Over the weekend in Chicago, the entire hockey world had its eyes fixed on a stage and a microphone inside United Center, as the general managers and scouting departments of the National Hockey League’s 31 teams stepped forward to name the young men and future building blocks of their organizations, young men that they hope may one day make an impact on the game’s grandest stage.
Those young men selected will be found scattered through the ranks of pro hockey in the coming years, some remaining in junior hockey for a time or heading to college, while others will be sent by their new organizations to the developmental minor leagues, the American Hockey League and, of course, the ECHL.
There are numerous draft picks throughout the ECHL growing their games, either trying to make an impression on their rights holders or someone new if those rights from the draft have expired. The Steelheads last year, at one time or another, employed ten players with NHL Draft pedigrees. And it was just three years ago that the youngest Steelhead had his special day.
Connor Chatham just finished his first pro season in 2016-17, putting up 16 points in 49 games with Idaho. In June of 2014, he was an 18 year-old kid waiting to hear his name called at Wells Fargo Center.
“I was in Philadelphia for the draft,” recalls Chatham, who was selected in the third round by the New Jersey Devils at 71st overall. “I had my family there with me and it was at about 9 in the morning so there wasn't much leading up to it other than an anxious morning with my mom.”
It’s anxious for friends and family alike. Chatham also had four teammates waiting to hear their names as well, players with whom he had endured meetings and the combine, along with the entire previous season. All four would be drafted, including current ECHLers Josh Wesley and Alex Nedeljkovic.
That morning was the day after the first-round selections had been announced, where television cameras capture anxious teens waiting to hear their names called, with some slipping farther down the board and others walking up to the podium earlier than anticipated. Chatham remembers being announced pretty much where he expected heading into the weekend.
“The spot I was taken was basically where we expected it to happen, but being there in the building was a pretty unique experience,” said Chatham. “I had never attended a draft, much less waited for my name to be called.”
And once your name is called, you head down to the draft floor to meet your new organization. The NHL Draft has the feel of a convention, with prominent hockey minds and agents and GMs combing the arena. In Chicago this past weekend, even Steelheads Head Coach Neil Graham and some other ECHL personnel were in attendance in Chicago.
When you’re drafted, the first people you will meet are some of the movers and shakers in the hockey world. Being a Devils’ pick in 2014, that included one of hockey’s most respected builders in General Manager Lou Lamoriello.
“The first thing he said to me after I was drafted, ‘cut your hair,” said Chatham.
That wasn’t the last time Chatham would see Lamoriello, as the excitement of draft day is quickly followed by prospect camps around the country.
“Immediately after the draft we headed off to development camp. Once you get there, unless you are a super high-end prospect, you are just another number that is there to try and impress,” said Chatham. “Unlike other sports, you get nothing from being drafted to the NHL other than a hat and a foot in the door.”
Once camp was through, Chatham went back to his junior team in Plymouth of the OHL. In his draft year, he had totaled 31 points in 54 games for the Whalers and gained the attention of NHL scouts. What would his mindset be in his first season as a Devils prospect?
“The only thing that is different after you've been drafted is that instead of trying to impress 30 teams, the only team that matters to impress is the one that holds your rights,” said Chatham. “If you are playing in the OHL and you’ve been drafted, you’re nothing special because there are about a hundred others who have also been drafted. Staying even keeled and playing your game remains the goal.”
Now three years later, Chatham is no longer in the Devils system but is still hoping to navigate a path to the NHL. Chatham played two more seasons in the OHL after his draft year, continuing to learn and grow before his rookie year in Idaho.
“Since the draft I have learned how important the mental part of the game is,” said Chatham. “At that point in my career I had no idea what it meant to be a pro, and I'm still working towards that now 3 years removed.”
In his first year in Idaho, the third-rounder made some pretty big strides.