They might look calm and poised on the outside, but take it from someone who’s been there: All those kids waiting for their names to be called on NHL Draft day are a nervous wreck on the inside.
Beneath the nice suit and pleasant smile is a fireworks display of nerves and emotion.
Edmonton Oilers defenceman Darnell Nurse remembers being in one of those seats for the 2013 draft in New Jersey, waiting and wondering (agonizing, actually) over when he’d be picked and where he’d be going.
“There are a lot of butterflies,” said Nurse, who’s now four seasons into his NHL career. “You sit there waiting for that moment when they say, ‘We are proud to select …’ It seems like it takes 30 seconds for them to actually say the name. It kind of feels like you’re in a movie when you’re sitting there in the moment.
“But when your name is called and you’re picked to a team, there is a huge sense of relief. For me, it was a huge relief when I was chosen by Edmonton and a lot of excitement for what was coming next.”
Nurse, who went seventh overall, knows from hindsight that the actual draft is little more than ceremonial and has no impact on whether a kid will ever play in the league, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t thoroughly enjoy the ceremony.
“You realize all the hard work you’ve put in is going to lead to a life-changing event,” he said. “The draft is a way to appreciate and celebrate all of the hard work you’ve put in to get to that point.
“I was fortunate to have all of my family around and able to enjoy it with them, show my appreciation for all of the sacrifices they made for me.”
The build-up starts long before the selection process, though. It creeps into the back of their minds when their draft year begins and hits high gear at the NHL combine.
No matter how hard they try to ignore them, each set of draft rankings ramps up the anticipation.
“The information is so accessible these days that it’s hard not to follow what’s happening,” said Nurse. “And even if you’re not following it, somebody is telling you about it. The lists come out throughout the season and people will always be talking to you about it. There is always knowledge.”
With the NHL being such a vast landscape, the mystery of draft day — not knowing where he’s going to end up — is what impacts a player most.
The destinations range from major metropolitan centres in the U.S. and small markets in Canada to sun-baked cities on the beach and non-tradition franchises where hockey is third or fourth on the sporting-attention food chain. There are contenders and perennial losers. There are places close to home and places on the other side of the continent. All a player can do is sit and wait to see where he’s going.
“That’s the uncertainty. It’s stressful in a sense that you don’t know what’s coming next or where you’re going to play, but at the same time, you have to be excited about the opportunity,” said Nurse.
“There are sunny markets with great weather and there are cold markets that are really good hockey towns. There are benefits to every city. Just to have the opportunity to be a part of an organization is a privilege you can’t take for granted.”
Training camp in the fall is when the magnitude of what’s happening hits home. It gets real in a hurry when you go from being one of the best players in your draft class to being an 18-year-old rookie struggling to keep up with the best in the world.
“You’re playing against men. You have no idea until you’ve played against men who are trying to put food on the table,” said Nurse. “It’s not what you expect it to be, it’s a lot tougher.
“And you’re also trying to take someone’s job, and that’s never an easy thing to do, especially at 18 years old.”
That’s why these players are always reminded that putting on the ball cap and sweater and shaking hands with the GM doesn’t mean they’ve made it, only that somebody is going to give them a chance. Being drafted by an NHL team and playing for an NHL team are worlds apart.
“If you’re picked high there are going to be a lot of expectations,” he said. “But you have to put it all on the back burner and play because, no matter what number you are or where you were drafted, it doesn’t matter if you don’t put in the work and prepare yourself to get to the next level.”
Draft interviews a daunting experience for prospects
Nurse had 16 interviews spread out over two days at the NHL Draft and admits that while the psychological poking and prodding was something he prepared for, it was still a daunting experience.
“I had a couple of friends who’d been through it so I was pretty well prepared for it,” said Nurse. “But there were a lot of questions. Some of the interviews were easy; some were hard.
“Every team basically knows you as a player, they’ve all watched your games and it’s easy to pull tape, so they have a really good understanding of who you are as a player.
“When you sit down in those meetings, it’s more about getting to know you as a person, what you do off the ice, what your preparation is like, what motivates you to play hockey. It’s a look into who you are as a person.”
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