BUFFALO, N.Y. —They are ordinary office landlines, really, billed by the company that makes them as “an integral feature of a complete, end-to-end business phone solution.” At least for the singular purpose they serve for the NHL draft, this is an adequate description.
Two of them sit on opposite sides of each table on the floor, capable only of dialing the other 29 teams, whose respective four-digit extensions are listed on a sheet of paper. The phones cannot, for instance, dial outside First Niagara Center and order pizza from Domino’s down the block. (An NHL spokesman was asked for clarification on this important matter.) They do, however, symbolize the flurry of activity typical among general managers, during these high-stakes two days. “It’s the heat of the action,” Panthers executive Dale Tallon says. “I enjoy that. It’s exciting. It’s different. You never know, from one phone call to the next, what can happen.”
No other professional sports outfit conducts its draft like the NHL, shoehorning so many power-brokers into one barricaded area where all the action happens. NBA and MLB officials, for instance, operate from team headquarters. For the NFL draft, meanwhile, clubs send several representatives to sit on the floor but otherwise keep executives at home. “The atmosphere is a lot different,” one Eastern Conference assistant GM says. “You’re guarded. You’re talking softly. It’s quite a spectacle, I think, to see it. We’re the only league where everybody’s under the same roof, in the same area.”
Indeed, GMs are acutely aware that they are being watched—by fans in the seats, by reporters in the risers, by colleagues on the floor. Hold a sidebar off to the side? Head into the stands to meet an agent? Return to the table with three cookies, two bags of chips and a pulled pork sandwich? Someone has taken note. Flyers GM Ron Hextall recalls someone once describing his phone demeanor as “animated.” He laughs. “I was not animated on the phone. I have no idea what they’re talking about or whatever…You guys love to see who’s talking to who, trying to figure out what’s going on. I’m like, ‘I’d rather use the phone, so you can’t see who I’m talking to.’”
Despite the NHL-provided list of numbers, and that the phone displays the name of the team calling, one can easily imagine misdials occurring amid the chaos. It probably doesn’t help, for instance, that alphabetical neighbors St. Louis and San Jose both employ general managers named Doug. “I’ve never done it, but it wouldn’t surprise me,” Hextall says. “Extensions 4503 or 4504, you’ve got different teams.” Hextall remembers one fellow GM who called a nearby table, forgetting that the assistant GM who answered the phone there had recently joined that team. “He thought he called the wrong team,” Hextall says.
Shenanigans are rare, but may happen more than we expect. “Wouldn’t you like to know?” Tallon says. “Some of it’s printable, some of it’s not.”
As Flames executive Brian Burke says, “sometimes you’ll call a guy after he picked and say, ‘You didn’t know about the knee surgery last week? Can’t believe you picked him,’”
After all, waiting between rounds can get boring. “It always kills me when the guys call a timeout in the seventh round,” the assistant GM says.
There are ways around the system, mostly localized to the backstage area where only team officials are allowed. “If you don’t want the media to see you talking, you’ll say, ‘I’ll meet you by the coffee, under the stands, five minutes, see you back there.’” Burke says. “Most of the time you don’t care, but if it’s something sensitive.” According to Burke, the two Dougs—St. Louis’s Armstrong and San Jose’s Wilson—are among the league’s most active callers.
“He’s calling you constantly,” Burke says of Wilson. “If you’ve got 42, he’ll call you at 35. It drives you nuts. You see the phone, it’s San Jose and you’re like, ‘Oh s--- it’s Doug.’”
All GMs surveyed agree, though, that most substantial conversations happen long before the suits convene. Burke still remembers how the framework of Hartford’s decision to leap six spots in the 1993 draft to nab Chris Pronger formed roughly one month in advance. “It happened on the floor, but all the work went back weeks,” Burke says. During Friday’s first round, many took notice of the frequent conversations between Washington’s Brian MacLellan and Montreal’s Marc Bergevin, which ultimately ended in forward Lars Eller headed to the Capitals. But MacLellan had spent the past year keeping tabs on Eller, periodically calling Bergevin to gauge his availability. “Part of it’s a feeling-out process, then things really heat up this week,” the assistant GM says. “The phones are always buzzing. It’s amazing.”
Okay, here comes the part where we acknowledge that 700-ish words have already been burned on an outdated form of technology. But perhaps that’s part of the fun. Even with colleagues seated nearby and cell phones even closer, the NHL draft still operates within a private calling system, set up by the league's IT department. (Unsurprisingly, no one in that department was available for an interview about landlines.) It's easier than wading through the sea of bodies, more discreet than popping over for a chat. It's how, as Burke might say, s--- gets done.
And for those actually punching the buttons and surveying the market, few days on the calendar are more intensely thrilling than Friday night and Saturday afternoon.
“It’s a day of unbridled hope,” Burke says. “All these guys you take, you’re convinced they can be players. Then you see the flotsam and jetsam three years later, and how many don’t work out. But that day, you’re excited about these players. It’s like Easter. It’s a day of hope for everybody in the congregation.”