Looking back at the 1996 and 1997 drafts
In order to be a successful team in the Ontario Hockey League, teams must do their homework and research as they select player in the annual process of the OHL Priority Selection. Since future Hall of Famer Bill Barber was selected first overall by the Kitchener Rangers in 1969, thousands of teenagers have been selected by an OHL team. Hundreds of those have gone on to play in the OHL, and even fewer have reached the National Hockey League.
The OHL Priority Selection has gone through many changes since its inception, from admitting only players that were 17 years old to admitting 16 year old players and now in some cases, a 15 year old with “exceptional status” (such as Connor McDavid this year or the Barrie Colts’ Aaron Ekblad last year).
The Otters have made 260 selections since they made the move from Niagara Falls in 1996, which is the birth year of a majority to be selected in this year’s Priority Selection that will take place on April 7, a month earlier than usual. We won’t tell you about every selection made (though you can view the name of each player chose in our record book), but here is the lowdown on how some of those picks ended up in their OHL and professional careers. Follow us on the days leading up to the 2012 OHL Priority Selection as we recap a pair of years of previous drafts.
Prior to 2001, the OHL Priority Selection was held in an OHL team’s rink, much like the NHL Entry Draft. The first five OHL Priority Selections were held in front of family, friends and fans with all teams participating on the event floor and making their selection at the podium. This practice stopped in 2001 when the league felt the event added pressure on players and families attended (years before Brady Quinn waited on national television during the NFL Draft) and decided to do the draft via conference call, where it was remained ever since.
1996 OHL Priority Selection
Site: Kitchener Memorial Auditorium
Date: June 1, 1996
The name wasn’t official yet, but it was here that the Otters name first became public. The ownership group was deciding between three names and rather than give their first choice a blank jersey, a prototype of an Otters jersey was given to Brett Gibson, Erie’s inaugural draft pick. Later in the week, Otters became the official name announced at a press conference at the Erie Zoo in front of (you guessed it) an otter display.
First round selection: Gibson was a talented offensive center with the Kingston Voyageurs of the OJAHL, where he collected 83 points in 50 games prior to his selection by Erie with the eighth overall pick. He managed to put up decent numbers in his rookie season with 27 points in 58 games, and followed that up with over a point per game in his second season with 44 points in 36 games. Gibson wound up being traded to North Bay for Tyler Rennette and future NHL defenseman Steve Montador at the trade deadline in 1998 and he completed his OHL career in London in 2000. After attending St. Mary’s University for just over three years, he played his only full season of pro hockey with the East Coast Hockey League’s Pensacola Ice Pilots in 2003-04.
Notable Selections Who Played in Erie: Second round pick Patrick Dovigi tended goal for the Otters in parts of three seasons, and was a second round selection by the Edmonton Oilers in 1997. He was the first Erie Otter selected as OHL Player of the Week. Third round pick Warren Hefford represented Newfoundland at the 1996 World Under-17 Hockey Championships. 15th round pick Derrell Upton made the Otters opening night lineup and played in 49 games for Erie. He was traded to Oshawa early in the 1997-1998 season and flourished with the Generals and Centennials. Upton played seven seasons in the pros, mostly in the Central Hockey League.
Notable Selections Who Did Not Play in Erie: Third round pick Ryan Murphy, a native of California, never played for the Otters but had a lengthy AHL career. Murphy lettered for four seasons with Bowling Green and represented Team USA at the 1999 World Junior Championships with Otters forward Tim Connolly. He was drafted in the fourth round by the Carolina Hurricanes in 1999, but never played in the NHL. Murphy spent parts of eight seasons in the AHL, mostly with the New Jersey Devils’ top farm team. 11th round pick Ryan Knox played four seasons with Lake Superior State, then played professionally in the AHL and ECHL until 2006.
1997 OHL Priority Selection
Site: Maple Leaf Gardens
Date: June 7, 1997
The draft was hosted at the historic Maple Leaf Gardens, then the long-time home of the Toronto Maple Leafs. The league decided to expand the draft to as many selections as the team wished until they passed on a round. The “never ending” draft lasted just two seasons.
First round selection: With the sixth overall pick, the Otters drafted Connolly out of the Syracuse Jr. Crunch program. Connolly made an immediate impact with the Otters, collecting 67 points in his rookie season, a team record that still stands. Despite a broken leg that cut his 1998-1999 season short to 48 games, he led the Otters in scoring with 68 points. He was drafted fifth overall by the New York Islanders in the following draft and is on the cusp of 700 games in his NHL career.
Notable Selections Who Played in Erie: Third round selection Sean Dixon played 244 games in Erie, including a team-record 119 consecutive games (since broken by Brian Lee). Dixon was selected in the sixth round by the Montreal Canadiens in 1999 and was traded to London for his overage season in 2001. Fifth round selection Brent Theobald won the Otters Most Determined Player award in 1998 but was traded in the offseason to expansion Mississauga for the fifth overall pick in the CHL Import Draft, which became Nikita Alexeev. Sixth round selection Jason Baird proved to be a steal as he was a fan favorite for his mix of gritty and explosive offensive play. Baird collected 218 points and a team-record 699 penalty minutes during his four seasons in Erie, and played seven seasons of pro hockey, mostly in the CHL. Sadly, a lawnmower explosion in the summer of 2008 cut short his career and nearly ended his life. Despite suffering severe burns to 70% of his body, Baird made a complete recovery within a year.
Notable Selections Who Did Not Play in Erie: Second round selection Ed Hill re-entered the Priority Selection in 1998 and was selected by Barrie, where he played for three seasons. Hill was selected in the second round by the Nashville Predators in 1999. He retired in 2009 following an eight-season career, mostly in the ECHL. Seventh round pick Chris Brotka was the first Erie-area player selected, but the McDowell alumnus never suited up for the Otters. Eighth rounder Matt Murley opted not to follow his Jr. Crunch teammate Connolly to Erie and instead starred for four seasons at RPI. Murley was selected in the second round by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1999 and played 62 games in the NHL. He is currently playing in Sweden with Timra IK. Ninth round selection Mike Burgoyne never played in the OHL or NCAA, but is currently continuing his career in Romania. He was a top offensive defenseman for several seasons in the UHL and CHL. 12th round pick Nick Shrader played for the U.S. National Development Team for one year before a four-year career at the now-defunct program at Wayne State University. 16th rounder Phil Osaer played three seasons at Ferris State University and was a seventh round draft pick by the St. Louis Blues in 1999. He tended goal for seven seasons professionally, mostly in the ECHL.