SECAUCUS, NJ — About 30 minutes before the NHL holds its annual draw, league commissioner Gary Bettman chats and snacks on chips in a small room just down the hall from the NHL Network studio.
He walks away from a brief conversation about the draft order and states the result he seeks. “I don’t encourage any controversy,” he said with a smile.
The NHL Draft lottery itself went off without a hitch or hitch on Monday. Chicago won the Connor Bedard Contest by jumping from No. 3 to No. 1 in the draft order, pushing Anaheim into the No. 2 overall pick and Columbus to the No. 3 overall pick.
It was on the TV show about an hour later – when the draft order was revealed to the public via ESPN – that the blurring occurred. As the network moved into a commercial break with the top three picks still a mystery, broadcaster Kevin Weekes spoiled the surprise.
“And there’s our first change in order,” Weekes said, “with Columbus falling to third place, so now either Anaheim or Chicago will select first place overall.”
It wasn’t until the show returned from hiatus — which must have seemed like an eternity to those watching at home — that NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly confirmed Weekes’ mistake by returning the #3 sign to reveal the Blue Jackets. logo.
Weekes and the NHL declined to comment. A source with knowledge of the situation said Athleticism that a production error introduced the wrong words into the teleprompter Weekes was using, and that it wasn’t just a passing comment from the former NHL goaltender and veteran broadcaster.
Read more: NHL Mock Draft 2023: Connor Bedard to Blackhawks as we choose for each lottery team
More importantly, it had no impact on the actual draft order, which was determined about an hour before the TV broadcast. It only ruined the surprise element of the draft, especially in Columbus, where fans gathered at a local beer hall for a watch party.
“It was pretty obvious what was going to happen (when they came back from the break),” Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said. “It ruined the moment, I guess.”
What makes the error so surprising is that the NHL strives to ensure the lottery is run with strict adherence to so many minute details, with multiple checks and balances and independent eyes on the process. .
Monday, Athleticism was one of three media allowed to attend the lottery in person, a behind-the-scenes look at one of the league’s most tedious and important events. Here’s what it looks like from the inside:
6 p.m. ET: The league gathers all the witnesses of the lottery in a small room. There are about 20 people in the room, including the three members of the media and two representatives of the NHL franchise: Philadelphia Flyers director of hockey operations Tom Minton and Alex Meruelo Jr., the son of the Coyotes owner of Arizona Alex Meruelo and the club’s Chief Brand Officer.
A little later, Bettman’s grandson, Matthew, arrives to watch.
6:11 p.m. NHL spokesman John Dellapina outlines the guidelines for those who have never attended a lottery before.
Mobile phones will be placed in brown envelopes in a safe place so that no one spoils the surprise. Laptops will also be taken. “Does anyone have an Apple Watch or something similar?” Dellapina asks. “It has to come out too.”
No devices that can connect to the internet are allowed once the lottery has started, as the league does not want lottery results released before the telecast. (Insert joke here.)
6:15 p.m. Bettman can work a piece. He is in a good mood and wants to talk about hockey, sitting next to his grandson in front of the three writers to get an idea of the playoffs: “Who do you like in the Cup final? he asks. It’s a light and relaxed conversation.
The league distributes a collection of five papers of the predetermined lottery numbers that have been assigned to all lottery teams. There are 1,000 different number combinations. There are 255 combinations that will win the Ducks the lottery, 135 for the Blue Jackets, 115 for the Blackhawks, etc.
6:39 p.m. Steve Mayer, NHL Vice President of Events and Entertainment, breaks up the murmur in the room. “In six minutes we will do it.”
6:40 p.m. Cell phones, laptops, etc. are taken to everyone in the room. Nerve contractions begin. The camera turns on at the back of the room. All of this is recorded.
6:44 p.m. Bettman walks to the front of the room saying, “Is it time?” In his hands he holds a small stack of papers… the rules of the lottery. Reading the rules takes longer than the draw itself, but Bettman reads every last line.
6:55 p.m. It’s old school. Bettman, to prove that this is a live recording of May 8, 2023, brandishes not one, but three daily newspapers: The Bergen Record, The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.
