Those pants. Those bright blue, stupid pants. Why did I bring them?
In Toronto, rolled up a bit at the ankles, these pants are perfectly fashionable in a city-boy, Ian Poulter kind of way. On the first tee of a golf course just outside Edmonton, with 13 guys? Not so much.
To these fellas, hailing from parts of Alberta and Saskatchewan, my pants are something Prince would wear. They bust my balls and I love it. But the coolest thing? They treat me as one of their own – even though I’ve known them for all of one hour and most of them are twice my age.
They make up the Original Six fantasy hockey league, the oldest of its kind as far as we know, dating back to 1979. They’re longtime THN readers and, after we told their story in the 2013-14 THN Ultimate Fantasy Guide, they’ve invited me out west for some golf, storytelling and, of course, their annual draft.
The group gives me a royal welcome when I arrive at the golf course. They’re eager to get down to brass tax and discuss their league, which includes keepable players, trades and free agency. They ask me who to retain and drop on their teams and for draft sleepers, but they truly don’t need to, as they really know their hockey and are fine without my expertise. I’m impressed.
They’re also all interesting characters I won’t soon forget:
Eddie is the life of the party, loud and hilarious.
Al is a sincere, mellow, generally happy guy.
Gordie is the treasurer of the group: accurately described in advance to me as “midget Kenny Rogers.”
Bobby is the league’s rookie and father to Warren Peters, a checking forward with 96 NHL games to his name.
Jim is a big softie and arguably the biggest THN fan of the group.
Tom is the witty elder statesman with a broadcaster’s voice who begs us to switch golf carts with him so he doesn’t have to ride with Eddie.
Denis is the host of the draft. Apparently he’s unrecognizable because he’s whipped himself into shape. How much weight has he lost? Fifty pounds? Seventy? “I’ll tell you when I’m done,” he says with a twinkle in his eye.
Wayne is slick and blonde, like a younger Bobby Hull, and my gracious host. Probably a ladies’ man in his day.
Helmut is rapier-tongued and an original member. His multiple sclerosis means he can’t play golf anymore, but that doesn’t stop him from riding with the group all weekend, providing analysis and funny peanut-gallery remarks on every hole.
Bryan is a down-to-earth young guy, drafting in place of Helmut’s son Colin.
Craig is a classy, jovial man who loves the Saskatchewan Rough Riders.
Conrad is the league villain, known for his clever trades. He’s nicknamed ‘Satan’ for his ability to tempt other GMs. He reminds me of myself.
And then there’s Cam. The man who first told THN his story, the man who caused controversy by owning Wayne Gretzky for his whole career in the league, and the man with the most touching tale.
Shortly before we tee off, Cam pulls me aside and confesses he had a heart attack a few months ago. He’s more thrilled than ever to be with his longtime friends for their annual gathering, as he wasn’t sure he’d ever see them again.
The draft weekend is expertly planned – and awesome.
Night 1 is the “THN versus the World” draft for bragging rights. On one team: members of the pool’s original incarnation. On another team: the “rookies.” And on the third team: just me, representing the magazine.
But Night 2 is what matters, what these guys have spent the summer preparing for, and it’s the most elaborate draft I’ve ever seen. It opens with “official business,” as Gord reads meeting minutes about rule changes – seriously, they have meeting minutes – and the gang holds votes on rules, not unlike The Sons of Anarchy at their table. This is how hardcore a 35-year-old fantasy league is.
Then there is a ceremony with official trophy presentations for the regular season and playoffs. As reigning king Conrad (regular season champ, and that’s who is acknowledged as the true big Kahuna) explains upon accepting, the league creates a pretty-looking trophy so it can go on their mantles and not piss off their wives.
Conrad accepts the Lawrence Wilkie Memorial Trophy from Tom. It’s named after an original member who passed away. Cam passes a bottle of Sambuca around the room and everyone takes a swig to honor Lawrence.
Denis accepts the Next Dead Guy Trophy. No joke, that’s the name of the playoff hardware, and the next guy to croak will indeed get his name etched on it forever.
The guys take turns showing me their names on the trophies over the years. Some are in decade-long droughts, while others, like Conrad, are enjoying dominant stretches.
Then the draft commences. Between selections, the only sounds are shuffling papers and pins dropping. Each guy announces his pick like he’s an NHL GM:
“From the Pittsburgh Penguins…right wing…James Neal.”
The early rounds belong to Jim (Ryan Getzlaf, Anze Kopitar) and Craig (Logan Couture, Evander Kane) and the late ones to Helmut (Alex Galchenyuk, Slava Voynov), which is not a surprise after he and I discussed the night before that drafts are won in the trenches.
Conrad is in a tough spot, having no picks for several rounds after mortgaging his future by trading picks last season to win the title. And when he does pick, they are head scratchers, or so I think. Marcus Johansson? Alex Killorn? Today, Satan is surely already laughing, eyeing a quicker-than-expected rebuild as his sleepers deliver.
And so the season commences. At various junctures throughout, the league will hold “mini drafts” allowing the GMs to add and drop players in free agency.
The experience is more analog than digital, done without a wifi connection. The picks are spoken in person instead of blips appearing in an online draft window. When I explain the modern way to the guys, they furrow their brows. An online draft seems so foreign to them – as it would defeat the purpose of the whole weekend. It’s about keeping a group of friends together for decades, not winning. Well, maybe a little about winning.
It’s the perfect way to run a fantasy hockey league – and it’s no surprise that the world’s oldest sets such a good example.