For a young player dreaming of reaching the NHL, one of the biggest steps to achieving that goal is getting picked by a team, and I’ll never forget my draft experience in 1995.
I was projected to be picked late in the first round or early in the second, but the draft is an unpredictable beast. Sometimes what’s expected and what actually happens are two very different things. And, until your name is called, you’re a mess of emotions. We’ve all seen the players who were supposed to be drafted, waiting patiently for their name to be called, with their family sitting by their side, only to never be selected. That must be an awful feeling.
In my day, most players arrived a couple days before the actual draft to do interviews or, sometimes, physical testing – all these appointments were planned by your agent and the teams. The fact that we, as players, know that the interviews and testing can make the difference between you and another player, we know we have to do well, and the pressure is immense.
I met a lot of teams before my draft and did a lot of testing. And it was actually the first time in my career that I had to take a drug test. I was 17 years old, standing 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds with nine percent body fat. Many teams couldn’t wrap their heads around it, so they needed to be sure I wasn’t taking steroids. That didn’t bother me one bit – I took it as a compliment. That said, at that age, it was weird to have someone watch you pee into a cup. I also did a lot of physical tests, and those were my favorites. During the summer, all I did was train. I didn’t go out, I didn’t drink. I was dedicated to ensuring I’d impress everyone with my conditioning. And I did.
My draft was held at the Northlands Coliseum in Edmonton, and sitting in the stands was a great experience. Seeing all those other young hopefuls around me, waiting to get drafted, was awesome. In your mind, you want everyone to hear their name called, but you hope you will be first. It’s a pride thing, of course, but the earlier you get drafted, the bigger the signing bonus. And, more importantly, the sooner you get drafted, the better your chance is of making the team. Even though there are a lot of great undrafted players who played in the NHL, there are politics in hockey: the sooner you get drafted, the more the team will be patient with you and give you more opportunities. Whenever you get picked, you hope to get drafted by a team that does not have depth at the position you play. For me, it was a little different, since I was going to be an enforcer. It didn’t matter where I was going – I was going to have to be ready to be a gladiator and fight my way in.
I was drafted 31st overall by the Oilers, which made the day even more special because of the reaction of the home crowd. I went on the stage and had my picture taken in an Oilers jersey with Glen Sather at my side. I’ll never forget that moment. When I met the trainers, however, I did the stupidest thing. They asked me which number I wanted, and I said No. 27 because it’s my favorite number. I wore it when playing youth hockey and in the QMJHL, so the number meant a lot to me. Equipment manager Lyle Kulchisky – who everyone knows as ‘Sparky’ – said, with a grin, that he would save the number for me. I didn’t understand his reaction at the time, but later I learned that was the number donned by legendary Wayne Gretzky protector Dave Semenko. I must have seemed like a cocky kid who thought I was going to be able to fill Semenko’s shoes. I felt like a complete idiot, but it was too late to change my mind. Thank God I didn’t shame that number, doing the hardest job in professional sports.
That night in Edmonton, I went out partying to celebrate. It was surreal. I was going to be an Oiler! I was scheduled to fly back home to Montreal the next day, but the team asked me and first-rounder Steve Kelly to stay another week so they could give us a training program. Of course, we agreed.
The next day, they put us in training gear and we headed to a running track where we met the team’s training coach, Curt Brackenbury, a former NHLer who was doing a triathlon. He put us through one helluva workout. Steve and I weren’t expecting this, and we felt sick from all the partying the night before. Curt trained us hard for that full week, and let me tell you, I was anxious to get back home – not only to escape the pain, but to revel with friends after one of the most amazing weeks of my life.