Sunday, June 14, 2009

Hopes and Hindsight: Twenty Years Later

Once upon a time...lets call it June, 1989...there was an eighteen-year-old hockey player with stars in his eyes and a first-round ranking in the upcoming NHL draft. The kid was a francophone defenceman from Montreal; not a huge guy, but a dynamic offensive force and powerplay quarterback for his team in the Q. The kid talked to Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Hartford before the draft, but since the Whalers had already sent him a team cap and jersey and verbally expressed interest in making him their first-round pick, he was all set to join the Whale. That's what was going on behind the scenes.

In public, the fans and media were clamouring for the team to draft a hometown boy. The Canadiens were picking thirteenth overall, and there was an exciting Montreal-born prospect ranked fifteenth. When the Canadiens' turn came, surprisingly, the local boy was still available, having been passed over by the Whalers who had said they planned to take him at the number ten spot. The Whalers picked Bobby Holik instead. The kid's heart jumped when Habs' GM Serge Savard stepped up to the mic and announced "The Montreal Canadiens are pleased to select...from the Seattle Thunderbirds, Lindsay Vallis." Then, he thought for sure Buffalo would take him at fourteenth, but again, it didn't happen. The first round ended, and the fifteenth-ranked pick was still there.

In the end, the Canadiens, picking in the second round at number thirty overall, called his name...and Patrice Brisebois became a Hab. Fans were thrilled their team landed the best Quebec-born prospect in the draft, and in the second round too. He was a steal. Back then, twenty years ago this draft, Brisebois was over the moon to be chosen by his hometown team. He said, "I'm so happy! From the age of five, every Saturday night I watched the Canadiens on television. I knew everything about the club. And now I've been drafted by the Montreal Canadiens. I can hardly believe it!" He went on to talk about the sacrifices he'd have to make to make the big time and how he was willing to do whatever it took to be an NHL player.

Remembering the starry-eyed kid Brisebois was back then, and knowing now how things worked out for him, twenty years of hindsight should be able to give us a bit of perspective on this year's draft. The kid who was ranked fifteenth overall, with such high hopes piled on his future, went on to become a serviceable, if fairly soft, fairly risky, NHL defenceman with a nice point shot. Still, out of the sixteen QMJHL players chosen in the twelve rounds of the 1989 draft, Breezer played the most games in the NHL and was the only one to play a real role in winning a Stanley Cup. (Andre Racicot, also drafted by the Habs in 1989, was backup to Patrick Roy in 1993, but played only one period, giving up two goals on nine shots.)

It just goes to show that the draft is a crap shoot. I'm sure the Habs thought their first pick twenty years ago, Lindsay Vallis, would be the big, strong offensive forward they've been looking for ever since. And nobody thought much of it when the Red Wings drafted a smallish defenceman from Sweden in the third round. Nicklas Lidstrom has won four Cups, a Conn Smythe and six Stanley Cups since.

I recently rediscovered a book written about junior hockey players and their struggle to make the big time. It profiled six players who would go on to play in the '89 Memorial Cup playoffs, and the dream of every one of them was to make an NHL team. Four of them...Mike Ricci, Donald Audette, John Tanner and Breezer...did. The other two never came close. So many things can ruin a player's chances at a hockey career. An untimely injury, a coach who doesn't help him develop properly, a bad supporting cast, lots of heart and not enough talent: any of those can end a dream before it's realized.

In the book, Brisebois...the bright-eyed, big-dreaming version...writes with wonder about getting a chance to play in SaskPlace for the first time. He enthuses about how great it was to stay in the Holiday Inn, and how good the meals were there. Yet he wasn't naive enough to think getting drafted was the end of the hard work and sacrifice for him.

We look at Brisebois now and forget he was that kid twenty years ago. Now he's a grizzled veteran of 1009 NHL games whose career is probably over. Maybe he wasn't what he was projected to be back then, but he made something of his opportunity and played to the best of his ability. He might not have been a star, but he was useful.

So, this year, when the draft opens up and we all cross our fingers hoping the Habs will pick our favourites, remember the Breezer. A lot of fans are shouting for the Canadiens to trade up and pick Louis Leblanc, or take Jordan Caron, because the draft is in Montreal and they want a francophone pick. One of those guys might be the best player available when Bob Gainey goes to the mic. They'll likely be hoping to hear their names called by their childhood favourite team. And, let's say one of them does get picked. He might be Lindsay Vallis, who plays one game in the NHL...or he might be a useful, dedicated player like Brisebois. Maybe he'll be a star. The point is, we never know how a draft pick will pan out.

I just hope people remember every one of the kids whose names will be called in Montreal is the living embodiment of hope and promise. Some of them will live up to the hype, but most won't. Maybe the Habs' guy will be a diamond in the rough, like Lidstrom. Maybe he'll be someone who never lives up to his ranking, but, like Brisebois, can help contribute to a winning team. Whoever he turns out to be, francophone or not, I hope the fans cheer for him and welcome him and his dream to the Canadiens. That day will be one of the most important days of his life. Let him take good memories away from the Bell Centre, because that may be all he ever has of the NHL. Or it may be the first NHL moment in a long career he'll remember forever.

At least the Breezer got a Cup before he was booed out of Montreal.


Labradorman said...

Thanks for the great articles you have written! I appreciate the amount of research you have done and hope you continue writing next season and hopefully, OUR HABS will do much better than they did this past season.

punkster said...

I found that touching, J.T. While I, too, have used our Breeze to poke fun, make light, etc. during this trying year I've never booed him or dumped on him. He's a true pro and he has my respect. And I envy him. I mean, just think of it; a good career spent (mostly) with your favorite team and your name on The Cup. That deserves a standing "O".

Number31 said...

Oh Breezer...sure I've made fun of him, I even have a tag or two dedicated to him, but he's Breezer! A guy like him to have gone over 1000 games is quite an achievement, and no one has his great attitude. He's basically like a locker room mascot. He's a great guy who just gives us heart attacks sometimes. But we still love him. Whatever he does next year, more power to him. And whoever the Habs pick first, good luck to them. Some people really just fail to realize what the road is like and how the draft works. I'm so tired of hearing "well we could have had this awesome guy instead of this guy" disregarding the fact that who knows how said player would have panned out in another system, never mind that there are 29 other teams picking kids too.

pierre said...

Personally I think the more money an organization spend into it's scouting departement the better the results are in the end.

Not all scouts are equals and the best of them like Andre Savard or Neil Smith or Ken Holland sometime ended up being GM at some point in their careers.

Findind those talented hockey people and signing them as scouts is the best single thing a GM can do for the franchise..... the second good thing a GM should do is to have a higher number of scouts on their payroll than their competitors.

Quality scouting personal provide more successfull selections than their average counterparts while quantity of personals widen ereas being scouted and increases players exposures.

Jim Devellano had both aspects of the scouting equation under control for the Wings in 89 and the result were dramatic to the franchise's futur with such mid to late round picks as Lidstrom, Federov and Konstantinov.

How good is our drafting under our organization compared with the rest of the ligue ?

An answer to that question should provide a solid clue about our futur.... both near or distant futur.

Lowell Williamson said...

It always confounded me as to why Breezer was kept from 1993 but Desjardins was given away. BTW, what was the name of the book on junior hockey players? Thanks.

J.T. said...

llwillia: The book was called "The Making of Champions," by Bob Olver, published in 1990. You might find a copy at your local used bookstore, or in the library. I think it's out of print now, but don't quote me on that!