The difference between the NBA and the NHL drafts is the difference between a war room and a goalie-mask telephone. The NBA has war rooms, suggesting great men plotting grand strategies. The war rooms aren't at the draft site—in this year's case, the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis on June 29—but back at each franchise's home headquarters. The selections are relayed to team functionaries at the draft site by telephone.
But not, alas, by goalie-mask telephones. Goalie-mask phones are the province of the NHL, and during the league's '94 draft, on June 28 and 29, they adorned each of the 26 team tables at the Hartford Civic Center, where general managers, coaches and scouts sat in anticipation of making their picks like families awaiting their Thanksgiving turkeys. The NHL remains a mom-and-pop league, a perfect place for Ed Jovanovski.
Jovanovski was the first player drafted, taken by the Florida Panthers two days after his 18th birthday. A defenseman from the Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario (Junior) Hockey League, the 6'2", 205-pound Jovanovski is an aggressive player with good hands and small-town values whose major honor, until the moment Panther president Bill Torrey announced his selection, was having been voted Best Body Checker in the Emms Division by OHL coaches. Jovanovski, who a year ago was still playing Junior B, is the league's most obscure No. 1 pick since 1969, when Rejean Houle was chosen by the Montreal Canadiens. By the time Florida opens training camp in September, however, Jovanovski should have a long-term contract that will pay him about $2 million per year.
However, $2 million is less than half of what Glenn (Big Dog) Robinson's agent, Charles Tucker, says his client has already collected in endorsements alone as the No. 1 choice in the NBA draft. Selected by the Milwaukee Bucks, Robinson, a 6'7", 225-pound forward, was everybody's All-Everything at Purdue, and Tucker says that deals with a basketball manufacturer and a trading-card company are done. Soft-drink and electronic game tie-ins are also in the works, and discussions are under way with a shoe company. (How about: "Put Big Dogs on your tired dogs?") All this even before the 21-year-old Robinson, who left Purdue with one year of eligibility remaining, has agreed to a contract with Milwaukee. Chris Webber, last year's No. 1 selection, signed with the Golden State Warriors for $74 million over 15 years, and last week in Indianapolis, Tucker wouldn't squelch talk of Robinson's getting the first $100 million contract.
Come the fall—if life unfolds as it should—Robinson will be slashing to the basket and draining three-pointers for the rejuvenated Bucks. Come the fall—if life unfolds as it might—Jovanovski still will be sleeping in his own room in Windsor, gazing at posters of Brian Leetch and Doug Gilmour and Mario Lemieux and Bob Probert, and playing a second season of junior hockey for the Spitfires. He could be a franchise player someday. Today he is a project.
Hartford, June 28
The restaurant has sent over a glass of bubbly to Jovanovski, who is easy enough to spot. He is the only man in the place wearing a Florida Panther baseball cap. "To Ed, a future star," reads the accompanying note.
"What's this?" Jovanovski asks.
"Champagne," says his mother, Liljana.
Jovanovski takes a sip and grimaces. He is not a champagne guy. He drinks water or orange juice, although if he really wants to whoop it up, if he really wants to paint the town brown, he will have a glass of chocolate milk. Unfortunately for him, Max on Main has no chocolate milk on the menu.
"Last night I was thinking about playing with the big stars," says Jovanovski. "I was thinking of Sergei Fedorov coming down one-on-one on me. I was thinking of Bob Probert and all the tough guys I'll be playing against." Jovanovski exhales. "But I'm going to have to get used to it."
Jovanovski should have time. Almost all NHL draft choices do, returning to their junior, college or European-club teams for seasoning. The 1993 draft class was an exception. Six of its No. 1's played regularly last season, but that was due as much to the league's rapid expansion—five teams have been added since the 1991-92 season—as to the players' skill.
Jovanovski can score and move the puck to his forwards, he craves the rough stuff, and he has good straightaway speed, but his balance and his turning need work. Torrey rates Jovanovski's chances of going directly to the Panthers, who will be playing their second season in 1994-95, at 50-50. "I've got to make sure there's not too big a burden on him," says Torrey, who built the New York Islander dynasty of the early 1980s around defenseman Denis Potvin, whom he chose with the first pick in 1973. "He doesn't have that much experience. He didn't play hockey until he was 11."
Jovanovski had been a soccer player like his father, Kostadin, who played semipro in Macedonia. He and Liljana immigrated to Canada in 1973. Kostadin had no difficulty getting away for this year's draft; he has been laid off from his job on a General Motors assembly line in Windsor, across the border from Detroit, since last August. Liljana took a week's vacation from her job as a machine operator in a plastics shop.
Jovanovski has spent his entire hockey career in Windsor. With the hometown Spitfires last season he earned the standard OHL stipend of $40 a week. Another $60 for room and board went to pay for his billets, which happened to be provided by his parents. "Ed eats five meals a day," says Kostadin.
