The first big hockey pool I ever participated in was a family affair. I wasn't family but I got an invite. About 20 of us sat around a big living room in early October and waited our turn to pick twelve players. It's fun for a few rounds, then it gets difficult. Why isn't anyone picking this guy? If I pick him, will I be told he broke his leg at training camp? Retired maybe? OK, if I don't take him, which of these third-line guys should I take?
The NHL Entry Draft works the same way. NHL GMs take ages to decide which teenager is going to become the next diamond in the rough in five years. Once the big prospects are gone, viewers look for the poker repeats on the other channel. We'll get excited about the 124th pick scoring 25 goals in a breakout season...when he actually does it.
But each year, I particpate in a regular season and playoff hockey pool where everyone is actively involved all the time, from the first pick to the last. There's strategy throughout, decisions to make, but no cutthroat sneaky surprises about injuries or guys who have decided to play in Uzbekistan's league. It's as exciting at the end as it is at the beginning; actually, more so. What we do is simple: we (mostly) dispense with the notion of "turns" and auction all of the top players off in a random order.
Our computer guy (every pool has one, in ours it's me) prepares a list of about 160-170 players. For the 2012 playoff pool, thirteen entrants showed up, and we decided to pick 10 players (maximum) each, for 130 total picks. Because some players don't draw any bids, we add 10 more picks for a total of 140. If the Pass List gets more than ten players on it, it means we're going to run out of picks and someone is going to have to survive with only eleven players. The final list is 150 players, one for each pick plus ten more. The extra ten players on the list create an element of uncertainty: it might be Joe Thornton or Sidney Crosby that doesn't get drawn. But we have a way around that as well.
Before we start (and usually without the presence of a few habitual latecomers), we begin with a discussion about The List: Who comes off to get us down to 150? Is anyone missing that people want to see on The List? Once we have a consensus about who should be in, copies of The List are printed for everyone, including players ages and basic stats. You can come to our pool without any magazines at all and we give you the basic info you need. How you use it is up to you.
Each poolster starts with a total of 15,000 pool dollars. The minimum bid on any player is 300. All bids must be in even hundreds. (I'm not sure why we do this in hundreds; we could just as easily give everyone 150 pool bucks and make the minimum bid 3.) Spend it all because you don't get a refund for any leftover pool dollars. We put sheets on the wall where we list the players everyone has and the money they have left. We have bingo chips numbered 1-152 that go into a hat. We appoint an auctioneer for a small price. He can even participate in the pool if he wants to bid, but we each pay him a few bucks to be impartial when deciding who shouted out "19!" first.
The order from left to right that the team sheets are posted on the wall is the order of selection. Doesn't matter at all at the start; as people get eliminated the order gets as important as where the dealer button is in Texas Hold 'Em. The poolster whose turn it is (your turn is skipped if you have no pool money left or your team is already full) comes up and draws a number and announces it. (Recently we have appointed one person to do all the drawing to save time, but each group can do what they want.) Everyone looks up the number on their copy of The List and there is a short pause while we wait for the poolster whose turn it is to make a starting bid (or pass). Sometimes someone will ask a question about injuries or playing time. Saying someone's injured and then bidding 2000 is a sure giveaway that you're full of it. These days several of the group bring a computer and can access the latest information about a player, so there are no serious disadvantages here.
Once the starting bid is made, everyone can enter the fray at any time and make a bid: the auctioneer sorts things out. Everyone gets a turn to draw and start the bidding. In a playoff pool, after a few rounds it begins to be clear which poolsters are trying to stockpile which teams and that affects the bidding in a huge way. Sometimes poolsters have to go to Plan B, or Plan C, or even further down in the alphabet, just from what other people are hell-bent on spending their pool money to do. In a regular season pool, you can glean a surprising amount of information about which players will go for more than they are worth just by listening closely to the comments people make. If the first 60 players drawn include no Predators, pointing this out will quickly reveal who the Nashville fans in the group are.
Later on, people will get antsy when the pass list gets to eight or nine players, especially if they have only three or four players on their teams so far. The guy that has his whole team early (there's usually one done before another has half his team) will sit around and snipe about how cheap the rest of the players are going for, now that he's broke and cannot bid. That's always good for a laugh.
