Sometime late Friday afternoon at the Bell Center in Montreal, the hopes and dreams of young men hoping to hear their names called by one of 32 NHL teams will start to unravel.
Slowly but surely, as the names of dozens of other prospects are called and the rounds slip away, four, five, six and then into the final seventh round of the annual NHL Draft, the sobering reality will strike the few who will remain in the hard seats of the Bell Center like a chilly wind:
This is not going to happen.
The doubt and disappointment will gnaw, too, at the mothers and fathers and friends and siblings and significant others who will have traveled far and wide to share in the joy of being drafted but who become aware they are going to instead share in the crushing disappointment of leaving without hearing that glorious sound of their particular player’s name called aloud.
It’s why most if not all agents tell their clients who aren’t a sure bet to be selected to stay home. It’s not worth it to travel all that way only to take a front row seat to having your dreams squashed.
But there will always be those who feel they can’t afford to miss the moment. And for those families who will hang in at the Bell Center to the very end, waiting and waiting, it will be, as Michelle Wolf told us three years ago in Vancouver at Rogers Arena, just awful.
Of all the drafts I’ve attended over the years, that moment in 2019, late in the seventh round in Vancouver, stands out.
I remember standing at the metal barrier that separates the media risers from the draft floor where the 32 franchises (then 31 franchises) assemble for the annual building of teams and creating of dreams.
It was late in the final round. Really late. All but Calgary, Vancouver, Carolina and St. Louis had made all of their picks. Most of the 27 other teams were in the throes of packing up their draft materials. Scouts and managers from different teams were mingling on the draft floor talking dinner plans and flights home.
Rogers Arena workers were waiting to start the process of tearing down the draft floor and the media risers.
Then Calgary was on the clock with the 214th pick in the draft. And with the fourth to last selection in the proceedings, the Calgary Flames called out Dustin Wolf’s name.
There was a beat, maybe two, and then there erupted from somewhere near Section 104 or 105 of Rogers Arena a cacophonous shout from one of few clutches of people remaining in the stands.
Those left at Rogers Arena couldn’t help but stare because it was so incongruous that at this late stage there were only a handful of spectators of any kind, let alone an actual hockey player and his entourage.
The Wolf group’s outburst put to shame many first-round celebrations from the previous night. They were shouts of equal parts joy and relief.
Just awful became just perfect in a split second.
“Obviously a pretty fond memory,” Wolf told Daily Faceoff this week. “Not many people can forget that moment if you’re in the building. It was a very interesting scenario in terms of sitting there for that long. Your hopes are kind of dwindling. You don’t expect to be fourth from last when you’re sitting there all day. Pretty fun day to say the least.”
Wolf, now 21, is from Gilroy, California, although his family moved closer to Los Angeles when he was younger so he could play in the Junior Kings program.
When he joined the Everett Silvertips of the Western Hockey League, the family moved to Washington to be closer. As Michelle told us at the Vancouver draft, she didn’t want to give up being a mom.
Although he turned in a .936 save percentage in his draft year, Wolf wasn’t considered a top goaltending prospect almost entirely because of his size. Wolf is listed at six-foot, playing a position where size is a critical factor for teams.
Jordan Sigalet is the senior goaltending coach and head of the Flames’ goaltending department. He wasn’t in Vancouver three years ago but he recalls that Wolf had been at or near the top of their list heading into the draft even though he was considered by most undersized for a goalie.
The Flames’ plan had been to take a goaltender late in the draft, and as the picks slipped away and Wolf remained on the board, Sigalet said there was excitement that he might actually fall to them far later than expected.
“It’s kind of a no-brainer,” Sigalet said of the pick. “He checked all the boxes. It was a thrill to get him and a steal to get him.”
In fact the moment the pick was made Sigalet, was on the phone with head of amateur scouting Tod Button.
“And I told him, that’s one hell of a pick right there,” Sigalet said.
Here is what makes this story so gratifying on so many levels and why it stands as a kind of talisman for every young man headed to Montreal this week.
The Flames could have gone any number of ways with this pick and no one would have batted an eye either way. The chances of a seventh-round draft pick amounting to much of anything are slim at best.
And right until the moment he became pick No. 214, Wolf had to grapple with the fact that he might have had to keep his NHL dream alive the hard way as an undrafted player.
So, whether you believe in fate or kismet or karma or even Yahtzee, the stars aligned just so.
