Ray Whitney and Pat Falloon. Image by: Getty Images
Vegas just picked its first players in the draft. What will it mean to become the young face of a Sun Belt expansion team? I can tell you, since I did it with San Jose.
I never made expectations or set goals of which team I was going to go to. In the back of my mind, I wanted to go as high as I could, so the San Jose Sharks was a team I looked at, and I hoped that would be somewhere I could end up. I had it almost whispered in my ear that it would be a surprise if it wasn’t them that took me. In this day and age, with social media and all that jazz, there’s probably 10 times more buzz about who’s going where. When my name was announced, I felt great. I would be lying if I said I hadn’t rehearsed it in my head that it might happen. I was overwhelmed and happy as heck.
I knew the fans were going to be totally keen and into whatever this new sport was. There was going to be a learning curve to go along with that. Offsides were going to be announced over the loudspeakers, stuff like that. It was a brand-new and awesome experience.
Anonymous would be a good way to describe us. I never was one to seek the spotlight. The less attention on me, the better it was. Myself and Ray Whitney made a PR trip in the summer of ’91 after we were drafted. We made a little tour of the Bay Area and got on the local sports broadcasts on the big stations, an Oakland A’s game and a San Francisco Giants game. We were introduced because we were the franchise’s first two picks. It was pretty cool, because even the sportscasters there didn’t know much about hockey. They were baseball, football or college basketball guys, and hockey was brand new. The questions they would ask would be interesting. Even simple things, like what it meant to be right-handed and left-handed in hockey, right down to the basics of the game – “What’s offside? What’s an icing?” All the things we grew up with learning from a young age. We were just getting our faces out there more than anything. We got recognized more as time went on, but at the start we would walk around and not be bothered.
The fans loved this new sport and grabbed onto it. You’ve got to give them kudos for learning the game. They’re very respected now. Hockey hadn’t been around the Bay Area since the Golden Seals in the late ’70s, and the enthusiasm of the fans, whether they knew the game intimately, they cheered and cheered hard. They knew when a guy was working hard, and they weren’t fair-weather fans. There were some tough times the first few years there, and they stuck with us through thick and thin.
Expansion’s going to be a little different now than it was. We were given some players from the North Stars, and then we had our own expansion draft and then the entry draft. We knew coming in it wasn’t going to be a walk in the park. Being a green rookie, I was very fortunate to be plugged in with a lot of veterans who had come from the expansion draft. A guy like Brian Lawton, who was a first pick, I lived with him my first year. We went through some tough times not winning, and I was used to winning, that’s for sure. You have to put things in perspective on a daily basis. You grow up as a team. You work at your game and understand the odds of winning the Stanley Cup your first couple years are far fetched. But during those years we had a few winning streaks here and there. We won some tight games against some really good teams. That kept us going. It wasn’t all doom and gloom.
The beach wasn’t too far away. Golf courses, too. Vegas, obviously, we know what’s there. But in this day and age, how kids are trained, they’re gearing up, they’re preparing for where they’re going a lot longer before I ever did. The guys who got drafted there are going to have somebody under their wing right off the bat to show them the ropes, tell them which places to stay away from. That was the same for me. The temptations are all there, the warm weather, and being young, who doesn’t want to experiment and see what’s out there?
If I could give advice to the Golden Knights, I would say take everything in and have fun. It’s the time of your life. Those kids at 18 have the whole road ahead of them. And I would be saying, ‘Can I come along? Let me ride your coattails for a month or two!’ – WITH MATT LARKIN
THE LATEST HOCKEY NEWS PODCAST: