OHL draft lost in the shuffle?

At some point, the Ontario Hockey League will realize the media tail wags the draft dog.

Reading the coverage how the Sarnia Sting plan to introduce the No. 1 overall pick, most likely forward Alex Galchenyuk, on Friday is cause to wonder if the OHL is denying its 20 teams a great opportunity for exposure by holding Saturday’s midget draft over the Internet.

The league knows there is interest in the draft, otherwise the Sting’s festivities would not be "carried on local radio and cable television … (and) simulcast live on the OHL’s online subscriber service." The contrast is stark between how the OHL proceeds—teams sending in their picks while prospective puck-chasers, parents and agents huddle around a computer with their cereal, toast, juice and coffee on Saturday morning—and how the two other leagues within the Canadian Hockey League go about their business. 

The WHL bantam draft, which took place Thursday, gets each club’s braintrust together in one place, allowing its media pals to get a chance to mingle and help sell hope. The QMJHL holds its draft on the first weekend of June, and draftees may attend.

Point being, there is a double whammy. The league not only passes on a chance to put its best foot forward—the players and teams—but it does so in the middle of the league final. The draft is coming in the midst of all three CHL league finals getting underway across the country. This spring, the Windsor-Barrie, Moncton-Saint John and Calgary-Tri-City finales each have terrific storylines and are filling arenas from coast to coast.

On top of that, there’s the fact all four of the big ball-and-stick leagues realized it’s good business to let the media row the boat by holding their first round in prime time. The NFL draft (held last week, and which included 17 prospects in attendance to shake hands with commish Roger Goodell in New York City ) might be an exercise in excess, but it’s ratings gold. Major League Baseball, which underplayed its draft for decades, televised it live for the first time in 2009 on the MLB Network (which, ahem, is still not available in Canada).

There was a time when OHL did conduct its draft in person. These days, Brett Gibson is one of the youngest head coaches in Canadian Interuniversity Sport as the bench boss of the Queen’s Golden Gaels in Kingston , Ont. In 1996, he was the first-ever draft choice of the Erie Otters, going No. 7 in the priority selection held at the Kitchener Memorial Auditorium.

Gibson, who played in the ECHL and CIS before going into coaching, is agreeable when asked if the OHL should follow the NFL’s lead and invite the top prospects (in this case, which would come from the OHL central scouting list).

"It could work if they did an invite-only first round," he said. "It usually goes as planned. It adds a lot of excitement to be there in person. The next day, on the Sunday, you could go on to the second round. It’s just my opinion. For some guys, it’s a big moment in their hockey careers. Only a select few get to go on to play in the NHL. It’s a big deal."

Gibson remembers every detail, all the "disappointment and excitement." Having played Junior A in Kingston as a 15-year-old (as the rules of the day allowed), he anticipated going No. 6 to the Kingston Frontenacs, who had shown a fair bit of interest. The Fronts took defenceman Kevin Grimes ("It’ll go to the grave with me," Gibson jokes). With the very next pick, Gibson went to a team which had just morphed from the Niagara Falls Thunder into the Erie Otters.

 

"I remember they had me put on a Niagara Falls jersey," said Gibson, whose Gaels coincidentally play at the Kingston Memorial Centre, which in ’96 was home to the Frontenacs. "About a hour later they found me a mock Erie jersey."

On top of the memories, there’s the marketing. The CHL has been insistent on holding the MasterCard Memorial Cup in larger markets when the tournament is in Ontario. Drafting in person could be a showcase event for some franchises which will likely never have a chance to host the tournament. For instance, the QMJHL took its draft to Cape Breton two years ago. It would be a small step toward addressing the perceived gap between the league’s haves and have-nots. 

Having the draft in, say, Owen Sound, could be a selling point for those teams. It would be a chance to introduce people to a community, not to mention fill up some hotel rooms and pack the restaurants.

The OHL has valid reasons for why it puts the draft smack-dab up against the final. One reason that is seldom mentioned is it gives parents an extra month to pick a new high school for their son. 

It’s not so clear the commonly cited reasons hold water. It is cost-effective, but the league has likely never been healthier financially. There is the whole aspect of not wanting 15- and 16-year-old players to feel crushed by being a low pick, but that could be addressed by inviting a select few players and their families.

It’s something for the OHL to consider as it competes for the sports fan dollar and attempts to brand itself as a big-league sports enterprise.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Sports Canada. You may contact him at neatesager[at]yahoo[dot]ca.

Updated Thursday, Apr 29, 2010