The final rule we have makes things very interesting at the end: any time it is your turn to draw a chip, once only during the draft, you may nominate a player instead of drawing. A nominated player can be one on The List that hasn't come out yet (when his number comes up later, it's a redraw for the poolster whose turn it is), or one off The List that you think should have been included. The person who nominates cannot pass, the minimum bid of 300 must be made, otherwise we'd have people nominating their grandmothers to kill a pick and force someone to go one short. In the endgame, the poolsters with the most pool money left can nominate the best player still in the hat, and use their remaining pool money to grab him...but they have to wait for their turn to do so. If you have the third-highest total in pool money, you might have to nominate someone who those with more money will not want. It turns into a real chess game at the end, especially when the pass list has more than ten players on it. With six picks left and seven poolsters left with one player to draft (one of which will go one player short), you might get another turn...or you might not: it's a nail biter to the end.
We've added a new rule recently: about twenty players on The List are pre-designated as marquee players and for those we write our bids down and hand them in. This saves time, because when the auctioneer has to say "going once, going twice" multiple times before the next bump, and you know the player's going to go for a couple of thousand more, it can take forever. The written-bids rule forces everyone to pay attention and try to figure out what others will think players were worth, so they won't overbid. (Some do anyway.)
Our pool scoring is simple: goals and assists only, no goalies or coaches or goons or position requirements. But there is no reason you couldn't add them in. You might want to put in a rule that someone who doesn't get all the required positions by the end has to replace the lowest (or, to increase the urgency, make it the third or fourth-lowest) valued pick he has.
In our 2012 playoff pool, the pass list got Jeff Carter (questionable when the season ended, and the Kings were a #8 seed going in). The first-round Flyers-Penguins series drew huge amounts of draft dollars, Malkin going for 5100, Crosby 4800, Hartnell 4000. With so many entries (usualy we have 8-10 and everyone gets 12 or 13 players, this year we were limited to 10) everyone was amazed at the amounts of some of the bids, compared to previous pools. It was more difficult than usual to stockpile players on one favoured team; those who did backed teams that went out (Chicago, Boston, Detroit). Some players were sold with the first bid, which always leaves the buyer wondering. With everyone involved, the draft was three hours of excitement and hilarious banter. Highlights were the auction between two of us that went "15!" "16!" "18!" "17!" Another surprising move was by one of our group who forgot that we were only drafting ten players this time, despite clear evidence on the wall in front of him for two hours, which led to him nominating and selecting Claude Giroux as his tenth guy after nine cheapies, for a breakthrough new all-time never-to-be-broken record of 9300 draft dollars! (We chose 9300 as our login word, of course!)
These drafts are wild and crazy and fun and strategic all at once. Every year is a new story. Which got me to thinking...
No more set draft order. Instead, give each team 200 draft dollars, minus 2 for every point they got in the previous regular season, minus 5 for making the playoffs, and minus 8 for every playoff series won. The best team would have about 20-35 draft dollars to spend; the worst would have about 65-75, a significant but not overwhelming advantage that would result in the lowest-ranked teams competing for the top prospects, while the stronger teams need to choose wisely where they spend their draft money. Instead of trading draft picks during the season, teams could trade draft dollars. (To adopt this system, the NHL would appoint an arbitrator to decide how many draft dollars previously-traded draft picks are worth.)
There are only seven rounds in the draft with 30 teams. Make Central Scouting's top 220 prospects into a list; give each team one nomination and seven slots to fill. Install an electronic system so that each team has a computer screen and two big buttons (one red, one blue) at their table. The system sorts out who made the latest bid first. Put a lotto machine on the stage beside Gary Bettman, with a connection to each red button. Get some models up there with him to colour things up. Sell the TV rights and hype it like Ken Jennings on Jeopardy. Off we go:
Columbus's last-place finish gives them the first turn. Gary Bettman introduces Columbus GM Scott Howson and the cameras focus in on him as he presses the red button at his table to start the lotto machine. A model removes the ball that comes out and gives it to Gary Bettman. "Ball number 47," Bettman announces, along with the player's name, position and junior team, and the cameras find the kid as he gets up and starts towards the stage, where the display behind Bettman shows his picture and some choice highlights.
Back to the Columbus GM we go, who has ninety seconds to decide on a starting bid. The clock on the stage display ticks down, cameras pan across the room as GMs and their staffs decide how high to go for this guy. Each table has an identical blue button to go with the red one: pressing the blue button bumps the latest bid up a dollar, or buzzes if somebody beat you to it by a second or less (otherwise you might hit the button thinking you were bidding 5 and find you were actually bidding 9, with three intervening bids in the last quarter-second). GMs fingers hover over their blue buttons as the clock winds down. A runner takes the sealed bid to Bettman, who opens it and enters it on his keypad.
