For the first time in months, the NHL had some semblance of business-as-usual with the draft lottery on Friday night. Instead of debating endlessly about the possibility of the NHL’s return (which looks ever grimmer as the number of COVID-19 cases per capita is once again on the rise and NHL teams struggle to even hold training camps) fans finally had something tangible and exciting to talk about, a sign that eventually, things will get back to a resemblance of normal.
The NHL draft lottery should have been a celebratory event, an emphatic confirmation that yes, we need sports because they are uplifting and exciting and have real stakes. Sports create community, and we need that more than ever, especially if you watch any commercial since mid-March. This was going to be a shining moment for the NHL, a moment to say “Yes, this is why we matter!” in a world so alien to so many of us now. But when the dust settled and the draft order was shown on NBCSN in its totality, with a “To Be Decided” team winning the lottery and every team except LA and the Sens’ pick from San Jose falling back one or more spots, I checked as many hockey communities as I could. Across SB Nation, Reddit, social media, and the blogosphere, one sentiment rang loudest:
The NHL is bullshit.
On a night that should have been a celebration for the NHL, a night that was the closest to normal operation as they’d had since the league postponed the season on March 12th, no one was happy. Conspiracy theories have come quick, espousing the NHL has rigged the draft lottery behind its Byzantine rules. It’s easier to believe in purposeful malevolence screwing the Red Wings because the league hates the organization for its high level of play 10-20 years ago than to believe that Detroit got left out in the cold by arbitrary chance in this draft lottery.
Whatever ill feelings the NHL may or may not have towards the Detroit Red Wings, they pale in comparison to the league’s desire to make money. If the league was truly gaming the system then Ottawa would have gotten the worst picks it possibly could, because the nightmare scenario for the NHL from a marketing perspective is what the hell they would do if Ottawa ever met Winnipeg in the Stanley Cup Final. T
he Wings were not victims of a grand conspiracy with the 2020 draft lottery, but it is easy to feel that way because otherwise suffering through a 17-49-5 truncated season feels like it had no meaning, no purpose.
But when I say no one was happy with Friday’s results, that should include Gary Bettman and friends. No matter what way you cut it, Friday night was a bad one for the league. Anyone who’s sure the NHL wants to continue drumming interest by effectively having a second draft lottery just needs to look around the different fanbases.
Oilers fans know that winning the lottery would be bad for the league. Sabres fans are furious, even though the current lottery odds exist because of their team. Fans in Washington and St. Louis are angry because their rivals could be eliminated in the play-in round and they are rewarded with a 12.5% chance at the top pick (better odds than all teams but Ottawa and Detroit, mind you.) Vancouver and Minnesota fanbases are joking at the absurdity of their best draft odds in over a decade come in a season where they are bubble teams. Fans are talking about the draft lottery, but for all the wrong reasons. Go to any online discussion and see how long it takes for the Lafrenière to Montreal conspiracy to pop up. The dominant conversation is that the league is essentially corrupt and, on some level, illegitimate.
The NHL has been struggling with issues of legitimacy for a very long time. When I say “legitimacy,” I mean “the authority and prestige others perceive you to have.” All leagues have momentary crises of legitimacy from time to time, some lasting longer than others. The NFL has concussion issues. The MLB has the Houston Astros. The NBA has a nasty case of misplacing its spine when dealing with China.
While not directly culpable, the NHL is dealing with the shockwaves of Dan Carcillo and Garrett Taylor’s lawsuit against Canadian Junior Hockey and the it has a responsibility to finding a solution if the league is the steward of hockey that it professes to be.
But the NHL has other ongoing issues of legitimacy, and the seemingly arbitrary results of the draft lottery do nothing to help. The league is one of the four biggest sports leagues in North America, but are they? Does Liga MX have higher ratings? Isn’t NASCAR growing faster? Does the MLS provide a better fan experience? And after all, hockey has never really translated to television like the other sports, and it can’t market its stars like the MLB, NBA, and NFL.
And that concussion issue with the NFL? The NHL has it, too. These sentiments were recently wrapped into one short statement on ESPN when show host Max Kellerman said “No one really cares about hockey… it’s not one of the four major team sports.” The sport doesn’t have a legitimate claim to its seat among the other top professional leagues in this hemisphere, so the criticisms go.
