PITTSBURGH—The card inside that envelope was about to change everything for one team and alter the futures of the other 29 represented in an uncomfortable ballroom.
It was Friday afternoon and the clock was ticking toward 4:30 at the Sheraton New York Hotel and Towers in Manhattan. Jim Rutherford was unusually sweaty. Brian Burke was irrationally confident. Ken Sawyer kept an even keel.
All three winced while watching NHL commissioner Gary Bettman slowly open the first 27 envelopes. Any minute now, they would find out if their team was the lucky one that landed the No. 1 pick and the right to draft Sidney Crosby, the most hyped hockey prospect since Eric Lindros, maybe even Mario Lemieux.
The third pick in 2005 went to Rutherford’s Carolina Hurricanes. And then there were two. Burke and Sawyer, representing the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and the Penguins, respectively, were called up onto the stage for the big reveal.
TSN’s James Duthie, MCing the made-for-TV event with Crosby beaming in via satellite from the family sofa in Nova Scotia, said, “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re about to learn who has the No. 1 pick in the draft — right after this break.”
A landmark moment in hockey history had to wait for a few commercials.
Burke leaned over to Duthie and muttered, “I could kill you right now.”
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the hotel, Craig Patrick was laughing his butt off.
In the same Sheraton that morning, July 22, 2005, Bettman announced that the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association had ratified a new collective bargaining agreement. The terms of the deal were agreed upon nine days earlier.
After the league lost the entire 2004-05 season to a bitter labour dispute, leaving the Stanley Cup to collect dust, the CBA included a hard salary cap and revenue sharing, giving struggling teams such as the Penguins a chance to compete.
With the start of its comeback season less than three months away, the league had little time to waste. As Bettman addressed the media, the real Crosby lottery was already underway behind closed doors in another room inside the hotel, with the accounting firm Ernst and Young reportedly overseeing the process.
Near the end of his press conference, Bettman explained why the NHL pushed for the board of governors to approve a lottery that gave every team, not just the cellar-dwellers but also perennial powerhouses, a chance at Crosby.
“This is a unique circumstance,” Bettman said. “The draft and order of the draft traditionally reflects how teams finished a particular season. Well, we already had that draft in 2003-04. … Actually, nobody was particularly thrilled, but everyone understood that on balance, it was probably the fairest way to approach it.”
He later admitted, “We wanted to come back with some attention focused on us and some interest building and we thought this would be a good way to do it.”
In that weighted one-time system, each team started with three Ping-Pong balls. A ball was taken away for every playoff appearance in the previous three seasons and for each time a team won one of the past four draft lotteries. But each team got at least one ball, including the defending champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“That was met with some resistance,” Burke said, “because it didn’t seem fair that the really good teams would have the same shot at Sidney Crosby as some of the really bad teams. … Teams with weaker records didn’t understand that.”
The Penguins had not made the playoffs since 2000-01. The “X Generation” team of 2003-04 finished last in the league, but the Washington Capitals jumped ahead of them in that lottery. The Capitals took Alex Ovechkin first overall in the 2004 draft. The Penguins got Evgeni Malkin and slightly better odds at Crosby.
That morning, the Penguins had the maximum of three balls. But with every team in the lottery and 48 balls in the bin, they had only a 6.3 per cent chance of seeing one of their balls, each of them labelled with the number 12, get yanked out first.
“I was just hoping for any kind of miracle,” then-GM Patrick said.
The Penguins needed a new arena and a prospect who could give their fans more hope when Patrick left his hotel that morning to walk to the lottery. He grabbed the lucky four-leaf clover a Penguins staffer had given him a while back and stopped by St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Madison Avenue on his way there.
“We were already so excited to have the CBA settled and a salary cap and financial parity and an opportunity to compete,” recalled Penguins vice-president of communications Tom McMillan. “We didn’t think, coming into that day, that we were going to have Sidney Crosby. We just wanted to get a top-10 pick.”
Looking back, 15 years later, the 2005 draft class is maybe the best of the past two decades. Beyond Crosby, there were a dozen all-stars along with winners of the Conn Smythe, Vezina and Selke trophies. The final selection, at No. 230 overall, scored a Cup-clinching goal in the 2017 final. You know Patric Hornqvist.
But Crosby had long been considered a generational prospect. He did his first TV interview at seven years old, was called “The Next One” by The Hockey News at 14 and had already inked seven-figure endorsement deals with Gatorade and Reebok.
“Sid was the perfect prospect,” Rutherford said. “There wasn’t any doubt.”
Added Burke, now an analyst for Sportsnet: “He was the whole package. Elite hockey sense. Elite physical ability. Elite leadership. There was no question about whether or not he would be great. It was just a question of how great.”
All 30 teams sent one representative to the Sheraton for the draft lottery. Once everyone arrived that morning, the group was sequestered in a room. They were there so long they got served breakfast and lingered long past lunch.
“They took care of us, but we were there for several hours,” Patrick said. “They took our cellphones. If we had to go to the bathroom, they walked with us.”
Bill Daly, who in 2005 was named the NHL’s deputy commissioner, was running the show. The first ball out of the lottery machine was for the first pick and from there they would sort out the rest of the first round in ascending order.
The Hurricanes chose Jason Karmanos, who has since followed Rutherford to the Penguins, to represent them at the lottery. Their ball number was 13. That meant Karmanos was sitting next to Patrick when the first ball was spit out.
“Jason could see the number as it came out and he thought that it might have been Carolina’s number,” Rutherford said. “But, as it turned out, it was 12, Craig was a happy man and the rest of that’s history, as far as the Penguins go.”
Patrick would have to wait to celebrate the miracle with the rest of Pittsburgh.
