VANCOUVER—Auston Matthews or Patrik Laine? Taylor Hall or Tyler Seguin? There have been tight races before in terms of who goes first and who goes second in the NHL draft.
But this year, the difference between American centre Jack Hughes, favoured to go No. 1 overall to the New Jersey Devils, and Finnish winger Kaapo Kakko, expected to go second to the New York Rangers, could be razor thin.
Kakko not only played against but excelled against men in Finland’s top league, and won three gold medals — at the world championship, the world juniors and the world under-18s —in one season. Hughes has otherworldly hockey smarts to go with his talent and he plays a tougher position.
“It’s a bit of a two-horse race, and might be a little bit tighter on the projection side,” said Dan Marr, the NHL’s director of Central Scouting. “They’re both going to succeed. It’s just that when you project: Is Jack going to do it sooner? Or is Kaapo going to do it sooner?
“It’s a closer two-horse race than previous drafts.”
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There is one thing that sets Kakko apart. He was diagnosed with both Type 1 diabetes and celiac disease.
“He’s got to the stage where it’s under control,” said Marr, whose department lists Kakko as the top European prospect. “He knows what his limits are. He knows what he needs to do to be at 100 per cent. As long as (his diet) is managed and well managed, I don’t think it’s going to influence the decision on draft day. If he’s the best player, they’re taking him.”
Like Montreal forward Max Domi, who also has both medical issues, Kakko doesn’t mind talking about it, though his command of English right now is a bit limiting.
“It’s nothing for me. I got (diagnosed) five years ago. It’s a normal thing for me,” Kakko said.
“He’s been open about celiac disease and diabetes and he will continue to be,” said his translator.
That’s music to the ears of the Canadian Celiac Association. While diabetes is well known and can be quickly diagnosed, celiac disease is not. Those with the latter issue cannot eat wheat, barley or rye or they risk both short-term and long-term ailments.
The disease is widely misunderstood and frequently misdiagnosed. Diagnosis is difficult because symptoms for some can be non-existent and only confirmed through an endoscopy. Symptoms for others could be bloating, fatigue, migraines, fertility issues, and stomach cramps, which are symptoms for a wide range of medical issues.
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Having someone like Kakko talking about his issues can help so many others, said Melissa Secord, the executive director of the association.
“We’re a tiny organization. We don’t have any big celebrities in our corner right now. Anybody who can help just even talk about their own journey” might spur others to get tested, she said.
While the short-term symptoms pass, the long-term ones are serious.
“It can have impact on bone health, you can be sick often, so that’s time off work,” Secord said. “You can become anemic. You set yourself at risk for certain cancers of the gut, and some serious neurological issues, if you don’t get diagnosed or you refuse to follow the diet.”
Kakko’s ailments are not expected to play a part in where he goes in the draft, or what kind of career he’s going to have.
“I think it enhances his value because it shows how prepared and mature he is,” said Mark Seidel, the chief scout for North American Central Scouting. “Both afflictions mean that he has to really take care of his nutrition and his body and, for a young player, that is sometimes hard to find.
“Max Domi is the most recent example of a player that excelled with diabetes and Kakko will be the same.”
The league is getting lucky with its draft lottery this year. If things play out as they are drawn up, the top two picks will play in the same division and see each other four times a year. Matthews and Laine, the top picks in 2016, play in separate conferences and see each other just twice a year. The same is true for Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, the top selections a year earlier.
“We’ll be linked together for a long time — Devils, Rangers right there,” Hughes said. “It should be pretty cool. I should be a lot of fun.”
“I think it’s awesome. It’s pretty cool. You saw (Alex) Ovechkin and (Sidney) Crosby do it all these years. I’m not saying we’re going to be Ovechkin and Crosby, but I’m saying it’s going to be pretty cool to be linked like that.”
Kevin McGran is a sports reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @kevin_mcgran