The NHL draft wrapped up a hectic month around the NHL, and for the top picks, it was an absolute whirlwind of activity. To get some perspective on what life has been like for John Tavares, Victor Hedman and Matt Duchene, I spent draft day with Zach Bogosian, who is one year removed from being chosen third overall by the Atlanta Thrashers and is still just 18 years old.
Relaxed and refreshed after participating in the World Championships for Team USA, Bogosian was in Atlanta for two days to work with kids at the Thrashers Hockey Camp and attend the team's sponsored draft party. At this time last year, Bogosian and the other projected top five picks were introduced at the 2008 Stanley Cup Final with press conferences and meet-and-greets that included the captains representing the finalists -- Nick Lidstrom of the Red Wings and Sidney Crosby of the Penguins.
"Meeting them was pretty cool, and Don Cherry too," Bogosian says. "But, yeah, my schedule was ridiculous. After getting knocked out of the (OHL) playoffs, I took three days off before training for the draft combines. Those were the hardest workouts of my life. Then I was in Atlanta for the prospect camp and the real drain was two weeks at the Team USA camp. That was long. Then it was a quick turnaround and right to Traverse City for the rookie tournament and then the Thrashers' main camp."
Whirlwind for sure, for all high draft picks these days. According to Bogosian, though, the draft itself was the easiest part. "The night before, (Executive VP/ General Manager Don Waddell) called me to his room for a meeting. It lasted all of five minutes. He told me that if I was still there at three, he was taking me. I felt sure that it would work out. I only had about twelve pre-draft interviews and my meeting with the Kings, who were picking second, had a different vibe. I didn't feel a connection. After meeting with Don, I went to bed easy that night."
Bogosian offered up his take on the head of the class of 2009: "Tavares is a strong player. He has been ready for this for a long time. He and I had a pretty good personal rivalry going, with me in Peterborough and him in Oshawa -- two teams in the OHL that don't like each other anyway. Hedman is really smooth and has good hands and he is really big. Duchesne is good in all zones and he's fast, really fast. They're all really good players."
So is Bogosian, who had a remarkable second half after breaking his leg early in his rookie season. It was almost as if the time off did him good after the non-stop hockey treadmill he was on. But things happen fast for all of the top players today and they must take everything in stride as so much besides simply playing the game will continually come their way.
The Lightning built their preseason ad campaign around top overall pick Steve Stamkos last year, just like the Islanders are planning with Tavares this summer, and that can certainly up the pressure. The Avalanche took Duchesne with the third pick, and that was followed immediately by a correspondence announcing his endorsement deal with Reebok. In today's order of things, public consumption pre-dates a player's inaugural NHL game, and that, too, intensifies the demands on a young player whose primary job is to ready himself for the biggest challenges of his hockey life.
Total immersion in the business side of hockey is the order of the day for all top prospects and the summer is full right up until training camp. Then they must clear their heads and begin to focus entirely on the game. Time off is rare, as are opportunities to simply act their age.
At the Thrashers Hockey Camp, Bogosian looked at ease as the instructor and was gracious during off-ice autograph sessions. Still, his big kid moments shone through, as he raced every eight-year-old in an off-ice obstacle course, sweating and grinning like a camper himself. With the older group, the fact that some of the skaters were only four years his junior wasn't lost on him, prompting Bogosian to admit, "That's pretty wild."
True. For the best of the best, the road to the NHL is a stiff test in and of itself. After the draft whirlwind, the grind really starts as the spotlight comes on and the pressure to respond to huge expectations begins. It's easy to see why someone like Bogosian would relish a little time to simply be a kid again.