In June of 1987, you couldn't have picked Joe Sakic out of a police lineup.
Back then, you had no idea that Sakic was bound for NHL greatness in the form of two Stanley Cups, one Conn Smythe Trophy and nine All-Star Games. You had no way of knowing that he would develop into a 50-goal scorer with an ability to lead, the kind of player that turns general managers into hissing alley cats when he enters the free agent market. Unless you were a devoted fan of the Western Hockey League's Swift Current Broncos or a member of Sakic's immediate family, you had never even heard his name - just as you have no reason to be familiar with most of the 18-year-olds who will gather in Sunrise, Fla., next Saturday and Sunday for the 2001 NHL entry draft.
Compared to the NBA and NFL drafts, which feature collegiate athletes who have appeared countless times on coast-to-coast television, the NHL draft looks like a fan-unfriendly parade of anonymous, wide-shouldered teenagers. How could you possibly know these guys? ESPN doesn't broadcast any Swift Current games, and you have a better chance of seeing Fordham's backup punter on TV than of glimpsing the star right winger for MoDo.
So in June of 1987, you had never heard of the Broncos' top scorer. But Don Luce - no relation to Sakic - had.
The Buffalo Sabres' director of player personnel knew that, in the 1986-87 season, Sakic scored 60 goals and 133 points in 72 games for Swift Current. Luce knew that Sakic was a member of the Canadian National Team and, although undersized at 5-foot-11, he had NHL potential. The kid was a first-rounder, but he was also a gamble. Luce decided not to risk it, instead using the Sabres' No. 1 overall pick to snare Pierre Turgeon.
"At the time, he wasn't as good (as he is now)," Luce said of Sakic. "He's a small guy. He put up numbers, but can he play? There are so many intangibles there, and that's why he slipped. He wasn't the most disciplined player being drafted."
Like Major League Baseball, the NHL uses a minor league system, rather than the NCAA, to develop its prospects. Hockey draftees are young, raw and often unpredictable; still, the league's scouts have enjoyed an impressive level of success. Sakic, who went 15th overall to the Quebec Nordiques, is one of 23 former first-round selections who played in the 2001 NHL All-Star Game. That represents exactly half of this season's All-Stars, including 14 of 23 North Americanteam members.
"That's a good ratio," said Atlanta Thrashers GM Don Waddell, who will make the first overall choice in this year's draft. "You're dealing with an 18-year-old. . . . The potential margin for error is much greater (than in the NBA and NFL drafts)."
NHL teams make plenty of errors when it comes to the draft. For every can't-miss superstar like Mario Lemieux (No. 1 overall, 1984), there's a disappointment-in-waiting like Alexandre Daigle (No. 1 overall, 1993). For every chancy first-rounder like Scott Gomez (No. 27 overall, 1998), there's a gem that ends up in the remainder bin, like Dominik Hasek (No. 207 overall, 1983).
Often, scouts have every reason in the world to pass over a talented player. In 1984, Brett Hull saw 116 of his peers selected before the Calgary Flames took him in the sixth round. Hull had great physical tools and a famous father in Hall-of-Famer Bobby Hull, but teams were wary of his now-famous negative attitude.
"It was his lack of desire to play. Everybody knew he had a great shot, and he could play at times, but he wasn't consistent," Luce said. "He didn't, at that time, compete as well as other kids at the same draft."
The Brett Factor is, perhaps, the hardest part of the job for Luce and his colleagues. Scouting staffs can't just identify the best amateur players - they have to figure out who will develop into the best NHL players. That might mean passing over a flashy scorer with a questionable work ethic in favor of a stable, team-oriented defenseman.
Last year's All-Star Game included seven North Americans drafted in the third round or later. That group includes one defenseman (Rob Blake), one goalie (Patrick Roy) and five forwards: Tony Amonte, Donald Audette, Theoren Fleury, Hull and Luc Robitaille. Apart from Hull's psychological downside, he, Audette and Fleury are all less than six feet tall - a condition which always gives scouts pause. Amonte, a Massachusetts native, was a high-school junior when he entered the draft in 1988; he had talent, but almost no experience playing against top competition.
As for Robitaille, who knows? He was picked 171st overall in 1984, one of the deepest draft years in history. All but two of that draft's first-round selections went on to play in the NHL, and many - like Lemieux, Kirk Muller, Stephane Richer and Kevin Hatcher - are household names among hockey fans. Robitaille was in good company as a diamond in the 1984 rough, selected after third-rounder Patrick Roy and before sixth-rounder Hull.
On the opposite side of the 2001 All-Star ice, the World team was packed with late-round choices made good, for which Vladimir Lenin bears more of the blame than does Don Luce. Prior to the early 1990s, players like Pavel Bure, Sergei Fedorov and Alexander Mogilny carried far more than the usual risk associated with draftees. At best, Eastern Bloc players had to navigate a complex bureaucratic maze to get to North America in the '80s; at worst, they had to defect, as Mogilny did in 1989.
Communism has vanished from the ice-producing nations of the world, and overseas travel is easier than ever. Few athletes are out of bounds these days, but with the rise of a global community has come the disappearance of the fabled "back woods," where an enterprising scout could uncover a hidden prodigy.
"You can go to a hockey game involving a couple of prospects 500 miles outside of Moscow, really in the boondocks, and you walk into the rink and there are 15 scouts there," Waddell said.
