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The NHL Draft and rituals of manhood

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I'm not an anthropologist, but the draft made me feel like one.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

"So how was the draft?" My husband asked me when I returned from Sunrise, road-weary and still slightly hungover.

I hesitated before replying, truly thinking about it for the first time. When I was in the middle of it, I was caught up in the intensity of watching lives get altered by a few words on a stage. Afterwards, I realized just how...frikking...weird this is.

When I headed down to Sunrise, it was my first journey down the Atlantic Highway into the belly of the Everglades. It was my first venture into the heart of a sports ritual that was so reality-altering that even the prospects had no words for it.

I'd followed the draft before by reading up on it the day after -- this was my first time experiencing it in real time, live-tweeting it even; my first time hanging out under the same domed ceiling as every single GM of every single team and their consigliere.

In short, it was intense, weird, and required some time to process.

"It was basically a manhood ritual," I told Dave. Dave doesn't like or follow sports, so I usually use metaphors to describe it to him. "Tribal leaders in clothing that denotes their power sit around tables marked by the names of their tribe. These tribal leaders select young men to become warriors for the tribe. The young man dons the tribal insignia, and his identity changes. He waits his whole life for this moment."

"Very Disney Princess," Dave agreed, and then we moved on to think about other things.

But while I was trying to formulate a good way to explain it, I got to thinking about this modern ritual and how tribal it truly is.

How would I explain it to Dave?

This is how:

My first night, I dressed in the garb of my people, the other journalists. I went in business clothing that wasn't as formal as the GMs or prospects, but in-between. The journalists are not in the main tribe, they have a tribe of their own, kind of like the jackals that follow after the lion prides. (And us bloggers are obviously the rats that creep in after the jackals are done.)

I realized when I got there that people could be sorted by their clothing. The GMs and consigliere wore the most formal, expensive garments, dark suits with ties in the colors of their tribe, symbolizing that they've arrived at the pinnacle of power. The prospects wore cheaper versions of these suits, and gathered in self-conscious cliques, clearly struck by the importance of the day.

(These roving bands of self-conscious suit-clad prospects were especially noticeable around Fort Lauderdale, amid the usual beach-going resort crowd. At Starbucks, a group of prospects sweated their way through a line, looking overly warm, wafting a cloud of nervous sweat and aftershave.)

The women who accompanied the prospects were formally dressed as well, but in outfits that edged more toward  cocktail dress than businesswear. Some of the younger women who accompanied the players wore semiformal dresses that carried the cultural capital of beauty and sexiness -- I am not judging, here, but observing, because these outfits were VERY unlike the large majority of attendees, the people of the tribes.

The men and women who came to sit in the outermost ring of the ritual ground wore casual garments, often topped by the jersey of their tribal affiliation. What do I mean by outermost ring? Well...

There was the altar, of course, upon which the manhood ritual took place. It was also the stage upon which the tragi-comic character of the Commissioner stood to placidly accept the boos of the hoi-polloi and deliver mandates to all assembled.

At the very center of the ritual ground sat the most powerful men of each tribe, around tables adorned with their tribal names and insignia. Every part of the ritual ground was focused around this central floor, and the attention of the crowd, the journalists, and the prospects were keenly trained upon them.

There was sometimes movement within it, and sometimes stillness, mandated by the Commissioner's word. When there was movement, the journalists surged forward to the wall of their nearby enclosure, avidly hanging upon each motion and expression of each of the GMs.

In the ring of seats nearest to the central floor sat the young men and their families. In the outermost ring sat the people of each tribe.

The manhood ritual took place when the Commissioner called up the powerful leaders of each tribe, in an order mandated by esoteric rules, carefully randomized and based upon the tribe's relative skill.

The powerful men walked in a careful row to the stage, and then stood in another row, flanked by one young boy wearing the tribal garment. The most powerful of these came forward and announced the name of the newest warrior, to the cheers of the people of the tribe in the outermost ring, and the jeers of their opponents.

Here's where clothing once again became important. After the new warrior hugged his family, he descended the first ring of seats to the middle circle, and then mounted the stage to join the group of men. At some point during this walk, he removed his formal suit jacket and handed it to an assistant.

Divested of his jacket, he greeted the tribal leaders with embraces and hand-shakes, and was handed his new garments -- a jersey with the insignia of the team, and a similar hat.

The final moment of the ritual came when the new warrior stood in the middle of the group of powerful men, arms around the men on either side, smiling to record the historic occasion.

Then the warrior, young man no more, was handed off to the crowd of awaiting journalists, who all asked him to describe his moment of transformation.

"How did you feel to be chosen by ___ tribe?"

"It was indescribable," said each new warrior very carefully. "I've been waiting my whole life for this, and there's nothing like it."

~

But what was the draft really like? What was it like watching all of this?

It was deep. It was weird to hear "We have a trade," and find that two (or more) lives had to hurtle across the countries in exchange for each other. It was strange to hear humans discussed in terms of numbers and speculation, like poor Pick 29, who changed hands several times in the course of a night. Pick 29 finally became a man named Gabriel Carlsson, the newest Blue Jacket.

It was so weird to think that whenever a kid was drafted, he was ultimately promised nothing but attention, a hopeful journeyman year or two of testing and development, and possible final inclusion into the ranks of those that wear the garments for real. "And only a few of these picks ever work out," a sage journalist said.

All those people, all this ceremony. All for hockey, or maybe it's just another way to organize our lives into meaningful patterns.

But that's the thing -- it IS meaningful. It's a strange show, but one with rippling effects that impact each young life, each family, each team, and (like it or not) each of us.