“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore all dreaming of Rasmus Dahlin.”

— Words on the National Hockey League’s Statue Of Draft Liberty

Bruce DowbigginIt was a moment of blissful self-unawareness that makes the NHL so quaint.

Commissioner Gary Bettman’s wind therapist, deputy commissioner Bill Daly, was hosting the annual draft lottery Saturday night before and during Game 2 of the Las Vegas/San Jose Western Conference semifinal. Arrayed behind him on the dais were representatives of the NHL’s huddled masses, the teams that are concentrated on the draft night in June rather than a playoff run in April or May.

Some had been aimed at this evening from the moment in early October that they threw up their hands in despair at the prospect of trying to win hockey games. Others, fewer in number, waited a polite few months before succumbing to the inevitability of missing the playoffs.

A final few arrived at this lottery in Toronto to escape the blistering criticism of fans and media in their hometowns.

Fear not, wretched refuse of your teeming hockey shore, possible salvation was at hand in the meaty paw of Daly. On cards in his grasp were the computer-generated results of the draft lottery. Slowly but surely the reveal narrowed the aspirants for Rasmus Dahlin, the Swedish defence phenom who is sure to be the first pick in June’s draft, to a final three.

In some galactic jest, the Edmonton Oilers, who’ve owned the top draft pick the way Dick Clark owned New Year’s Eve, didn’t jump into the final three. For a second straight year, the hapless Vancouver Canucks actually received a worse draft slot than their finish dictated. The  Ottawa Senators just missed the final three, getting the No. 4 card.

The tired and poor were pared to a final three: Buffalo, Montreal and Carolina. Seemingly exhausted by these labours, the NHL took a break so we could watch the Las Vegas Golden Knights, who’ve miraculously become a Top Five team with absolutely no help from tanking the draft, and also to see which of Mrs. Cherry’s table cloths Don was wearing this Saturday night.

In the second intermission, Daly reappeared with the final three representatives, including Montreal general manager Marc Bergevin looking like he’d been rode hard and hung up wet. For the Habs to grab Dahlin might be the flotsam Bergevin needed to keep him afloat in the torrent of abuse drowning him in Montreal.

Daly paused before announcing the results. Looking for some anodyne way to get past this awkward pause Deputy Dawg congratulated the Habs, Sabres and Hurricanes for getting to within sniffing distance of Dahin’s jock strap.

Say what?

The irony clearly escaped Daly that, perhaps, congratulating the three finalists on screwing up so monumentally that they’re in line for hockey welfare could be misinterpreted. Encouraging such incompetence with a raffish, “good luck and well done” might send a poor message.

Apparently not. With a jovial hidy-ho, Daly revealed that the Sabres (who’ve missed the playoffs since 2011 and have not won a playoff series since 2007) will have Dahlin in their livery come September. The Hurricanes, who are the closest thing to NHL irrelevancy, get the second selection.

The staggering Habs, meanwhile, will get the third pick. No doubt that will be a good prospect, but the Canadiens are so bereft of stars outside goalie Carey Price that it will take a determined effort not to return to the 2019 draft lottery to get them right again.

As the sad faces on Saturday showed, the bleu, blanc, rouge are not alone in bottom feeding. If the NHL wants to mint a new award, they can call it the Tank Trophy. Awarded annually to the team that most artfully pulls its punches in a season, it could be given out each year by an executive for the Oilers to the team that best epitomizes compromise and surrender in the face of adversity.

Under the NHL’s current salary cap system that rewards managerial malfeasance, it’s bound to have a raft of eager applicants each April. For certain, most of the clubs assembled in Toronto on Saturday realize that getting to the bottom is the only way to get to the top. They’ll probably be back next year to test their luck.

And they’ll likely find Daly there with an encouraging thought or two that sucking isn’t the worst thing in the NHL. No, trying hard and still finishing 17th overall – just outside the playoffs – is what hurts the most.

Troy Media columnist Bruce Dowbiggin career includes successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he is also the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster.


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