They might be more accessible now, but the majority of NHL prospects are still 18 years old with physical and emotional growing to do.
"In football, you're drafting a 22-year-old finished product. If we were drafting 22-year-olds, things would be totally different," Luce said.
As it is, most draft picks never make it to the NHL - which is no surprise considering that nearly 300 players will be selected in 2001. According to Luce, a team is lucky to uncover two or three full-time big-leaguers in any given draft. Franchises like the Sabres don't bother trying to sign all their picks any more, opting instead to try to sign only those prospects who, in the ensuing two years, show significant NHL potential. It's a lengthy and complicated process, requiring long hours of studying tapes and stat sheets along with a dose of "very astute estimating" by people like Luce.
"Scouting is not an exact science; there's definitely an amount of luck," Luce said. Still, Luce and his staff are not exactly stumbling around in the dark.
"We work hard at the job," he said, "and we find players that can play."
Feast: the 1984 draft included top-rated superstars and great bargains
No. 1 C Mario Lemieux -- maybe you've heard of him? The surest sure thing in draft history.
No. 2 LW Kirk Muller -- played in six All-Star games and ranks in the top 100 in career points and assists.
No. 3 C/RW Ed Olczyk -- scored 342 goals, including a career high 42, and won a Stanley Cup with the '94 Rangers in 16-year career.
No. 4 D Al Iafrate -- Four-time All-Star with 100-plus mph shot scored 152 goals and added 311 assists in 799 career games.
No. 51 G Patrick Roy -- winningest goalie of all time might have been the greatest steal of all time.
No. 117 RW Brett Hull -- speed, great hands and impeccible bloodlines couldn't make scouts see past bad attitude.
No. 171 LW Luc Robitaille -- eight All-Star appearances, 600 assists, 1,200 points. Not bad for a ninth-round pick.
Famine -- the 1986 draft yielded mainly role-players
N. 1 C/RW Joe Murphy -- a solid, if unspectacular, contributor. A top pick should be more.
No.2 C Jimmy Carson -- good numbers (561 points in 626 games), but goes down in history as a component in the Gretzky-to-L.A. trade.
No. 3 C Neil Brady -- played a total of 89 NHL games in five seasons. Scored just nine goals and 22 assists.
No. 4 D Zarley Zalapski -- cool name, but not exactly a Hall of Fame candidate.
No. 5 D Shawn Anderson -- a Sabres pick, he was never more than a serviceable defenseman.
Of course, no year is entirely without stars. First-round picks Vincent Damphousse (6) and Brian Leetch (9) and second-round choices Adam Graves (22) and Teppo Numminen (29) brought class to a weak draft year.
NHL All-STARS drafted
North America first-rounders
C Mario Lemieux (1984, 1st overall)
D Ed Jovanovski (1994, 1st overall)
D Chris Pronger (1993, 2nd overall)
D Scott Niedermayer (1991, 3rd overall)
LW Paul Kariya (1993, 4th overall)
D Scott Stevens (1982, 5th overall)
RW Bill Guerin (1989, 5th overall)
D Ray Bourque (1979, 8th overall)
D Brian Leetch (1986, 9th overall)
D Al MacInnis (1981, 15th overall)
C Joe Sakic (1987, 15th overall)
C Jason Allison (1993, 17th overall)
G Martin Brodeur (1990, 20th overall)
C Simon Gagne (1998, 22nd overall)
G Sean Burke (1985, second round, 24th overall)
C Doug Weight (1990, second round, 34th overall)
G Patrick Roy (1984, third round, 51st overall
RW Tony Amonte (1988, fourth round, 68th overall)
D Rob Blake (1988, fourth round, 70th overall)
RW Brett Hull (1984, sixth round, 117th overall)
RW Donald Audette (1989, eighth round, 183rd overall)
RW Theoren Fleury ((1987, ninth round, 166th overall)
LW Luc Robitaille (1984, ninth round, 171st overall)
C Mats Sundin (1989, 1st overall)
C Radek Bonk (1994, 3rd overall)
RW Jaromir Jagr (1990, 5th overall)
C Peter Forsberg (1991, 6th overall)
LW Sergei Samsonov (1997, 8th overall)
RW Marian Hossa (1997, 12th overall)
D Sergei Gonchar (1992, 14th overall)
RW Alexei Kovalev (1991, 15th overall)
RW Markus Naslund (1991, 16th overall)
RW Zigmund Palffy (1991, second round, 26th overall)
D Teppo Numminen (1986, second round, 29th overall)
D Sandis Ozolinsh (1991, second round, 30th overall)
D Janne Niinimaa (1993, second round, 36th overall)
D Nicklas Lidstrom (1989, third round, 53rd overall)
LW Fredrik Modin (1994, third round, 64th overall)
C Sergei Federov (1989, fourth round, 74th overall)
RW Milan Hejduk (1994, fourth round, 87th overall)
RW Alexander Mogilny (1988, fourth round, 89th overall)
D Magnus Ragnarsson (1992, fifth round, 99th overall)
RW Pavel Bure (1989, sixth round, 113th overall)
G Roman Cechmanek (2000, sixth round, 171th overall)
G Dominik Hasek (1983, 10th round, 207th overall)
G Evgeni Nabokov (1994, ninth round, 219th overall)