If you ask most hockey fans, they'll tell you the most exciting time of the year is the playoffs.... and the reason for this is because they don't watch the majority of games during the regular season.
The slightly more passionate fan will begin getting excited at the beginning of the season - ready to go through another 82 game grind, anticipating the sure victory that awaits their particular club that season with the kind of unbridled optimism a 0-0-0 record can bring.
Going to the more devout fan shows an excitement for two extra days on the calender - the trade deadline, usually around the last week of February to the first week of March, where they can watch their team either acquire high priced but high octane additions to their team to further galvanize their chances at Lord Stanley's mug, or watch their fledgling team sell off their veteran assets for draft picks and prospects in hopes of planting the seeds of a brighter tomorrow. The second of these days is Canada Day, the opening day of free agency where teams open their wallets to go to the market and buy that missing ingriedient to a championship recipe. Of course, this is also the day whe most mistakes are made as a General Manager, so optimism must be guarded.
Let me be the first to say, I am a part of all these fans. I take the day off on trade deadline day and camp out in front of my TV with my laptop for the duration, sending messages to friends and colleagues to keep them up to speed. I also love free agency day, and eagerly anticipate the beginning of the season.... playoffs however, as a Leafs fan, have been sorely lacking from my repertoire.
These are all great, but a true hockey fan they do not make. It is on a day like this Friday that the true futures of franchises are born, where hope truly does spring eternal, and where us real puckheads find true alliance with our fanatical bretheren.
That's right, folks - it's draft weekend.
To be knowledgeable about hockey is easy. Listen to the morning radio show. Read the newspaper. Watch a game or two. Put these together, and you pretty much know the current state of your team. To be knowledgeable about the draft however, at least past the first or possibly second overall picks, is a different animal altogether. This is where you don't just follow one team, you follow hundreds.
Reading scouting reports. Watching junior games. Tracking development and stats. Tuning into the World Junior Championships on Boxing Day and watching not just the Canada games, but every Latvia vs. Switzerland and Germany vs. Slovakia as well, and actually evaluating these 18-20 year old players on what they could do in the bigs. Memorial Cup? You can bet on some springtime action there too.
Follow just the NHL? Try the Canadian Hockey League, which is actually made up of the Ontario Hockey League, Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, and the Western Hockey League. Ditto the NCAA and Frozen Four tournament. How about the US National Training and Development Program? To get really familiar, you're also looking at the smaller leagues, such as the BCHL and the USHL.
That's just for North America though - and we all know that hockey is an international sport. Better be prepared to add the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia, Swedish Elite League, SM-Liiga in Finland, Deutsch Extra Liga in Germany... and all their junior divisions (i.e. SEL Jr., Russia-2, Russia-3, Allsvenskan, etc.)
We're talking hundreds and hundreds of players. But what use is it in terms of the draft? Well, let's go back to knowing the NHL - do you know what the needs of those other teams are? You may have your team and know them very well, but do you know what the goaltending pipeline is for the San Jose Sharks? How about the depth on gritty left wingers for the Nashville Predators? The Ottawa Senators have drafted defencemen in their last two first rounds.... will they go for a forward this time?
This is the level of knowledge required to be a draft guy. A true fan of the sport, and not just the league. Draft day is an incredible thing as you see the stars of the future take their first steps as an NHL prospect, and getting a vision of where your team might be in a few years. Better yet, a draft brings together many hockey fans who are "birds of a feather" - at this point, you don't have guys who just know their team, you have guys who KNOW hockey, and with that comes a great mutual respect.
I've been fortunate enough to have been at the draft in 2008 and 2009 - I was also there in 2002, but that was a very different experience. In both of these cities, Ottawa and Montreal respectively who have an extreme lust to hate on the blue and white, I was not disappointed in the pure hockey fans that were there. Did I get shots for being a Leafs fan? Of course, comes with the territory, but it isn't personal. These were great people I could sit and discuss why a guy fell from the projected 3rd round to the 6th, or marvel at the either stupidity of brilliance of a GM taking a guy in the 2nd round when he wasn't supposed to go until the 5th.
Although I'm unable to go this year (convincing my wife to let me go to Ottawa and Montreal alone was difficult, Los Angeles would have been a suicide mission), I will enjoy it at home, and am grateful I'm on a few message boards that boast a strong, loyal core of knowledgeable hockey fans of all ages, from the college kids to the grandpas.
Yup, it's draft time again. And it couldn't be better.