Ed has traveled little. He was floored by the number of taxis he saw in New York City during the Stanley Cup finals when he and other top prospects were brought in by the NHL. "New York—the place is a zoo," says Jovanovski, tearing at his steak in Max on Main. "All you hear are people yelling, 'Taxi! Taxi!' " He saw a baseball game at Yankee Stadium, but his big thrill before the draft was appearing en masse with other probable first-round picks on Don Cherry's "Coach's Corner" segment on Hockey Night in Canada. Jovanovski said, "Hi, Mom."
"Hey, Ed's on SportsCenter," a voice calls from the bar, and the family—besides his parents, an aunt, an uncle, a younger brother and a cousin accompanied him to Hartford—troops around the corner to catch a glimpse of the TV in the bar.
This is Jovanovski's SportsCenter moment. Last winter, when Robinson was scoring 30.3 points per game for the Boilermakers, Big Dog had more SportsCenter moments than Chris Berman. For his part, Jovanovski wasn't even invited to try out for the Canadian world junior team in December. But he threw some ferocious checks during the Chrysler Cup Challenge All-Star Game a month later, and suddenly his name was on the tip of hockey men's lips, even if they couldn't pronounce it. (It's Zhoh-van-AHV-skee.)
Torrey wanted "a wheelhorse" on the blue line, but the Panthers also liked Radek Bonk, the prospect top-rated by the NHL's Central Scouting Bureau. A precocious 18-year-old center from the Czech Republic, Bonk scored 42 goals last season for the Las Vegas Thunder of the International Hockey League. Torrey, however, opted for defense over offense. "Putting on the [Florida] sweater was the greatest birthday present," Jovanovski says. "This is a day I'll never forget. I like being recognized as the No. 1 pick."
"Have you heard of Glenn Robinson?" he is asked.
"Sure. Basketball player. Doesn't he play for Michigan?"
Indianapolis, June 29
At the NBA draft earlier in the evening, the hot topic was $100 million. Now subtract seven zeroes. Ten bucks. Tickets for the Glenn Robinson After-Draft Party at the Convention Center adjacent to the Hoosier Dome—a party that Convention Center workers say was organized by Tucker—are going for $10. "Going" might be overstating it. The bash, with two DJs, a cash bar and an appearance by Robinson, began at 10 p.m. At 10:30, fewer than 75 tickets have been sold. The room can accommodate upwards of 2,000 people.
"If he's making $100 million, this should be a freebie," says Joe Murzyn of Hammond, Ind., one town over from Gary, where Robinson grew up. "I watched him all through high school. I can't understand why he'd charge $10 when he'll be making $100 million."
The number seems outlandish. After all, the Rochester Royals used the No. 1 pick in 1956 to draft Sihugo Green of Duquesne because the player they liked, a center out of the University of San Francisco named Bill Russell, was asking for an exorbitant $25,000 per season. The draft was less sophisticated back then. Last week NBA director of scouting services Marty Blake told a TNT audience that when he came into the league in 1954, "People drafted out of magazines."
Now the magazine NBA players talk about is GQ. Robinson's new Milwaukee Buck cap was a bland accessory for a burnished gold suit, which was set off handsomely by his black alligator slip-ons and a diamond in his left ear. Before buying a suit like that for your own wardrobe, make sure you have a game. This is a tough look to pull off if you are not a first-rounder.
Robinson's suit is his billboard, but the rest of him is matter-of-fact. The only telltale clue of emotion is the lipstick smudge on his right cheek, which was left by his mother, Christine Bridgeman, after NBA commissioner David Stern had announced her son as the No. 1 pick. Robinson is polite if not quite engaging, controlled, very much a professional in interviews. He seems inured to the moment. Maybe he is overwhelmed, although there was never a doubt he would be chosen first. "I've never seen cameras in my face like this," Robinson said shortly after the Bucks picked him. "It's like [Michael] Jordan or the President. It's scary."
But this is his job now, just as in sixth grade his job was to go to the air-conditioning and refrigeration shop to help his surrogate father, Jesse Mack, carry tools and clean up. Mack would take care of him, slip him five bucks when he needed money. There isn't much difference between $5 and $5 million if you look at it a certain way. Robinson worked hard then and worked hard later, making his game as brilliant as his suit. "The only way you make money," he says, "is by working."
On the biggest day of his life, time dragged. Robinson was up early, at 7:00 or 7:30 in the morning, and caught a TV clip of the kid with a long name who had been selected first in the NHL draft the previous night. He went out and bought a hat. He messed around in the hotel lobby. The wait seemed endless.
Finally, as the draft droned on and others put on their team caps and shook Stern's hand, the interviews became just as interminable.
"Ready for cheese in Wisconsin?" a TV man asked.
Robinson seemed startled by the question, but the man explained that cheese and cheescheads are Wisconsin things, and that everybody asks if you're "ready for cheese."
O.K. It's cool. "I am ready," Robinson finally answered, "for anything."