The Flames were so surprised that their seventh-round pick was actually in the building that they scrambled to find him a Flames jersey. Wolf dropped by the team table to meet with scouts and hockey operations staff and then Wolf and his family where ushered up to the team’s suite where they got to chat more informally with GM Brad Treliving and some of the team’s scouts, including Rob Sumner, the assistant director of scouting, who had been touting Wolf’s potential.
By that time, some of the Wolf party, about a dozen strong, had been to the NHL merchandise store at Rogers Arena and stocked up on Flames paraphernalia.
There might have been a glass of wine for Michelle and a beer for Wolf’s father, Mike.
Wolf returned home to Everett to prepare for the Flames’ development camp a week later and discovered he’d left his draft suit in the family’s Vancouver hotel, so he had to arrange for it to be shipped home. And when he returned home he discovered some neighbors had delivered a Flames flag to the front door.
“So that was pretty special,” Wolf said.
Then in Calgary for development camp, the team went on a horseback trek which included a wild swing in weather.
“By the time we got to the ranch it was hailing, so the knuckles were not too happy,” Wolf recalled with a laugh.
At some point during development camp Treliving told the young players that where they were drafted meant nothing but rather it simply opened a door to continue to work hard and make the most of the opportunity that being drafted by an NHL team afforded them.
Wolf took that to heart.
In the past two seasons Wolf has defied critics and skeptics. He finished his junior career with back-to-back Western Hockey League goalie of the year honors and one CHL goalie of the year award. As a rookie last season he was named the American Hockey League’s goaltender of the year and a first team all-star and was named to the AHL’s all-rookie team.
Another year of seasoning in the AHL certainly won’t hurt Wolf, although he’s earned the opportunity to challenge Dan Vladar, 24, as Jakob Markstrom’s backup in Calgary next season.
“I don’t think I could have expected my first year of pro to have gone quite like this,” Wolf admitted.
Wolf has developed a strong relationship with AHL goaltending coach Thomas Speer and in fact spent most of the summer of 2020 with Speer and his family working out, which Wolf said really helped his transition from junior to pro.
“That grew that relationship beyond the hockey side of things,” Wolf said. “He wasn’t just a coach. He was basically a part of my family. I can talk to him about anything, on-ice play or something that’s going on off the ice that you’re really not sure how to handle.”
He’s also worked with Sigalet and NHL goaltending coach Jason Labarbera.
“I’m pretty fortunate at this point to have some incredible coaches help me get this far,” Wolf said.
Is Sigalet surprised at Wolf’s dramatic ascendence in the goaltending world?
Maybe a little. But not really.
“I knew it wasn’t accidental,” Sigalet said of Wolf’s junior numbers. “He’s such a smart goalie. He’s such a driven kid. His work ethic is off the charts.”
When the pandemic shut things down, Wolf called Sigalet and asked for advice on how to stay sharp. Sigalet gave him some ideas on workout regimens, including a slide board, which would help with his feet and legs.
The next day Sigalet received a video showing Wolf going side to side catching balls with his catching glove and knocking them down with his blocker.
“He’s just so motivated. He can’t sit still. He just wants to get better and better,” Sigalet said.
Wolf doesn’t spend too much time reflecting on that experience in Vancouver.
“I just go out there and try and stop as many pucks as I can,” he said.
But there are ample lessons to be learned organizationally, individually and really for every kid who believes or at least hopes his name will be called in Montreal this week.
Does he believe in the fate part of this?
“It’s hard to say. You never really know,” Wolf said. “If I don’t get selected in Vancouver I had several teams that wanted to bring me to development camp.”
But having a team – regardless of when they made the selection – bring you into the fold, well, that takes so much pressure off.
“You’re in the organization and you just go out there and play and continue to do your thing,” Wolf said.
Over the past couple of years, he’s watched the Draft in large part because he has known many of the players who have been selected. But it’s likely there will always be a part of Wolf who will think of the families who wait long into the Draft hanging onto the thread of a dream that they will be called by an NHL team.
He will certainly always remember the razor’s edge that separated a dream fulfilled and something more unknown.
“That was a wild day to say the least. You’re sitting in that seat – I don’t even know how long it was,” he said. “It’s very stressful and you’re not sure what to think and you start maybe second-guessing yourself. It can get kind of tough at times, but that’s the whole gift of it: whether you believe should have been picked earlier, or you’re fortunate to have gotten picked. You still have to work and do everything you can to show that you deserve to be there.
“In my scenario I wouldn’t have had it any other way,” Wolf added. And then he laughed. “Maybe other than sitting there for so long.”