"Columbus's starting bid," says Bettman, "for Sergei Molotov of Dynamo Moscow, the first drawn player of the 2013 NHL entry draft is ... 6 draft dollars." The screen behind Bettman shows the Blue Jackets logo and the figure 6 in green. "The bidding is open ... now." Quickly the logo changes to the Leafs, who bid 7; then the Ducks bid 8; the Leafs bid 9, and now things slow down. Finally the Bruins bid 10, and after a few more seconds the Leafs up this to 11, and nothing happens for twenty seconds. The number 11 on the huge display turns amber, then bright red...and the Bruins bid 12. Twenty more seconds pass, the number turns amber, then bright red, then ... explodes! (Not really, it's just a special effect.) The Bruins have won the auction and their PR team rushes over to put a Bruins cap on Molotov.
Is this exciting or what? And this is just #47 on the Central Scouting rankings, a mid-second round pick! But wait: Bettman is back at the microphone, announcing to a stunned room that Vancouver has traded Cory Schneider, 10 2014 draft dollars, and five million real ones to San Jose for Joe Pavelski, Ryane Clowe and 30 2013 draft dollars! Now it's time for the second pick, and it’s Edmonton's turn to press their red button and launch another model into action once the lotto machine barfs up a ball. Bettman holds up ball number 198: Jonathan Voortman, a left-winger in the Dutch League. Might be one for the pass list, say the commentators, but what do we all think of that trade? Voortman is actually in the arena and telling interviewers that at number 198 he's not moving until he hears a bid.
"Ottawa's starting bid," says Bettman, "for Jonathan Voortman of the Hague in the Dutch League is...pass. The bidding is open...now." The Islanders' associate vice-president of draft operations, a twenty-something in a suit that looks like a character in Moneyball, hits the red button and bids a dollar. The cameras focus in on the Islanders' table...and he bids another dollar! Everyone laughs except Voortman. "I was looking over at Steve Yzerman and he was about to press his button so I thought I would get in before him," says the Islanders guy later, to a skeptical media throng, none of whom bothers to get his name.
Every ten picks there is a commercial break, and after every thirty there's a ten-minute break for the commentators to let us know the inside stuff: who's doing a lot of bidding, who's not, how many draft dollars per slot each team has left to spend, what's the state of the pass list, who might only get six prospects, who are the best players not represented by a lotto ball that may be nominated, and on and on. How much more money in his contract will Voortman get as a two-point pick instead of a one-pointer? Oh, those Islanders. And how will Schneider do in San Jose? Will the Canucks latest minor league goalie prospect develop into a Luongo, a Schneider, or a Garth Snow? Let's bring in Don Cherry to allege that the lotto machine's random numbers are fixed. In the first two we had a Russian and a Dutchman, no good Canadian boys yet!
TV Ratings are through the roof. Hockey Night in Canada and several Canadian sports channels are covering the event from start to finish, and ESPN2 has bought the U.S. rights and is running urgent ads on other ESPN stations to check this out. Other sports leagues are looking on in awe, and the word concussion hasn't even been mentioned. In Canada the entry draft show is blowing away Canadian Idol in the ratings. Every time it seems to get dull, a model brings Bettmann a ball with a one-digit number on it, and a bidding war ensues between all the teams with lots of draft dollars left! A few picks change hands in trades minutes after posing with their team's jersey, their teams desparate to get a few more draft dollars. Four hours later, twelve top-line players have been traded, along with dozens of other minor trades, and there is virtually no loss in the TV audience as we come to the exciting conclusion:
"Seven picks remain," says Bettman from the stage. "The next selection will be made by Montreal." Tension: the Habs have only five draft dollars left, eighth among the remaining nine teams. They may not get another chance to nominate, but nominating a good prospect is futile, because the other teams will outbid them. Maybe they will trade a player or a prospect for some draft money from the Leafs to jump into the draft money lead so they can nominate the best remaining prospect and get him. Not this time. A runner delivers a message to Bettman that the Habs nominate "Blaise Dionne of the Rimouski Oceanic." The other GMs shake their heads: not even in the top 220. (But he does have a French name!)
"Montreal's opening bid is...five draft dollars." No GM can afford to spend 6 for a long-shot when the next player drawn will be better, so Montreal gets Dionne. But now there are only six picks left and eight teams remaining looking for a player. And there are still two top-30 prospects and one in the 50s in that lotto machine. Plus, the Islanders still have some draft dollars left to blow in some unbelievable but comical way. Stay tuned...