For Jay McKee, the experience was almost tranquil. Twenty-three years ago, the Buffalo Sabres chose him 14th overall in the National Hockey League Entry Draft. That’s big. It meant on the entire planet, only 13 players in his age group were considered better than he was at that time. McKee went on to play 14 seasons in the league, and probably would have lasted a couple of more had injuries not cut him short.
So mostly, if not fully, McKee fulfilled all that first-round potential. He made it to the big league, lasted a long time, lived up to the screaming hype, the intense scrutiny that comes with being a first-rounder.
Except there’s this: “You want to know the truth?” McKee says. “I didn’t feel any pressure at all.”
He’s no Rasmus Dahlin.
Actually, McKee is no Dahlin, but that’s only part of the point. Dahlin, the teenage defenseman and Swedish hockey prodigy, will presumably become a Buffalo Sabre on Friday, when the team is expected to choose him first overall in the NHL Entry Draft. With that status comes wide expectations: He’ll be a star, the savior the Sabres need to transform into a winning, playoff-bound franchise.
Years back, McKee was anticipated to be good, but he wasn’t tagged with those lofty expectations. But even if he had, he wouldn’t necessarily have realized it. To know what fans or media were saying about him, he would have needed to go to a corner store in his Kingston, Ont., hometown and plunk down some loonies. “Back in my day, I would have to go to the store and pick up The Sporting News or Hockey News,” McKee said. “Kids weren’t doing that at 17 years old.”
McKee developed as a young player in the draft’s prehistoric age. The web was in its infancy. Phones weren’t smart. As for social media? When McKee was drafted, Mark Zuckerberg was only 11 years old. With no ability, or even desire, to instantly read or hear what people were saying about him, McKee’s coming of age as a hockey player was dominated by one thing.
He played hockey.
“Today, kids will pick up their phone all day long, and it’s probably human nature to want to hear what people are saying,” says McKee, who is now the head coach of the Kitchener Rangers, a major junior team largely comprised of players ages 16 to 20. “You all see all these people liking and favoriting these pictures of you and articles about you. I think the stresses and the pressures are definitely raised not only on athletes, but kids in general. Kids that compare themselves to others.”
The expectations game
But what would happen if Dahlin – who, at 18, is barely not a kid – starts comparing himself to others? What kind of unrealistic and unfair expectations might he be soaking up if he starts clicking and swiping and liking?
Dr. Brent Walker, a past president of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology, has a theory. He pointed out that when I called him, I opened our conversation by saying the hullabaloo around Dahlin positions him as the struggling Sabres’ “savior.”
“Just inherent in that notion, that will be communicated to him,” Walker said, “and therefore that’s where some of that pressure comes from.”
The media takes some blame here – guilty! – and so do teams and leagues. Until a decade or two ago, depending on the sport, drafts were largely a yawn. They were an annual mechanism for stocking your roster and minor-league system with young talent. That has changed. Today, both the draft and the players themselves are marketing events. In Dallas this week, Dahlin and other top prospects will be paraded through community events and news conferences. The experience is similar – and the spotlight just as intense, or even more – in other sports.
“Because of all the foolish hype that surrounds the draft – it’s silly, really, but it’s there – they have lived in this unnatural fishbowl for the better part of nine months before they show up to play in the National Football League,” said Bill Polian, the Hall of Fame football executive who built winning teams in Buffalo and Indianapolis.
As an example, Polian points to “foolishness like the Rookie Premiere,” an NFL Players Association event held in May in Beverly Hills. “They go to Los Angeles and Lord knows what they do,” Polian said. “Pose for photographs, and do interviews, and I don’t know what the hell else they do there.”
The NFLPA’s website helps here: According to an infographic designed to lure marketing dollars, “Event sponsors receive unmatched access to 40 of the NFL’s newest young stars at their first major B2B (business-to-business) event following the NFL draft.” The Rookie Premiere will include loads of goods (“140-plus pieces of event-worn memorabilia per player”), lots of social media (18,317 tweets, 124 million Instagram impressions, 23,000 Facebook likes) and 135,000 autographed cards.
