PICTURE your 18-year-old self walking into a hotel room to find eight powerful men seated at a table all looking at you.
You sit down, maybe take a sip of water, and brace yourself for their first question.
"Tell us a joke," one of the men says. Maybe it's meant to be an icebreaker, but you're not Jerry Seinfeld. Everyone knows jokes but try pulling one out of the canned hotel air when your armpits are getting sweaty while your tongue goes dry.
West Vancouver's Morgan Rielly faced that situation three weeks ago as he auditioned for a job many kids dream of from the time they're old enough to stand up. No, this wasn't Saturday Night Live. This was the NHL.
"You think, 'Oh yeah, I know a lot of jokes,'" Rielly told the North Shore News. "But when you're on the spot you're kind of standing there and you don't know what to say and there's eight grown scouts and GMs just looking at you."
Rielly fumbled, coming up with some lame variation of a blond joke that he can't even recall now.
"I forget what I said. I blacked out, I was nervous and I just said something. . . . It was all right, I didn't completely embarrass myself."
Rielly, a top prospect for the 2012 NHL draft, seems pretty unflappable both on and off the ice so to hear about him being rattled is rare. But would it cost him precious places in the draft?
Several North Shore kids have been facing questions both silly and serious, from high powered men and from their own internal monologues the past few months as pro sports leagues across the continent have conducted their annual drafts.
Rielly and his longtime friend Griffin Reinhart came into last week's NHL draft as highly prized picks, while fellow North Shore hockey standouts Colton Sissons, Dalton Thrower and Alexander Kerfoot also came into focus as potential pros. A couple of weeks before that, North Vancouver's Rowan Wick and Keaton Briscoe were picked in the massive, 40-round Major League Baseball draft while just three days ago seven-footer Robert Sacré was taken with the final pick in the much more exclusive two-round NBA draft (see page 23 for Sacré's story). The CFL even came calling with North Vancouver's Bo Palmer getting picked by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats this spring.
It takes a lot of work to get to the point of even being considered for a draft but if you do get that far, how you perform in the months, weeks, days and even hours leading up to the grand event can have a massive impact on your future. It can be a heavy burden when you're only 18 years old.
"(The draft) is hugely important," said Ross Gurney, a West Vancouver native who is an NHL player agent representing 30 clients, including North Vancouver's David Jones of the Colorado Avalanche and Stanley Cup and Olympic champion Duncan Keith. Gurney spent two years working for the Vancouver 86ers and three years with the Vancouver Canucks before starting his own agency 15 years ago. Over the years he's seen the draft up close from both sides of the table. Going through the draft process introduces players to a new reality.
"This is something that in theory started off as a game that (the players) enjoyed and they loved and they pursued and it quickly becomes a business," he said.
The pro teams may ask for a joke, but with all that is at stake for them and for the players, the game is about to get serious.
Sweating over a forgotten comedy routine in front of a room full of NHL executives may sound like an awkward situation, but most young athletes never even get the chance to choke on a punch line. To get in that room you've got to get noticed on the ice, court or field. And to get noticed you've got to be really good. The kids playing these sports know this, and as the draft year approaches the very fact that they're being scouted and picked apart can send them spinning.
"Every night you know you're being watched, all the subtleties and all the great things you're able to accomplish but also the negatives are being exposed in your game," said Gurney. "The players that seem to flourish are the players that are almost unconscious to it all, they're immune to it. They can play the game fluidly, making great plays or making mistakes, (they can) let go of the mistake and not have it carried around the field or the ice as an anchor and just move on from it. . . . When you play a game and you fear consequence, seldom are you able to operate in that supreme state or ideal state of high performance. You just get too timid or too rigid and ultimately you're not excellent anymore."
A player like Griffin Reinhart falls into the immunity category. Six-foot-four with great bloodlines - his dad Paul was a standout defenceman for the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks - Griffin bulled his way up the draft board throughout the year and ended up going fourth overall to the New York Islanders. Rielly was on a similar path until a torn knee ligament in a Western Hockey League game last fall put it all in doubt. How could he show the NHL his skills if he couldn't even walk?
Rielly left his team, the Moose Jaw Warriors, and returned home to West Vancouver to begin a long rehab towards an uncertain future.
"It was extremely hard that first week when it was all kind of hitting me that I wouldn't be able to join my team for the whole year," he said. "After I got hurt I was afraid that I would kind of drop (in the draft rankings) - scouts haven't seen me play the whole year. . . . That certainly was an area that I was trying to not concentrate on too much but it was hard not to."
As he tells the story Rielly is sitting in an empty banquet room at Hollyburn Country Club, his hockey haven since he laced up in their beginner's program at age four. Rielly is poised and polished for an 18-year-old kid, the story of his injury and recovery rolling out smoothly and sincerely. Maybe that shouldn't be a surprise - he's likely been asked to tell the tale dozens of times by now and as a high level junior player has been handling media interviews for years.
It's one week before the draft and his season, once stalled by injury, has recently kicked back into high gear. Rielly worked hard to get back on the ice, making it just in time to play the team's final six playoff games, scoring six points as the Warriors lost the WHL final to Reinhart's Edmonton Oil Kings.
The late season cameo was nice but if Rielly really wanted to show he was all the way back he needed to put in a strong, healthy performance at the draft combine - the showcase event that pits prospect against prospect as testers poke, prod and punish the kids' bodies in front of a roomful of suits.