6:57 p.m. Bettman features Martin Gorbachik, a lottery technician at Smartplay International, who, according to his website, “maintains the integrity of designs for lotteries and gaming organizations in 126 countries.” Gorbachik grabs a briefcase containing the 14 numbered lottery balls that will be used to draw the four-digit combinations that will reveal the first and second picks overall.
Next, Bettman introduces Steve Clarke of accounting firm Ernst & Young, who is seated to Bettman’s left at a table with two stacks of papers: one the lottery rules and two the number combinations that apply to clubs in the lottery.
He then introduces the three members of the media and the two club representatives. All are invited to wave to the camera.
7 p.m. Gorbachik opens the briefcase and begins to pull out the numbered ping pong balls from the briefcase, show them to the camera, and drop them into a collection tube attached to the lottery machine. Bettman says the numbers firmly as if he were the Earl of Sesame Street.
With all the balls approved and in the collection tube, Gorbachik is tasked with depositing them into the machine. A lever is pulled, they fall into the bin and the machine is started.
7:02 p.m. Thomas Meaney, the NHL’s vice president of events, is positioned about 15 feet from the lottery matchin, with his back to the rest of the room. He is instructed by Bettman to shout “draw” every 20 seconds so that Gorbachik, who is standing near the device, cannot be accused of timing his level draw to let a bullet fire into the cylinder.
Meaney did this for several years. It’s unclear how the job got back to him, Dellapina said — he’s just good at it. After about 20 seconds, the first shout: “Draw!”
And just like that, the lottery is on, first to determine the No. 1 overall draft pick. The numbers are revealed in the span of 80 seconds: 5-13-4-9. (The order is not important, but they are rearranged quickly – 4-5-9-13 – to make it easier for Clarke to find the winner.)
“And the winner is…?” Bettman said. Clarke, after a momentary pause as he scanned the sea of numbers, found the game: “Chicago Blackhawks,” he said. The room is absolutely quiet apart from the hum of the lottery machine.
A few people skim the numbers to see how it turned out. Vancouver had 4-5-9-12. Columbus had 4-5-9-14. So close.
7:04 p.m. The same ping pong balls are reloaded into the machine and left bouncing for several seconds. (This is a great argument against those who suggest that ping pong balls are somehow manipulated to achieve a certain result. If so, why don’t the same balls deliver the same numbers to multiple times?)
7:05 p.m. The second draw begins. 9-8-10-6. Clarke quickly searches 6-8-9-10 and declares the winner of second choice. “The Anaheim Ducks.”
And just like that, the draw is over.
That event, which has kept several clubs busy since Bedard became a rock star at the IIHF World Junior Championship last winter, ended faster than some of Bedard’s shifts with the Regina Pats.
7:08 p.m. Bettman seems pleased with the way the project was executed. He returns to discuss the results with members of the media again. He asks if anyone has seen Bedard play in person and how they think he compares to some of the game’s greats.
He also clarifies that Daly asks not to be informed of the lottery results until he finds out about them himself via the TV show. Daly is not in the room, of course, and no one is allowed to leave the room except those involved in the TV production, who have to work on the event.
7:12 p.m. At a table across the room, signs are removed from a carrying case and placed in front of league staff members. They take the draft that has just been drawn up and order the cards accordingly so that Daly can return them one by one to the TV show’s high table.
Repeatedly they go over the order to make sure everything matches.
7:23 p.m. Bettman is called in to inspect the stack of logos, to make sure – one last time – that they are in the correct order. Then the stack is watched very closely for the next 30 minutes before the TV show prepares to start.
7:38 p.m. After more conversation, Bettman and his grandson leave for dinner. The lottery is Bettman’s operation, but the TV show is all Daly.
8 p.m. The show is about to begin. An ESPN camera is stationed in the hallway and the signs are carried to the studio by Clarke, Ernst & Young’s accountant. ESPN’s John Buccigross greets a TV audience before Game 3 of the Edmonton-Vegas series and sets the stage for the Bedard contest.
8:02 p.m. A joke is made – the first of many – about how nervous journalists seem knowing the results and unable to share them via social media or their websites.
8:09 p.m. Did Weekes just say that?
8:12 p.m. Daly turns over the last three signs: Columbus, then the winner, Chicago and finally Anaheim. The lottery is over. So is the TV show. The first went better than the second.
(Photo by Gary Bettman: Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images)