None which is likely to persuade Polian, who would rather see young players show up at training camp in peak condition – “Frequently, those fellas are not in shape to play football,” he says – and focus on learning the pro game, which is exponentially tougher than draft analyses suggest.
“There’s a lot of foolishness and silliness that surrounds the draft process, including – let’s face it – hype that’s absolutely unearned,” Polian said. “In the draft process, we’re comparing them to their peers, in college. That’s a false comparison. They ought to be compared to people who are earning their living in the National Football League — grown men who have families to feed.”
Jack Armstrong, the former Niagara University men’s basketball coach-turned-Toronto Raptors’ longtime broadcast analyst, gets irritated at the overuse of the label “franchise player,” which he calls “a very dangerous term.”
“Every team tries to portray the fact that they have a franchise player,” says Armstrong, who lives in Lewiston. “He might be your franchise player, but the question is, IS he a franchise player? There’s a dramatic difference.”
Armstrong points to Chris Bosh, who was the Raptors’ so-called franchise player when he was drafted fourth overall in 2003. But when Bosh joined the Miami Heat in 2010, he was a “third wheel” behind LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Bosh was good but put him next to James, and you draw a clear contrast on what it actually takes to be a franchise player.
“Teams really need to do a good job of minimizing that label and helping these young guys who are physically underdeveloped,” Armstrong said. “They’re playing against men, and they still haven’t hit their complete stride. (It’s important to be) making sure you’re doing everything possible to help them succeed on the field, on the court, on the ice, as well as off the field, court and ice.”
When Armstrong joined the Raptors’ broadcast crew in 1998, the team had young stars Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady, both first-rounders. Carter was 21, McGrady was 19, and both were, Armstrong recalls, “immature but smart enough to listen to the right guys.” The Raptors' front office decided to surround the pair – who happened to be cousins – with players Armstrong describes as “good, veteran role models”: Charles Oakley, Kevin Willis, Dee Brown, Doug Christie.
“We brought in a lot of good veteran guys that had good professional careers that were pros,” Armstrong says. “If you picked up the phone and asked Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter what helped them get on the right path as pros – because Tracy already got in the Hall of Fame and Vince will – I think they’ll say their early years in Toronto, it wasn’t dysfunction. They had enough guys around them to show them how to be a pro. How to dress, how to handle things on the road, all the different things that come up. Guys in the room hold you accountable.”
The dazzling potential of a first-rounder in any sport makes it easy to forget that they are teenagers or young adults, and high athletic skill doesn’t necessarily translate into elevated life skills.
“This young person has unbelievable talents and skills,” says Dr. Larry Lauer, a sports psychologist who worked with USA Hockey’s national development team for eight years. “But that doesn’t mean other areas of that person are fully developed yet.”
Young men, Lauer points out, “don’t fully develop emotionally until about age 25. So the maturity in other ways may or may not be there.”
Lauer’s fellow sport psychologist Brent Walker, who has worked with top picks in multiple sports, offered “something everybody needs to keep in mind if Buffalo drafts an 18-year-old.” Without revealing a name or even the sport, Walker mentioned a first-round athlete he worked with through the draft process, then fell out of touch for about a year-and-a-half. Then one day, Walker got a call. “Hey Dr. Walker,” the athlete said, “it’s a been a while. What’s going on?”
Walker didn’t recognize the voice. The reason: “His voice changed.”
If top picks are young enough where even their voice has room to drop, imagine their learning curve for the professional sport. The examples are plenty: The Bills took Bruce Smith as the first overall pick in the 1985 NFL Draft, but it took him a couple of seasons to transform into a Canton-bound pass rusher.
“No matter how good the player was, there was going to have to be a period of development,” said Marv Levy, the Bills’ Hall of Fame coach. “It took a while even for Bruce Smith to finally realize he shouldn’t be a 370-pound overweight indulgent guy, and get the habits that brought him down to 265.”
Time to grow
Bobby Meacham, the Buffalo Bisons manager, was a first-round choice of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1981. He struggled in his first two minor-league seasons, batting .182 in his first year, and committing 47 errors his second. Meacham, who only established himself after the Cardinals traded him to the New York Yankees, says his status as the eighth overall player in the draft gave him the opportunity to develop in those early years.
