When Hockey Dreams Meet Reality

With the NHL Draft coming up tomorrow, there’s a ton of focus on the top picks. Teams and fans are salivating over the prospect of adding defenceman Aaron Ekblad, or centres Sam Bennet and Sam Reinhart to their roster. The sports radio station in Vancouver has been hypothesizing all the ways that the Canucks can trade to get the first pick. But I suspect that sports pundits in every NHL city but Miami are hypothesizing the same thing.

Lots of crazed fans even watch the draft—not me of course(cough, cough). Most only pay attention to the first round. What about the later rounds?

I recently flew to Montréal and one of my entertainment options was a National Film Board feature on junior hockey. Naturally, I chose that. As an aside, what could be more Canadian than flying Air Canada and watching an NFB film on hockey? Oh, it was bilingual too. The film is called Junior and it follows a Quebec junior team called Drakkar Baie Comeau for one season. The focus is mainly on a couple of players who are in their draft year and working hard to get noticed. It begins at with the first win of the season and concludes at the draft where only one of the players is selected—in the last round. If you’d like to watch this movie, which is mainly en français, you can see it online here.

While watching, I thought it was a fictional movie where they combine real footage with filmed segments—in part because there was so much emotion and the central player was quite good-looking. But it turned out to be a documentary, and all the emotion was completely real. The players, who range in age from 16 to 20, have the bodies of men, but the minds of young boys. There was a lot of crying, not only about losing games, but about getting traded, not playing enough, or even being lonely. The players are all under a ton of  pressure, and they are far from home and without family support. They have to perform for the team, their agents, and for the NHL scouts. Sometimes those goals are in conflict. But the main goal is always the same: getting drafted.

Superfans  analyze past drafts and moan about the players their team shoulda, coulda, woulda taken. But in reality not everyone in the first round even makes the NHL, and if you’re drafted in the later rounds, it’s a complete crapshoot.

This movie allowed me to see the pain of being an extremely talented player who was used to being the best, made tons of sacrifices and then had his dreams shattered in one day. If you’ve always believed youd play pro hockey, what happens when that dream is exploded? Its this human drama that always inspires me, both to watch sports and to write about sports.
Of course, you can keep hoping. As the hero of my upcoming book says, And there was one guy who went to our school, he got taken in the last round of the draft and he still made it to the NHL. You couldn’t ever give up.” He is referring to the real-life David Jones of North Vancouver, who was the last pick of the Colorado Avalanche and still made it to the NHL. He is currently playing for the Calgary Flames. But he never played Major Junior, he stayed at home and played Junior A, went on to an Ivy League college, and then made the NHL. He obviously didn't count on playing in the NHL. 

Maybe the better message is to keep those dreams, but have a backup plan. If you watch the draft, spare a thought for those lower round guys out sweating it out in the stands.