Each year, the NHL has an entry draft, where teams select the best 18-year-old hockey players to join their organization. And each year, some especially gifted youngster gets the honor of being chosen first.
Even among the best, though, there are some who stand out. Most, if not all No. 1 draft picks, will have long, excellent careers. A few are destined to become all-time greats.
The sports trading card company Upper Deck is betting that Alexis Lafreniere, the forward taken by the Rangers with the first pick of the 2020 draft, is going to be one of those. Upper Deck, which has exclusive rights to the NHL, generally has endorsement deals with all NHL draftees, but it’s not just any draft pick that the company chooses to make a spokesman. They’ve done that with Lafreniere.
"Every year we look a couple years out to see what the drafts are going to look like that are upcoming,’’ Mike Phillips, Upper Deck’s Executive Vice President of Sales and Marketing, said. "Our team spends a lot of time analyzing those players and identifying players that we think, if they're drafted high … that we would like to go after and build a relationship with and partner up with.
"We identified Alexis as a player like that a number of years ago. As he was coming up into the ranks, it was pretty clear that he was a special player. And not only just because of his prowess on the ice, but also, you could tell early on that he had that 'it’ factor.’’
There are plenty of qualities companies consider when choosing a spokesperson, but that impossible to define "it’’ factor is big. Jack Hughes, the No. 1 pick overall in 2019, is a fine player — an American kid whose older brother, Quinn, was the No. 7 pick overall in 2018, and whose younger brother, Luke, is likely to be a first round pick in 2021. All that is nice, but in the company’s eyes, Hughes apparently doesn’t have "it.’’
"I think Jack is going to be a great player,’’ Phillips said. "I think he has a lot of those same qualities [that Lafreniere has]. But… we identified a little bit more with what Alexis seemed to be showing.’’
It doesn’t hurt that Lafreniere plays for the Rangers, the marquee franchise in the biggest media market in North America and an Original Six NHL club. Hughes also plays in the New York market, of course, but the New Jersey Devils are not the Rangers.
Phillips points out that Upper Deck’s partnership with Lafreniere started long before the Rangers won the second-chance lottery for the first pick and the right to draft Lafreniere. But he admits the company was "ecstatic’’ to have the 6-1, 192-pound left wing land in New York City.
"Obviously, New York, I don't need to tell you, media capital of the world,’’ he said. "Where would you go where there'd be more focus than playing for a storied franchise like the New York Rangers? Maybe Toronto, or Montreal, but the Rangers have such history. And such an unbelievable fan base and notoriety. I mean, what, what more could you ask for?’’
In the trading card business, the big money is always in the rookie card. The company produces cards for every player in the league, but it’s the rookie card that collectors crave. A quick internet search for the rookie cards of Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes, or, in the hockey world, Connor McDavid, shows how valuable they can be.
The value of that rookie card grows in subsequent years, when the player’s career blossoms. Phillips believes Lafreniere’s landing on the Rangers — a franchise emerging from a two-year rebuild — will help his career.
"The Rangers are clearly a team on the rise,’’ Phillips said. "They've got a great nucleus of talent. And I don't know that he will be needed to just, [beginning] Day One, start putting goals in net.
"I think he has opportunity to learn from some veterans, and some other really strong players on that team,’’ he said. "But I also know, that based on his history, he has the ability to come in and contribute right away.’’