“I had a longer span of time to get it right,” said Meacham, who spent six seasons as a Yankees shortstop. “I felt like it was a blessing to not only get paid well, but also a blessing to have that length. These guys who are picked in the 20th round or whatever, if they didn’t get it right the first year or two, they were gone. I had time.”
Sabres goaltender-turned-broadcaster Martin Biron had a similar experience. Buffalo chose him two picks behind McKee in the 1995 NHL Draft, and Biron showed up at training camp that summer thinking, “I’m going to make this team. I’m a first-round pick. I’m making this team … I’m better than these guys.”
Even though “these guys” included goalie-legend-in-the-making Dominik Hasek, plus veterans Robb Stauber, Andre Trefilov and Steve Shields. Biron quickly learned he wasn’t “making this team” when the Sabres sent him back to juniors. He didn’t land full time in the National Hockey League until 1999, after he struggled and then finally established himself as a solid minor-league goaltender for the Rochester Americans.
“I had to learn by having to really suck my first year in the American League, and it made me better after,” Biron said, noting that Buffalo media and fans need to give Dahlin a similar time frame to develop.
“I think hopefully Rasmus doesn’t have to suck, but these moments where he struggles or he makes mistakes are going to be really good for him,” Biron said. “Even a guy like Jack Eichel” – whom the Sabres chose second overall in 2015 – “needs two or three years to really understand the difference between being a college player and a pro guy. So a guy like Rasmus Dahlin, it’s going to take him two, three years to really figure out the differences in your lifestyle and in the game.”
Sam Reinhart, Dahlin’s likely teammate-to-be, said Dahlin may be equipped to handle the NHL spotlight because he has grown up under intense scrutiny in Sweden, where he is a national star.
“The biggest thing is just relax and play the game,” said Reinhart, whom the Sabres chose second overall in 2014. Dahlin "has been going through this for not just the last couple of weeks, not just the last year, but he’s been a high-profile guy really his whole life. So I think he’s pretty comfortable in that situation.”
So far, Dahlin seems at ease. In interviews at the NHL Scouting Combine and the Stanley Cup Final, one of Dahlin's favorite phrases was "It's just hockey." Having the game as his centerpiece will help with everything else, he says.
"I'm so excited and want the season to start," he said at the combine. "I don't know how it's going to feel, moving to another country. Everything is new except the hockey, but I'll be around hockey. I'm more excited than nervous, actually."
That sense of comfort and confidence, whether it comes from lifelong experience or a protected environment, is vital. Four years ago, McKee had a front-seat view on draft hoopla as an assistant coach with the Erie Otters. The junior hockey team had Canadian-born center Connor McDavid, who was widely hailed as the next Wayne Gretzky and certain to be the first overall pick in the 2015 entry draft. McDavid, McKee said, was exceptionally humble and level-headed, even maintaining a near-perfect GPA in school while finishing his final junior season and wondering all year where the draft lottery would land him. (He was ultimately chosen by Gretzky’s former team, the Edmonton Oilers, who won the draft lottery; Buffalo took Eichel with the second pick.)
“The best thing for Connor is he played on a U.S.-based team in Erie,” McKee said. “It was big there, but he could leave the arena and go to school or go to the mall, and he wouldn’t be recognized.”
On road trips in Canada, where McDavid was instantly recognizable, the teen star was mobbed. But his anonymity in a small Pennsylvania city created a healthy sense of normalcy.
“He was somewhat protected from the media horde or the fan base of people wanting a piece of him everywhere he goes,” McKee said.
Though Dahlin likely won’t deal with a McDavid-like attention crush in Buffalo, he, too, will need time and normalcy.
“If he comes in and people expect him to be the savior from Day One, expect him to go out there and be the best offensive defenseman and the best defensive defenseman, I think it’s a little bit irrational,” McKee says. “There are going to be bumps in the road, and he’s going to have to learn and grow and develop just like any other player. The exciting part is his potential is through the roof. He could be a generational, exciting defenseman.”
Just let him grow up a little bit first.