In 2001, the Ontario Hockey League instituted a new way of selecting its future.
They left the confines, the pomp and the circumstance of large arena venues and they went online.
The move was harder than it might sound now. Remember, the world was a little over a year removed from the Y2K fears that had everyone worried some computer-related technology might not make it to the new millennium.
There was no Facebook or Twitter coverage of the day that Jeff Carter became a Soo Greyhound and Corey Perry was chosen by the London Knights. Neither Twitter nor Facebook existed.
There were no mentions on Wikipedia. No one used an iPhone to text a friend about what happened. It was years too soon for that.
Teams gathered in their own offices and made their selections by conference call. The process worked so well that the league has done it the same way ever since.
And now, 19 years later, the draft day format of this Saturday, April 4 fits what we are being asked to do during the COVID-19 pandemic: stay home and stay apart.
“Everybody is going to be remote,” says London associate general manager Rob Simpson. “Now with so many different avenues like Zoom and Skype and different online tools to connect everybody, we’re going to be able to make the best of it.”
A normal draft day war room usually features a large table with managers, coaches and scouts seated all around it. As much as every team will come into the day with a detailed list and ranking of players, discussions and debates will erupt. A general manager always loves a scout who will stand up for the player he wants his team to take, no matter what.
And Simpson does not believe that aspect of draft day will be any different.
“We are going to use Zoom so that every one of our scouts and our managers and coaches will be up on one screen,” Simpson said.
“If you want to talk over somebody because you believe in your guy, you can do that. Everybody can see each other and talk to each other so that we can still have all of those discussions.
“It’ll be very similar to what we have done in the past, we just won’t be shoulder to shoulder.”
One of the major changes to the entire scouting process has already taken place: when seasons and tournaments were put on hold and ultimately cancelled. There was no OHL Cup this year to decide a minor midget champion and give draft eligible prospects their highest stage to show off their skills. There was no OHL Gold Cup, which annually provides the top prospects another big stage.
Even without those events, Simpson says technology has come to the the aid of every team again.
“It’s been a different process,” Simpson admits. “That’s probably been the biggest change for us and our staff and I’m sure the staffs around the OHL. But again we’re lucky that just about every team videos their own games and leagues have cameras set up.
“It can be good for our scouts. We can give them video of players across leagues that they might not be able to see all that much and still ask the scouts to rate them. It’s never quite the same as watching live but at this point it’s the best tool we have.”
The Knights came into the week before the OHL selection so well-stocked with picks that they traded away four of them and still have 16 left over the 15 rounds.
London has a hot corner of picks at the end of the first round and the beginning of the second that will see them select 19th, 22nd and then 25th. Three of the seven players drafted in that span will have a chance to wear the green and gold of the Knights.
Those first two rounds of the two most recent OHL Selections have produced the likes of Luke Evangelista, Tonio Stranges, Sahil Panwar, Stuart Rolofs and Max McCue and Logan Mailloux. The first five played for the Knights in. 2019-20 and Mailloux was the GOJHL’s Western Conference Rookie of the Year.
Simpson is looking ahead optimistically at not only adding more names to a list like that, but also at what a small return to normalcy can mean.
“I think it will be a great day overall where everybody can take their attention away from what is going on with being isolated at home and watch a live draft online featuring all of these players who have worked hard this season.”
Locally, some of the top prospects will be led by the 2020 Alliance Player of the Year in Bryce McConnell-Barker. The Londoner is a six foot, 180-pound forward who had 48 points in 33 regular season games and showed how well he fit in with older competition when McConnell-Barker scored three goals and added six assists in six games in the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League with the Komoka Kings.
The Elgin-Middlesex Chiefs were Alliance Champions under head coach Jason Williams and assistant coach and former London Knight Danny Syvret and are expected to see several players selected from their roster. Hunter Haight, Owen Van Steensel and Brady Stonehouse are three players who have garnered attention all year.
Among other names to watch for are forward Adam Fantilli of Kimball Union Academy and defenceman Ty Nelson of the Toronto Jr. Canadiens, who are considered top-end prospects.
Global News Radio 980 CFPL will have a special OHL Priority Selection show from noon until 2 p.m. on Saturday April 4 that will feature a recap of London Knights and London and area picks as well as guests like Liam Foudy and Stanley Cup champion Jason Williams.
It can be heard on-air or on-line at http://www.980cfpl.ca and on the Radioplayer Canada app.