"When you're in a big conference room and there are 100 guys kind of staring at you while you're on a bike, or they ask you to take off your shirt and do high jump - it's a little weird," Rielly said with a laugh. Weird or not, Rielly thrived, erasing most doubts about his health by finishing in the top 10 in most of the tests.
"I won the grip strength, which I didn't even think I was good at," he said. "I was doing handshakes all week so I guess I was practicing - eight handshakes per meeting."
Physical traits aren't the only things being measured as draft day approaches. Teams also want to get into the minds of the players they are potentially investing in, grilling coaches, teammates, billet families, even high school principals to find out what a kid is like.
"They'll go to extreme lengths," said Gurney. "Sometimes teams are asking specific players certain questions just to sort of alarm them or shock them to see if they have a personality."
This was a popular question as this year's NHL draft approached: If you could take a pill that would allow you to play in the national hockey league for 10 seasons and win a Stanley Cup but you wouldn't know whether you'd live past 40 or not, would you do it?
"It's a brutal question," said Gurney. "It brings in morality and integrity and all these things."
For Rielly, the meetings kept coming right up until the night before the draft. He went to bed that night in Pittsburgh surrounded by his supportive family but not knowing what jersey he'd be putting on the next day. Most experts agreed that he'd still be a high draft pick, that he'd shown enough coming off the injury to allay any fears, but nothing is guaranteed until the man on stage actually calls your name. The NHL draft seems set up to exact maximum anguish from the players waiting in the seats - only one round is held on Day 1 so only 30 names get called, leaving many hopefuls to trudge out of the arena at the end of the night facing the embarrassment of temporary rejection.
"It's a wonderful day for those that are picked high and it's a horrible day for those that are picked later in the first round or certainly on the second day," said Gurney. Even for those who go in the top half of the first round the experience can be humbling. Gurney's client Kyle Beach of Kelowna was a highly ranked prospect in 2008, rated by some as a top-three pick, who ended up going 11th.
"As we went from three to four to five to six and we were slipping, it was very, very hard for him and his family," said Gurney. "Don Cherry always gave the advice on Coach's Corner 'Don't go to the draft,' and having been through 14 drafts myself I know why. "It's a very humbling process and not everyone can be picked high. But yet it's an unbelievable accomplishment to be drafted at all. When you think that in the NHL there's only seven rounds, or 210 picks, even if you were the last pick in the last round that means you were in the best 210 players in the world for your age. That should be celebrated but the draft itself creates this environment or this manic frenzy that almost feels like, 'Oh my God, I'm not as good as I thought I was.' I caution kids to stay away from the draft unless we're certain they're going to be picked and we're certain they're going to be picked high. . . . If my guy isn't top-15 we're probably not going to the draft."
Handsworth basketball star Robert Sacré must have received that same advice. Projected as a potential second round pick with a chance of sneaking into the first round in Thursday's NBA draft, Sacré stayed away and hung out with his family in New Orleans instead of going to New Jersey for the event. Through four and a half hours of live television coverage they waited until, at one minute before midnight and after 59 other players had been chosen, the name Robert Sacré was finally called. Seconds later the show was over but Sacré's life as a Los Angeles Laker was just beginning.
For Morgan Rielly, all the doubts and questions vanished when famous Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke took the stage to make the fifth overall pick. The Leafs had shown a lot of interest in Rielly, even coming to his house in West Van for a final chat one week before the draft. Rielly knew there was a chance. His nerves jangled as Burke rattled off some kudos to the draft's hosts and the Stanley Cup champions and then, this: "From the Moose Jaw Warriors. . . ."
"I don't know exactly what happened," Rielly recalled days later when he was back in West Van. The draft process had sent his head spinning once again but this was likely the last time and certainly the best. "I was pretty happy at the time - I blacked out almost, it felt like. It was a cool feeling."
After putting on the famous blue and white sweater Rielly sat down for a live interview, squished between witty TSN host James Duthie and the often blustery Burke. As Burke and Duthie bantered, Rielly mostly smiled and nodded.
"I know there were quite a few people watching. I just tried not to screw up too bad," he said. "I was just kind of laughing a little bit. I was happy I didn't have to do all the talking. It was pretty cool being on camera with two pretty big names in hockey there with James and Brian. It's certainly something that will play over and over in my mind for a long time."
Then it was more than an hour of other media appearances - something Rielly will need to get used to playing in a story-hungry market like Toronto - before he finally could relax a little and take it all in.
In a few days it was back to reality - the draft is one big hill to climb but when you get to the top you see there's still a whole other mountain range to go through.
"It's really just the beginning," said Gurney. "It's no different than a video game, you've just advanced to the next level. The draft is done and you wake up the next day and all you are is a draft pick. You're on a protected list and you're fighting to get one of the 50 available contracts that these teams have, in the case of hockey. And when you secure one of those 50 contracts one day or two years later or whatever the window is, then you're fighting to be one of the 23 men on the active roster in the NHL. When you get to that level you're then fighting to get the right ice time and play on a winning team, balance personal objectives with team objectives so that you can have ultimate success."
Rielly said he knows this isn't the end of the story, it's just the beginning.
"After you get drafted and you go back and play junior again you're just another player - you're not a prospect anymore, you've just got to keep trying harder," he said. "It's time to hop back on the ice and keep training in the gym. I'm certainly happy to have the opportunity to keep doing that and keep training hard. I have to prove myself. It all starts now."