name, to which Flyers fans screamed “SUCKS!” When “New York Rangers” and “Pittsburgh Penguins” were called though, it was nearly deafening, and I couldn’t help but laugh at how ridiculous the concept was, especially since the Rangers beat the Flyers in the first round and proceeded to make it to the Final, and the Penguins made it to the second round… but whatever.
Then Gary Bettman came on stage, and the boo-birds were out in full force. The commissioner is booed in many venues he appears at, especially when he presents the Stanley Cup each summer. I had never experienced it live, but I think it is safe to say this was the loudest he has ever been booed. I watched the broadcast afterward, but the cameras couldn’t do it justice – the booing was much louder in the building than it was on TV. Every time the man tried to speak he was droned out almost entirely to the crowd, and some of the people were remarking how annoying it was because no one could even hear what he was saying. In all honesty, although Bettman is a polarizing figure in the NHL community, the booing yesterday was actually a disgrace to the sport and to the event, and the fans should be ashamed of themselves for such a lack of respect. Even worse, they booed the entire time the Pittsburgh Penguins had the stage, and I literally could not hear the name of the player they picked, so I had to wait until Kapanen’s name came up on the jumbotron to know who they had picked. Ridiculous.
A fan in front of me was wasted (at a draft, really?) and was screaming at Bettman each time he left the stage. Not even when he was actually on stage, but after he left. But when Holmgren started speaking before Philly made their pick, he and the rest of the Flyers fans around us were cheering as if he were a saint – the same fans who likely called for his firing after so many controversial trades during his tenure as GM. The overall atmosphere was filled with arrogance. It’s a mentality, I guess.
But being there to witness thirty aspiring NHLers have their dreams come true was worth the boos and the arrogance that surrounded us. There were Buffalo fans a few rows up with old Chris Drury #23 jerseys that they put tape over and wrote “Reinhart” on. When Tim Murray made his way to the podium, they were chanting “We want Sam Reinhart” and they got their wish after Murray’s bizarrely short announcement of the Sabres’ choice. Many in the arena cheered loudly for Anthony DeAngelo, the ‘hometown kid,’ when he was selected by Tampa Bay. And most of all, watching one of my favorite NHL prospects Aaron Ekblad being drafted first overall by Florida was a really special moment, considering all the trade talk involving that first pick and the fact that Ekblad would likely fall if Dale Tallon did trade away the pick.
Although I was just a spectator, being there made me feel like I was part of the whole thing. The energy was high and it was cool to watch the teams’ tables to see if any trades were about to be made. It was definitely a great experience, but next year’s draft will probably be much better with the McDavid-Eichel saga and, more importantly, the fact that Florida fans will probably have a lot more respect for the commissioner that will make for a much more enjoyable atmosphere.