The NHL has constant little brother syndrome on the national sports scene. The MLB, NBA, and NFL don’t have to deal with the speculation of whether they really exist or not the way the NHL does. The league cannot only run its operations as well as the three bigger dogs. It has to be better because its legitimacy is constantly being questioned. But to both the casual observer and the hardcore fan, the draft lottery on Friday was not an endorsement of its legitimacy. Instead of leaving fans feeling confident in the way the league runs itself, the NHL created a strong sense that they, like the rest of life at this moment, is some cruel joke.
We are living in a historic moment with COVID-19, let alone the civil unrest sparked by George Floyd’s murder and a growing distrust of democratic institutions across the world that has been brewing for two decades. Many are left feeling like the world they understood is being left behind and in its place is the confusion of an unclear future.
Since professional sports have postponed their seasons, the leagues have cried out “Sports matter! We can give people something to feel good about in these tough times!” This was the NHL’s moment to live up to that statement. Instead of being the anchor of normalcy in the seas of change, the draft lottery only seemed to be cosmically unjust, not merely to the Red Wings and their fans, but the fans of the entire NHL. Even Kings fans, who objectively got a good deal out of the draft lottery, have a sense of distrust and anger at the way things unfolded.
We all have our religions, whether they be official creeds or something else entirely, which are organizing principles to create a sense of meaning in a chaotic universe. In the end, the professional leagues, including the NHL, have promised to be a return to normalcy in these troubled times, like they are a guide to help us re-center ourselves. The NHL doesn’t claim this for some altruistic reason, nor for a malevolent one. Their organizing principle is the same as all capitalistic ventures: to make money.
If anyone was unaware of this before, it should have been abundantly clear with the June 2nd blackout movement on Twitter when several teams, including the Red Wings, posted a nearly-black team logo on a black background to show “support” for the George Floyd protests, as if to say nothing is bigger than them. Nothing is more important. Never, ever forget about us.
Any ire the league has toward the Red Wings pales in comparison to their desire to make money. Any desire they possess to be a community builder is only secondary to accumulating wealth. It is all for that capitalistic pursuit, because that is the way the system is designed, but if the league is going to market itself as a champion of something, well, you can’t be a champion of anything if it is always a secondary priority. It is worth continually re-examining what we expect in this day and age of the NHL, especially after the draft lottery, because we all feel damaged and disappointed. It’s not because of some grand conspiracy by the league to hurt the Red Wings and its fans.
The lottery odds only guarantee that it doesn’t care, which is what it is supposed to do to remove any form of bias. And a lack of bias is good in this case, but it is really jarring when the unforgiving lottery odds are stacked against the pathos and pageantry surrounding emergency responders. The NHL wanted to have its cake and eat it, too, but because of a system it designed for itself the league is now sitting there with a ruined cake smeared all over its face.
The last several months have been hard for everybody. And heaven knows it has been very hard to be a Red Wings fan the last two years. We’ve all had our personal lows. For me personally, I love writing for Winging it in Motown, but after a 3-2 win in Edmonton on January 22 of 2019, I didn’t recap another win until Detroit trumped Tampa in a shootout 5-4 on March 8, 2020. That’s 411 days between opportunities to do the thing I enjoy most about writing for Winging it in Motown, which is celebrating a win with our readers and writers.
It has been very tough and I have a ton of respect for the diehards in places like Long Island, Edmonton, and Carolina, (and even the pleasant folks who hold for the Leafs) who have stuck it out with their teams through droughts far longer than ours. Honestly, I haven’t been this dismayed as a Wings fans since we lost Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in 2009, and as tempting as it is to believe that something sinister happened behind the scenes, the far more likely scenario is that the Detroit Red Wings were just the victims of cruel numbers, a cold, distant enemy without form and therefore impossible to hate. Maybe when the NHL set the rules, they didn’t realize fans would be looking for an outlet and that they would be the obvious target.
In the end, the draft lottery could have been a great celebration for the NHL. Some reminder of order if you will. Instead, amidst all the confusion and despair of a global pandemic and social and political stress, we got last night’s draft lottery. It all felt unjust and cruel, as if the game was rigged from the start. It wasn’t rigged, but that only means that the NHL is just as erratic and disconcerting as everything else going on right now.