PHILADELPHIA - The NHL draft's top prospects broke bread in the form of cheesesteaks in one of their final bonding experiences before Friday's big night.
Aaron Ekblad, Sam Reinhart, Sam Bennett, Leon Draisaitl and Michael Del Colle, the expected top five picks in the first round, and Philadelphia-area native Anthony DeAngelo took a trolley tour that included stops at Geno's Cheesesteaks for lunch and Citizens Bank Park for some batting practice.
Along the way, they posed for photos and videos, learned some American history and local culture, but most importantly shared some much-needed time together away from hockey.
"All these guys have great personalities, they're great guys," Ekblad said. "it's fun to have that relationship with these kind of guys and be able to screw around and make jokes and all that kind of stuff. It's just great to have a lot of friends in this kind of game."
Ekblad, Reinhart, Bennett, Draisaitl and Dal Colle have become friendly over the past few weeks because they've spent time on the NHL circuit. They were at the scouting combine together and then Game 3 of the Stanley Cup final in New York.
One of them will go first Friday night, whether the Florida Panthers keep or trade the pick, and though Ekblad is the favourite it's not as certain as in years past.
"It's what a team wants in any situation," said Ekblad, a defenceman with the OHL's Barrie Colts and a native of Belle River, Ont. "They could want me or they could want any of the other five or six guys that are here. It's the way it is sometimes. You can't really control it, and it's not something I want to worry about."
These prospects didn't have to worry about that Wednesday. Instead, they boarded a trolley outside their downtown hotel and made five stops around the city.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art, site of the iconic scene in "Rocky" where Sylvester Stalone ran up the steps, was first on the tour. Ekblad conceded he hadn't seen the movie — released in 1976, 20 years before he was born — while Bennett knew all about it but only because his dad had him watch.
Naturally, the players copied the scene, arms in the air and everything. All that was missing was the matching music, "Gonna Fly Now" by Bill Conti, which has become a sports-arena staple for decades.
Players took pictures in front of the sign for "LOVE Park," before going to Geno's Cheesesteaks for lunch. Five of the six players — four Canadians and one German — received much-needed instructions on how to order: the cheese (American, Provolone or Whiz) and onions (with or without).
DeAngelo, a defenceman from nearby Sewell, N.J., who plays for the OHL's Sarnia Sting has tried just about every cheesesteak in town and gets whiz without every time. His fellow prospects' orders varied, but no one seemed displeased with their first taste of the Philadelphia delicacy.
"I thought it was really good, actually," said Ekblad, who ordered a cheesesteak with American cheese and without onions. "I thought there was a lot more vegetables and stuff in it. I like to keep my vegetables separate from my meat. I thought it was really good."
After a brief stop to see the house in which Betsy Ross sewed the first American flag almost 250 years ago, the players had their most enjoyable time on the baseball diamond at Citizens Bank Park, home of Major League Baseball's Phillies.
There, they got advice from Fredericton, N.B., native Matt Stairs, who played 19 seasons and won a World Series with Philadelphia.
"If you can't hit a ball off a tee, you're not going to go very far," Stairs said.
Draisaitl at one point hit the tee further than the ball. Still, Stairs saw more potential in him than the others.
"All future hockey guys. But you can work with them," he said. "A couple pointers you give them and they make quick adjustments — especially the young fellow from Germany."
Reinhart, the only player willing to try flipping steaks at Geno's earlier in the day, said the best part for this group of athletes was to be able to hit a baseball.
In reality, the whole day was an escape from the nerves of knowing that Friday night was nearing.
"It's getting closer and closer and it's really exciting," Draisaitl said. "We've been through a lot over the last couple of months. It's been exciting. The best is still to come, I think."
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