Shea Weber had traveled to the United States occasionally for Western Hockey League games, but his first vacation to this country came in June of 2003. The first city he visited was Nashville, as he made his way to Music City with his mother for the NHL Draft where he would be drafted as an 18-year-old.
For nearly all future NHLers, being drafted is the most memorable moment of their young lives. It’s what they’ve worked for throughout their childhood; it’s where the NHL dream begins. But when Nashville selected Weber in the second round, the eventual All-Star defenseman didn’t even hear his name.
“It was a long day, just sitting there for so long,” he explained. “I heard Kelowna Rockets and everyone around me was saying, ‘That’s you!’ and I was just like, ‘Oh, wow!’ I was surprised with excitement and joy for my family and myself.”
Twelve picks prior to Weber going at 49th overall, Kevin Klein was taken by surprise when he was drafted by the Predators because he never interviewed with them at the combine. Klein and his family were sitting next to one of the Predators fan sections in the arena when his name was called at 37th overall.
“All I remember,” he said with a chuckle, “is this one lady yelling out, ‘We’re going to take care of Kevin in Nashville!’ and my mom was crying, like, ‘Oh, that’s so nice!’”
Earlier that afternoon, before Weber and Klein were selected by the draft’s host team, Ryan Suter became a Nashville Predator with the seventh overall pick. Suter was the first defenseman taken in a talent-laden draft class that is talked about as the best ever.
It can be argued that Klein, Suter and Weber make up the best defense trio to be drafted by one team in the same draft class. When you count Alexander Sulzer, the Predators’ selection at 92nd overall, Nashville found four future NHL defensemen in a single day. In fact, the Predators are just one of two teams to ever have four defensemen from the same draft play in the same game.
It’s safe to say Predators general manager David Poile couldn’t have struck gold any more than he did 10 years ago on June 21, 2003.
“It really took our franchise in the right direction,” he said of that draft.
On June 29, 2002, the Nashville Predators made a four-asset trade with Dallas. The only notable name in that trade was future Hall of Fame goaltender and free agent-to-be Ed Belfour, whose negotiating rights were acquired by the Predators. When Belfour signed with Toronto later that summer, the Predators were awarded a 2003 compensatory draft pick. That pick turned out to be the 49th overall selection, where the Predators selected a fairly decent player by the name of Shea Weber.
The Predators may not have taken Weber with that pick had they not used a 2001 draft pick on Tomas Slovak, who was Weber’s teammate with Kelowna of the WHL in the 2002-03 season. Similar to the story of how they discovered Pekka Rinne in Finland, the Predators spotted the little-used Weber just by chance.
“We went there (Kelowna) all the time to watch Slovak play and he never panned out, but by virtue of watching him all the time we kept seeing Weber, who wasn’t playing big minutes, so we probably got to know him more than most teams,” Poile said.
Slovak never played an NHL game. Weber may go down as one of the best defensemen in this generation.
Weber’s credentials are well-known. He has three NHL All-Star Games to his credit, won a gold medal in 2010 with Team Canada and was the Norris Trophy runner up in 2011 and 2012. He’s entering the prime of his career and this fall will begin the second season of his 14-year contract.
The defenseman that shoots like Al MacInnis and hits like Scott Stevens had to share some of that spotlight with Suter, who left for Minnesota last summer. Though the seventh overall pick didn’t capture the national attention as much as the Predators’ captain, Suter was just as good and just as important to that defense pairing as Weber. They had the potential to go down as one of the top defense pairings in NHL history.
“It would’ve been great for the Predators and for the hockey world to see how their careers panned out together,” said Poile.
The Predators’ game plan in the 2003 draft was to load up on defensemen. They were eyeing Suter, Braydon Coburn and Dion Phaneuf with the seventh overall pick, but Suter was their guy all along. Five forwards and one goaltender were chosen in the first six picks, which allowed the Predators to nab the defenseman they coveted the most.
The Predators used five of their first seven picks on defensemen, four of which turned into NHL players. You know about Suter and Weber, and Sulzer was primarily a depth player for Nashville before moving on. The player that sometimes gets overlooked due to the pair of Olympians is Klein.
Just two or three years ago it seemed like Klein was still a youngster trying to find his way in the NHL. He was a regular healthy scratch before he had some ups and downs on the blue-line. However, he has steadily evolved into a defensive mainstay and vocal leader for the Predators. It may surprise some people that Klein is the third-longest tenured player on the roster.
“There were a lot of learning experiences, but it’s definitely worked out for the best,” he said. “Now I’ve got two kids born and being raised in Nashville. It’s pretty amazing. My wife and I go back to Canada during the summers and this is feeling more like home every year. We’re pretty excited to raise our family here. Who knows, we could be Nashvillians for a long time.”
Last September, Klein signed a five-year, $14.5 million contract extension with the Predators. If all goes according to plan, by 2018 Klein and Weber will have spent 15 years together in the organization. David Legwand and Martin Erat didn’t even do that, as they were in the organization together for 14 seasons.
“You get to kind of come up through the ranks together; you know each other and become friends,” Klein said. “That’s something special.”
1979 was the first time 18-year-olds were eligible for the NHL Draft. Since then, just two draft classes are included in the conversation of “best draft class ever”: 1979 and 2003.
Almost every draft class nowadays, including this year’s talent-rich pool of teenagers, is rivaled against 2003 (above) – but they all pale in comparison. Not only have all 30 first-round picks from 2003 played in the NHL, but the depth of the class from top to bottom is truly remarkable. A total of 130 of the 292 players drafted have played at least one NHL game. All but five teams drafted at least three players that would go on to play in the NHL.
“You dream of stuff like that,” said Poile, who remembered having high expectations for that draft class.
Poile’s intention leading up to the 2003 draft was to fill the cupboard with picks – and he did, making five trades in the months/years in advance to accumulate additional selections. “However, I wish I had really known how good of a draft class that was going to be because I would have given up even more to get more picks,” he said.
Predators coach Barry Trotz added, “That draft was huge for us. If you can hit on two guys per draft you’re doing pretty good, but to hit on four or five – that’s spectacular.”
The Predators had 11 picks that year and four of them made the NHL. Given the caliber of those players, they hit a grand slam. From the Predators’ perspective, it will be difficult to top that draft – not only because they drafted Suter, Weber, Klein and Sulzer that weekend, but also because the draft (the best ever?) was held in Music City.
For many current stars the NHL dream began in Nashville in 2003. For Weber, a small-town Western Canadian teenager, it was a new life adventure. Ten years ago his NHL dream was realized in the city where he’s become the face of a franchise, but he hopes it doesn’t take that long to fulfill the next dream on his mind.
“It all started here with the draft and hopefully,” Weber said, “it’s where we’re going to be able to hoist the Stanley Cup in years to come.”