The last time Bill Miller worked in Pittsburgh, he was coordinating the 1997 NHL Entry Draft for the Penguins. He has returned this week on the payroll of a different employer but with a similar goal: the successful staging of this year's draft at Consol Energy Center.
"That was my last event when I worked for the Penguins," said Miller, now the NHL's vice president of events and entertainment. "That is how I first met people from the league. I was the main contact working with the league, so when the draft ended, they offered me a job."
Tom McMillan, vice president of communications for the Penguins, remembers the job offer a bit differently.
"They stole him," he said with a grin. "He's our legacy."
The draft returns to Pittsburgh 15 years later thanks to the 2-year-old Consol Energy Center. Without it, Miller said, the draft would never have been awarded to Pittsburgh and the 51-year-old Civic Arena. He is a member of the committee that selects the draft's host city each year.
"When the bid came in from Pittsburgh, I was like, 'All right, my mind's made up,' " he said. "Then I read through it. I was very, very pleased to be coming back here.
"I will say, I miss the charm of [the Civic Arena], but I don't know how we fit the draft in that building."
The 1997 version of the draft was a carnival game compared to this year's traveling three-ring circus. With every team's general manager and president, most coaches and owners and a bounty of scouts in attendance, it is safe to say the league's brain trust will be in Pittsburgh this weekend. Of the 211 players those 30 front offices will draft, more than 100 are expected to be in the building with their families, taking up approximately 2,000 seats.
And then there is the video screen, which Miller speaks of with unmatched pride and joy.
"We've been working on this for three years," Miller said of the two-story video screen that will provide an information bonanza as well as a background for each selection. "It'll provide a good photographic backdrop for when they do the group pictures. They may show all the stats from the kid when he is picked and is kissing his mom. It'll probably show some highlights of him as he makes his way to the stage."
Miller is optimistic his staff has found the right elements to benefit both those attending the draft and those watching on TV -- plus, he has to meet high demands from the league personnel.
"The biggest thing for us is for these people at the tables. This is a business meeting. They are picking the future stars of their team, and we have to balance their need to be able to concentrate on what they're doing against our need to be able to entertain these 10,000 people as well as the people watching television," he said. "It's a fine line, but over the years they've let us get away with a little bit more."
Despite the beauty of the screen and the additional sensory stimulation of constant music and bright graphics that fans have come to expect in professional sports arenas, Miller and McMillan believe the most alluring aspect of the draft is the first-person drama.
"The point is every general manager is here, every coach is here," McMillan said. "So if you're a fan, it's a hockey convention. You can see it going on, and you can also see a general manager from this table walking back to that table to actually talk about a trade, and as a fan you can see that going on."
Add in the gauntlet of photo shoots and interview sessions each draftee must go through immediately after being picked, and there will be no lack of excitement in Consol Energy Center, and much more than there was at the Civic Arena in 1997.
Miller would know, as seemingly would most of the staff at the new arena. Half a dozen times in less than 45 minutes Miller was stopped by another worker who remembered him from his days working for the Penguins.
"It's neat to see some of the electricians are the same guys who were at the old building, some of the carpenters. The guy who drives a forklift yelled my name the other day," Miller said. "I still have my '97 Penguins draft shirt hanging in my closet, and I'm going to hang this one right next to it."
Douglas Farmer: email@example.com and Twitter @D_Farmer. First Published June 22, 2012 4:00 AM