If I hadn’t been there, I would have never guessed that there had been a major sports draft held at the Nationwide Arena today. Everything is back to life as usual in the arena district, which is to say, the bars are working, there are no hockey jerseys to be seen, and the arena itself is shut down.
Not that there is any reason to worry. The draft happened to be scheduled at the same time as Comfest, a multi-day food, beer and music festival, and also at the same time as the Gay Pride celebration. Columbus likes to party, and only a few blocks from the arena, the party is still in full swing. Walking around the arena district at 9:00 at night, I felt very alone, being the only one wearing a hockey jersey. The occasional group would walk by with a weak “Go Blue Jackets,” but you could tell their minds were on dancing, plastic mugs filled with cheap beer, and the late night bravado only a popular street festival could bring, not hockey.
It is a far cry from only eleven hours ago, when the second round started, and the flair gave way to speedy picks, mispronounced names, weak applause for the few picks who were around, and jeering on a slightly smaller scale afforded a Leafs – Ducks mid-season game. Those who were there had a great time, but walking into the arena, you knew the main event was over. The press tables, busy with activity and near jogging to get to stories, was only half full. The upper seating bowl was closed off, affording the faithful a closer look than the night before, but with the understanding that they were the only ones who cared. Rounds passed by at a clip so fast and expected, that when the Ottawa Senators called a time out in the sixth round, the crowd booed them for slowing down the pace. By 2:30 the draft was over, and the party was ready to move down the street.
Columbus did a great job of putting on the draft. Player signings, helpful staff, every need taken care of for the fan. When the draft ended, the NHL thanked everyone who made the draft possible, excluding the fans themselves. The Jackets did not forget their fans, and poured out the thanks, in words and in actions. If anything, Columbus will be keeping the fans who attended for a long time.
The players, media, staff, most everyone who flew in for the draft are gone, deciding to go home and be around their families or in their comfort zones before the next crazy period starts up, only a week away. I can tell you that the Toronto Sun still has a few people here, as I just ran into them as I was leaving the bar. I would have gone home too, but I stayed to the bitter end, and saw the Jackets draft the last pick. There aren’t that many people who can say that. I know, I saw them there. If I had left before it was over, I would have kicked myself for it. For my first draft, I had an amazing time.
The draft made me feel like I was involved in hockey again. I haven’t felt so involved since the end of the Avalanche season. Sure, I cared about the Stanley Cup Playoffs and Finals, I was riveted, glued to my seat, and was ecstatic that the Ducks won it all. But being at the draft, being there with the players, the fans, the media, shaking the hands of a few of the draftees, touching the Stanley Cup, it made me feel like hockey was back on, like it hadn’t shut down for the year. I thought last offseason was long, I can’t imagine what it will be like this time around.
There is a Rangers fan in the hotel bar. Thursday night, he was coherent and chatty. Tonight, I asked him if he had a good time. He said, “No.” He was unhappy with the Cherepanov pick, saying the kid has no defense, and that he is snotty about hockey like most Russians (not my stance, but OK, whatever). The Rangers fan was tired, you could see it in his eyes, and more than a little mad about what had happened at the draft. To come all this way, pay for a hotel and whatever travel, he didn’t get the things he thought the team he loves needed. I was ready to go to my room, and excused myself to pack, early flight and all that. As I left, I told him to take care, and he said to me, “Hey, see you next year.” That is a happy Rangers fan. Great Draft.