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Thinking locally

The benefits of helping teams grab hometown talent

Posted: Wednesday December 12, 2007 1:34PM; Updated: Wednesday December 12, 2007 2:16PM
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Born in Edmonton, the Oilers' Fernando Pisani  is a local hero who has won the hearts of the city's soccer-first Italian community.
Born in Edmonton, the Oilers' Fernando Pisani is a local hero who has won the hearts of the city's soccer-first Italian community.
Andy Devlin/Getty Images
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The sparse crowd that dotted the American Airlines Center stands for last Friday's game between Dallas and Ottawa was treated to one heck of a tilt. Though the visitors handed the Stars a 4-2 loss, the contest delivered the best the game has to offer: gritty physical play, some deft goaltending and a number of quality scoring chances.

But the buzz among the patrons as they filed out of the building had little to do with the big hits, the resurgence of Mike Modano or the mockery Antoine Vermette made of the Dallas defense with a dazzling first-period assault. No, everyone was talking about the amazing behind-the-back, lacrosse-style goal scored by Max Gerlach.

Don't know the name? Maybe you will down the road. At the moment, he's a bit under the radar. Gerlach, after all, is just nine years old.

During the first intermission, this whiz kid stunned those who had stayed in their seats to watch a midget shootout exhibition with a showy move reminiscent of the stickhandling wizardry of Sidney Crosby and Rob Schremp. Already, a clip of Gerlach's goal has generated more than 100,000 views on YouTube and was named the NHL's highlight of the week on TSN in Canada.

As amazing as it was, it's likely those fans in Dallas have already forgotten the kid's name. But what if they had a good reason not to? What if there was a chance that they had just seen a future member of their beloved Stars?

As the NHL struggles to grab its fair share of the spotlight in so many American markets, it makes good sense to appeal to the most basic emotion of the sports fan: hometown pride. Even the most hockey-savvy crowds aren't immune to the tug. Look at how Edmonton-born Fernando Pisani is treated by Oilers fans, for example, or how every trade rumor out of Montreal involves Les Habitants bringing home some local boy and granting him his bleu, blanc et rouge birthright.

These connections create excitement. So why not tweak the NHL's current draft system to create more of those situations, especially where they're needed most, by giving teams first right of refusal to local prospects?

Wouldn't be the first time such rights were the order of the day. One only has to look back a few decades to when the Canadiens were given a territorial imperative that allowed them to control the fates of two local players each year in order to maintain the distinct francophonic flavor of the franchise. Looking at the current state of that club, is there any doubt that the Habs, and the league itself, would be better off if they'd been allowed to maintain that privilege instead of morphing into a McFranchise that's no more uniquely identifiable than those in Columbus, Nashville or Phoenix?

Acting locally may be more important than ever. As teams endeavor to separate themselves from the pack while working under the constrictions of the salary cap, there are really just two options: an outstanding front office and the best possible scouting staff. Allowing teams to tend their own backyard gardens would create a third avenue that rewards the worthy, rather than those teams who are drafting early as a result of either gross misfortune or good old-fashioned mismanagement.

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