Draft Day Follies

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When Esks’ GM Ed Hervey clears his throat, leans in to a speaker phone and utters the words ‘the Edmonton Eskimos are proud to announce….”  he does so safe in the knowledge that he can’t possibly do worse than many of his predecessors.

A club that can boast 13 Grey Cups and 34 consecutive playoff appearances clearly has done lots of things very well but drafting hasn’t always been one of them.

Pre-salary cap days, the Esks had some powerful weapons in the hunt for homegrown talent: super scout Frank Morris,bags of cash and a willingness to spend it.  Have a hole to fill, simply sign a Canuck free agent whose been developed elsewhere and presto, problem gone.

Join me now in revisiting a couple of those sublime Draft Day moments that stand out in Eskimo lore as special for all the wrong reasons.

The first coach I worked for treated the entire exercise with a barely concealed contempt. Kay Stephenson wasn’t interested in having Canadians on the field, let alone actually taking the time to draft them.  For Don Matthews, the whole idea of getting to the office early only to sit around staring at a phone and barking out names was mildly irritating and well below his place on the food chain.

As the rounds progressed, Don was less interested in the actual player but in the distance they needed to travel to attend training camp.  A late pick from the University of Alberta was good because they could ride their bike or take the bus .  With things winding down in the ’99 Draft, Don turned to me and said “you pick someone”.  With voice quavering, his earnest and inexperienced P.R. guy scanned some names on the white board and blurted out, “Orlando Bowen, Northern Illinois”.  I’d love to tell you that his name is displayed on the ring of honour at Commonwealth.

Over the years there were curious decisions like taking a kicker with the second overall pick or the O Lineman who in the words of an assistant coach “is just not very good at football”.

But the all time flaming pie of  illogical moves came when the best choice was literally in the building.

For Esks fans Dmitri Tsoumpas will always hold a special place, the big fish that got away.  With Edmonton holding the #1 pick and in desperate need of a young player to anchor the line for years to come, the choice of Tsoumpas seemed pre-ordained. So much so that our equipment manager had a jersey crested and ready for the news conference which we would have later that day, right?  Little did we know.  Big Dmitri arrived at the office shortly  before the draft would start and was ushered into my office.  While we made small talk, I’m crafted a press release to announce his triumphant arrival.  Minutes later I’m told to get down to the GM’s office where I learn that Big D is going down Highway 2 to Calgary.  “Go back to your desk, but don’t tell him what’s going on”. With jersey in a bag at my feet, I start furiously editing the release that sang his praises and start inserting quotes about how John Comiskey and Kevin Challenger would the be missing pieces. If only that were true!   

It wasn’t that long ago that unearthing good, if not great Canadian talent was a gridiron version of pin the tail on the donkey with the GM armed with little more than a photocopied list of eligible players, a few notes, crossed fingers and faith in the football gods.

Ed Hervey has been tasked with restoring the lustre to the franchise and in many respects he has but when it comes to drafting, he’s not exactly walking in the footsteps of giants.

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