“I couldn’t tell anybody,” he said. “The lottery took place and then we were in there for another four hours until it went on TV and became public. I had to sit there for hours knowing we had the first pick and couldn’t tell anybody.”
Most of the hockey world turned on the television at 4 p.m.
Well, except for Lemieux. He had to take his daughter to the doctor that day. He didn’t expect the Penguins to score the top pick, so he turned off his phone.
“It’s one of those ‘Where were you?’ moments,” said Burke, another Cup-winning GM. “There aren’t many moments etched in time like that. But that one is.”
Marc-André Fleury, the gymnastic young Penguins goalie who that winter had played with Crosby at the World Junior Championship, tuned in from his house in Quebec. After a workout, Brooks Orpik and his buddies had just ordered a round of beers at Cityside Tavern, a pub not far from the Boston College campus.
Crosby was at home in Cole Harbour. He had a boyish face and some product in his dark, curly locks. He wore a blue Reebok athletic T-shirt, khaki shorts and a gold chain around his neck. The 17-year-old later walked out onto his front lawn for a press conference, family members peeking through the curtains.
During TSN’s live lottery show, the cameras cut to the star centre as Bettman opened envelopes and potential destinations were crossed off Crosby’s list.
At one point, Duthie, the host, asked him if he was excited, nervous, numb.
“I think all of those. It’s been a lot of anticipation the last little while. It’s definitely exciting,” he said. “I’m going to sit here and watch like everyone else.”
After Montreal and then Minnesota were eliminated, only three teams remained.
Get more sports in your inbox
Get the Star’s Sports Headlines email newsletter for a daily round-up of the latest big news.
“I’m not a guy that sweats a lot, unless I’m out in the humidity. But the palms of my hands started getting wet,” said Rutherford, who at the time was Carolina’s GM. “I was like, ‘Wow, we may be getting Sidney Crosby.’ It just got more and more intense. And then we got the third pick and my hands dried up.”
Burke and Sawyer stepped onstage, Duthie was given a reprieve and about three minutes of commercials rolled. Patrick was cracking up in the other room.
“Everyone else in our organization was saying, ‘We’re still in it! We’re still in it!’” Patrick said. “And when it got down to Anaheim and us, I was really chuckling because Ken Sawyer was out there sweating. And I had known for hours.”
When Bettman picked up the envelope marked with the No. 1, Burke was for some reason confident Crosby was headed to Southern California.
“I just had a hunch,” he said. “Then I saw a little splash of colour when they opened the envelope. I thought it was orange. I thought the Ducks had won it.”
It was Pittsburgh’s “Vegas gold.” The Penguins had won the Crosby lottery.
Sawyer, who retired as CEO in 2009, smiled and politely shook Burke’s hand.
“Ken is a very reserved guy,” Burke said with a laugh. “I would have been doing the ‘Rocky’ routine up there, jumping up and down with my arms in the air.”
That’s what McMillan was doing back at Mellon Arena after excusing himself from a room filled with local media who had assembled to watch the lottery.
“All the TV cameras pointed to me and I realized that I was the highest-ranking official in the room,” he said. “I remember saying to myself, ‘Don’t do anything stupid that will get you on a highlight video for the rest of your life.’”
As he stood outside screaming, McMillan knew everything had changed.
“It was euphoria, almost hysteria,” he said of the events that soon followed.
Shortly after the news broke, the team’s ticket office was overwhelmed with calls. There was a 45-minute wait to get through. McMillan added that employees were still in the office until close to midnight taking ticket orders.
Within a few days, fans from as far away as Australia had purchased tickets. When single-game tickets went on sale, the Penguins sold more than 10,000 in four hours.
On July 30, at a scaled-down draft inside an Ottawa hotel, Pittsburgh made it official. Anaheim picked Bobby Ryan second. Jack Johnson went third to Carolina. Minnesota’s Benoit Pouliot and Montreal’s Carey Price rounded out the top five.
The Penguins tried to take as much pressure off Crosby as they could. Lemieux came back for one more season, putting up 22 points in his final 26 games, and Patrick signed Sergei Gonchar, Ziggy Palffy and John LeClair in free agency.
“Sidney won’t have to carry the load early,” Patrick said at the time. “But you can see that three or four years down the road, Sidney is going to be the leader on this team and the one we’ll rely on to make us a successful franchise.”
Crosby made his NHL debut Oct. 5, which is Lemieux’s birthday, and finished his sensational rookie season with a team-high 39 goals and 102 points.
“You always hear people say (that draft lottery) was rigged, especially with where the organization was at,” Orpik said. “But there’s no chance that would ever happen. But yeah, there is so much hype with some of these guys and sometimes they bust. Obviously, that wasn’t the case with him. It worked out.”
In 2009, Crosby, along with Malkin and Fleury, led the Penguins to a Stanley Cup. They got their new arena in 2010 and two more titles in 2016 and 2017.
Based on how those 48 lottery balls could have ping-ponged, Crosby could have potentially lifted the Cup anywhere on the NHL map, from Minnesota, where he attended prep school, to Montreal, the home of his childhood team.
Picture Crosby in San Jose teal or Philadelphia orange.
What if he wound up with the dynasty-seeking Detroit Red Wings?
All these years later, he swears he doesn’t ponder all those possibilities.
“I remember having a lot of meetings with all the different teams because nobody had any idea where you’re going to end up,” the captain said with a shrug. “It was kind of unique circumstances with the way it was done that year.”
Well, the rest of the league wonders what might have been. Even Rutherford, who won his first Stanley Cup with Carolina that season. And especially Burke.
“I still joke with Sid about it. They were here in Toronto (in February),” Burke said. “Every time I see him, I hold up my index finger and my thumb about a quarter-inch apart, and I say, ‘This close, Sid. You were this close to being a Duck.’”