Draft means little to most NHL teams

 

It's the single most absurd exercise in sports: Thousands of addled sports fans fill an arena somewhere while millions more tune in on television to watch a bunch of men in suits sitting around tables.

 
 
 

It's the single most absurd exercise in sports: Thousands of addled sports fans fill an arena somewhere while millions more tune in on television to watch a bunch of men in suits sitting around tables.

Every now and then, all the men at one table (and it seems that every year there are more at each table) stand up and file to the stage, where the name of a young man is announced. The young man stands up. He kisses his mother, who is usually crying. He hugs his father. He marches to the stage, pulls on a baseball cap and jersey, shakes hands with the diminutive commissioner of the league in question.

Then you never hear of him again.

To listen to the hype on TSN, you would think that in terms of excitement, this

rivals this first moon landing. It says something about our culture that on a fine Friday evening in summer, millions of people can think of nothing better to do than to watch Pierre McGuire, Bob McKenzie and Gord Miller talk about the young man who has already had the most famous moment of his life.

Look, I love sports. If I didn't, I wouldn't do the job that I do. But the draft? The only time it's entertaining is when it's the NBA and David Stern has to shake hands with one giant after another.

Nor is it really meaningful. For at least 20 of the 30 teams who sat around those tables at the Bell Centre Friday and Saturday, the draft won't mean a thing. It won't make them significantly better or significantly worse. If they were lucky, they picked up a little fresh meat they can throw on the ice for less money than a veteran third-liner or fifth defenceman would earn.

If they're very lucky, they get a Sidney Crosby, an Alexander Ovechkin, an Evgeni Malkin.

If they're very unlucky, they look back at a whole chapter of their history. As my great and good friend Mike Boone has pointed out in his blog, the Canadiens have had far more first-round disasters than success stories over the past 25 years.

Read 'em and weep, beginning in 1985: José Charbonneau, Mark Pederson, Eric Charron, Lindsay Vallis, Brent Bilodeau, David Wilkie, Brad Brown, Terry Ryan, Matt Higgins and éric Chouinard, taken by Réjean Houle, most memorably, instead of teammate Simon Gagné.

(Houle atoned for that one by picking Mike Ribeiro, François Beauchemin, Gordie Dwyer, Andrei Markov and Michael Ryder later in that 1998 draft, the Canadiens best since 1987, when Serge Savard nabbed Andrew Cassels, John LeClair, éric Desjardins and Mathieu Schneider.)

The jury is still very much out on several more recent first-rounders, including Ryan McDonagh, David Fischer, Kyle Chipchura and even Carey Price. In recent years, the Canadiens did best in the first round of the draft when André Savard was minding the store or advising Bob Gainey. In successive seasons, they plucked Mike Komisarek, Christopher Higgins and Andrei Kostitsyn.

Herein is the cautionary note for this year's much-ballyhooed first-round pick, local boy Louis LeBlanc. There are enough failures, even among first-rounders, to make it important for a young man with LeBlanc's ability to go his own way.

Mercifully, LeBlanc has

already shown an inclination to find his own path, playing for Omaha in the USHL before signing on to go to Harvard, where he will play for Ted Donato beginning this fall.

By all means, go to Harvard, M. LeBlanc. Soak up all the learning you can get from those hallowed halls. Let your mind and body develop, far from the madness of Montreal and an obsession with the Habs that is downright unhealthy. I know you said that you plan to spend only a year or two at Harvard, but you're far better off to complete your education.

Stay out of the world where you play 100 games a year and where every word, every move, every shot is parsed, prodded and probed. Avoid those forests of microphones and cameras that have been growing like weeds for the past two decades as more and more quasi-legitimate new media outlets attach themselves to the CH like barnacles on a boat.

Get your degree. Salt away enough wisdom and education to see you through the rest of a good, productive life even if you never play a game in the NHL. Then come on up, a mature young man of 22 or so, and see if there is a place for you in the lineup.

Thing is, if you're smart enough to get into Harvard (even on an athletic scholarship) then you don't need the NHL - it needs you.

From what we saw at LeBlanc's initial press conference, his career with the Canadiens will be a zoo from start to finish. We need only think of the esteemed Guillaume Latendresse to find all the cautionary tales a young man needs.

Latendresse was saluted with absurd cries of "Guy! Guy! Guy!" when he played well in his first exhibition game at the Bell Centre. Since then, his game has been more flaw than fable, but the level of media attention has never flagged.

There is no parallel anywhere else in North American sport for the way French-Canadian players who don the CH are treated here. Some athletes thrive on it, others are drowned by the pressure. The one sure thing about Louis LeBlanc is that he'll have a better chance of standing up to it three or four years from now than he has now.

Because despite all the failures that litter the first-round history of the Canadiens, we have the sense that this kid will be worth the wait.

jacktodd46@yahoo.com

 
 
 
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Your voice
Will the Canadiens make it out of the first round?
 
Yes, book it
No, Tampa wins
Don't know
Where are my golf clubs?