That time I hung out with Phil Kessel

Before my first introduction to working with the Canucks, I had the chance to be involved in another major NHL event in the annual NHL Draft.

The story coming out on Saturday from The Province’s Jeff Paterson on this event possibly returning to Vancouver as part of the Canucks’ 50th anniversary celebration had me taking a trip down memory lane back to 2006 when the event was here last.

That summer I submitted an application to volunteer for the event and was assigned to be one of the player guides/handlers that you might spot on the side of the screen if you’re watching the coverage on television.

As soon as a player gets drafted, he’s assigned a guide that helps him navigate through all his obligations once he’s finished the process of going up on stage, taken his picture, stopped for a quick interview with the host broadcaster, and met all the executives from the team that now owns his rights.

Those obligations include things like getting (multiple) photos taken, doing online chats with, signing paraphernalia, and a whole host of other things that I can’t recall now.

Back in 2006, the NHL opted to do the Draft entirely in one day (usually it is spread out over two). I can’t say for certain whether that made a difference for the volunteers compared to their normal two-day event. For me it meant that, on that particular day, I had the chance to meet three NHL hopefuls.

The latter two individuals I met that day were Tomas Káňa, a second round selection of the St. Louis Blues, and John Armstrong, a third round selection of the Calgary Flames. Neither of them panned out in the NHL. They combined for just six career NHL games to date, all of them belonging to Káňa, but on that day both of them were VIPs.

The first one, as you’ve surmised by now from the title of his blog, is a guy that has carved out quite a nice career for himself in the NHL and has a chance to soon become a multi-time Stanley Cup champion.

I can recall many in our group of volunteers wanting to be picked to guide the Canucks’ draft pick – 14th overall that year, which turned out to be Michael Grabner (talk about the one that got away) – but I thought it was pretty cool I got tabbed for that fifth overall pick that ended up being Phil Kessel.

Kessel was highly hyped entering the Draft that year. He was the American that, as a 17-year-old, lit up the world junior tournament a year before he was Draft eligible and at one point was considered as a potential first overall pick. As I recall, his stock dipped ever so slightly in his Draft year and that’s why he fell to fifth.

The Bruins, though, were fortunate enough to nab a player who they felt could be the new face of their franchise and perhaps one of the early steals of the Draft.

Kessel was supposed to accompany me to the backstage area as soon as he had a quick introduction to the management seated at the Bruins’ table. But I found myself waiting and waiting before I finally was able to lead him to the backstage area because the Bruins’ PR person had him conducting interview after interview over the phone with, I suspect, the team’s local media back in Beantown.

As an aside, if you’ve ever wanted to see hockey PR people in action, volunteer at a Draft. They may be some of the busiest people you’ll meet.

Needless to say it took us quite a while before we finally headed backstage and, at that point, we were lumped in with the mid-round picks in the queue. The players drafted around Kessel – guys like Erik Johnson, Jordan Staal, Jonathan Toews, Nicklas Backstrom, Derrick Brassard, and Kyle Okposo – were long gone.

It was interesting listening to some of the banter between the newly drafted players as they awaited their next photo shoot or media obligation. Some of those guys have played with, or against, each other and some of them may just meeting for the first time. But on that day, all of them were part of a something special.

I recall Boston’s PR person following Kessel and myself pretty much throughout the entire process which took nearly three hours. In fact, it was only when we were just walking on the concourse at General Motors Place (now Rogers Arena) over to the area where Kessel was to meet up with his family when she had to abruptly leave.
She had a pretty good reason though.

As we were walking, Gary Bettman’s unmistakable voice suddenly blasts over the PA system. I may be paraphrasing ever-so-slightly but it went something like…

“We have a trade to announce. The Toronto Maple Leafs trade Tuukka Rask to the Boston Bruins for Andrew Raycroft.”

With that she suddenly stopped and said, “I’ve got to go. We just made a big trade. You know where to take him, right?”

I guided Phil over to the area where he met his family, congratulated him again and wished him well.

I wish I had more mementos from that time. The entire volunteer group did take a picture up on the Draft stage at the end of the day but this being the pre-smartphone era (okay, before MY smartphone era), I never did see that picture.

I still have the polo shirt that was the uniform for the day though, in addition to this cool story to tell.


I’m sure Kessel will never forget the day he was drafted. I won’t either.

Cover photo: Flickr, John Biehler