Prospects luncheon highlights busy day


Tonight, the top 12 should find out which team will select them in the first round of the NHL draft


The National Hockey League billed it as a proper noun, and a very proper event the Top Prospects media luncheon was.

What it was, in fact, was the fifth estate shooting fish in a barrel at a hotel just a slapshot from the arena where tonight and Saturday NHL dreams will be both realized and crushed.

At a buffet, the stampede usually is to the prime rib; Thursday was no different. The choice cuts among a dozen players were John Tavares and Victor Hedman, almost surely the No. 1 and 2 picks, if not necessarily in that order, in tonight's first round of the NHL entry draft.

For months, sharpshooting Tavares and blue-line pillar Hedman have been the toast of international scouting reports. If not head and shoulders atop this year's draft-eligible class, they're clearly the brightest names on the marquee.

In fact, they hit the jackpot -- if one of terms undisclosed -- just for dropping in. Montreal-based Reebok-CCM on Thursday announced the two had been signed to multi-year stick and skate deals, Hedman also to have his own brand of running shoe sold in his native Sweden.

It seemed a thousand degrees below zero the last time the NHL invaded Montreal, in late January for festivities of the league's 57th all-star game. Thursday scorched the soles of your feet if you stood in one place too long--not that you could, given all that was going on around town.

Early morning saw Mike Babcock named head coach of Canada's Vancouver 2010 Olympic hockey staff, with Jacques Lemaire, Lindy Ruff and Ken Hitchcock soon to be fitted for a five-ringed wardrobe as his assistants.

Mid-afternoon saw a gaggle of top prospects, including Tavares and Hedman, conduct a clinic for young players at the Montreal Canadiens' training facility.

Invisibly, GMs and other team executives were working the phones, modern-day Monty Halls playing Let's Make A Deal while hoping not to get zonked.

The meat in this sandwich was the downtown luncheon, "feeding time at the zoo," a description never better used. The 12 nattily dressed teenagers, perched on chairs around a packed ballroom, were introduced by video clips sprinkled with cavity-inducing praise and more adjectives than allowed by law. Each then was briefly interviewed by TSN hockey analyst Pierre McGuire, with everyone suggesting it would be an honour to be drafted by any of the 30 NHL clubs that will dip their lines into a fine 2009 talent pool.

Where other draft-eligible players have been blips of various sizes on scouting radars heading into this draft, Tavares consistently has been a large smudge. The obscenely gifted centre has lit up the Ontario Hockey League the last four seasons. Now he's viewed as the complete package around whom many NHL teams could build a potent offence-- as soon as immediately--and sell tickets by the bushel.

If Tavares has had scouts salivating for years, Hedman is a relative newcomer. The six-foot-six, 220-pound defenceman from Omnskoldsvik, Sweden, has most recently used his size to advantage among players nearly twice his age in the Swedish Elite League, coveted on this side of the pond for a fluid mobility and puck sense usually seen in a smaller body.

Should tonight's first-round draft order remain intact, barring teams trading picks, then the New York Islanders, choosing first, and Tampa Bay Lightning, up next, should leave Montreal with Tavares and Hedman in their organizations.

"It's always been my dream to play in the NHL," Tavares said on Thursday, as polished with a quote as he is with a puck. "(Tonight) is one step toward that. There's still a lot of work to be done, but the most exciting thing for me will be when my name is called."

One seat to Tavares's left sat Hedman, who is here with his parents, older brothers and his girlfriend.

"I had a couple friends who were drafted last year," Hedman said. "They told me it was the best moment of their lives, and I'm 100 per cent it will be the same for me."

There will be surprises, laughter, tears and drama. When the stage is torn down on Saturday night, more than 200 young men will set sail into uncharted waters. We'll see some in the NHL this fall; others will never make the grade.

But all will remember a sizzling June in Montreal. It's where John Tavares and Victor Hedman and many more will have begun what should be a remarkable journey.

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