Future Greats and Heartbreaks: A Year Undercover in the Secret World of NHL Scouts
Veteran sports writer Gare Joyce realizes a long-held secret ambition as he spends a full season embedded as a hockey scout. Joyce’s year on the hockey beat is a steep learning curve for him; NHL scouts spend each season gathering information on players fighting it out to break into the world of professional hockey. They watch hundreds of games, speak to scores of players, parents, team-mates and other scouts, amassing profiles on all the top contenders. It’s a form of risk assessment–is this young hopeful deserving of a multi-million dollar contract?–and it can be a tough and thankless task. Scouts are ground into the game, picking up nuances of play that even the most committed fan would miss, but they are looking at more than just how well a kid can play. And come the final draft, only a tiny percentage of their full year’s work might matter.
Examining the amount of information gathered on the under-eighteen hopefuls, the scrutiny to which they are subjected, and the differences between the rigour of American and Canadian junior teams, Joyce opens a window on the life and methods of an NHL scout and penetrates the mysterious world of scouting as no one has before.
Q & A with Gare Joyce
Q. (Alanah): Your experience being behind the scenes with the Columbus Blue Jackets as they prepared for and went through the 2006 Entry Draft, was a unique one. Was the process you witnessed largely predictable, what you expected?
A. (Joyce): Well, the process made me feel old, that’s for sure. Seriously, I knew most of the top players were going to be prepped by their agents. You knew they’d have canned answers. Toews was an instructive example of that count. It was like he was running for student president.
Q. Were there many surprises in what the team considered relevant and non-relevant in their selections?
I was surprised that Kessel didn’t seem to know or follow a script. Also surprised by the range in the prospects’ maturity and confidence—some were petrified (e.g. Kessel, Riku Helenius-Tampa’s pick), some nonchalant-somnambulant (Vrlamov), and a few acted like they owned the place. You’d tend to think that there’d be common threads thar run through a group of kids who are successful in any enterprise at age 18. Really, they were all over the place—like I say in the book, pretty much like your class in high school.
Q. Would you say the process was guided largely by intuition, or a more systemic approach?
This is something that ranges station-to-station, I think. It does seem, for instance, that Dallas has a very specific, structured, uniform approach. Others go by the seat of the pants. I supposed that intuition is in the mix even with those teams that have a strict interviewing/psyche-testing routine.
Q. Thinking about your time hanging with the professional scouts and observing their work, you give the impression that there really are no unifying ‘systems’ that all scouts use to determine to best players; that handicapping in this business isn’t much different than a betting at a race track. Did this surprise you? Did you expect more consistency?
Not so surprised. It’s a game, almost entirely spontaneous and improvised, that doesn’t lend itself to statistical analysis and hard-and-fast measures of physical performance like baseball (90 mph fastballs) or football (4.5 40s). Even if you have a drill to measure straight-ahead speed on the ice, what does it really mean? Changing direction, changing speeds, knowing when to skate: These things are what makes hockey players, the next Crosby. Straight-ahead speed in a line = the next Gaetan Boucher.
Q. When you consider scouts that are consistently accurate in their choices and recommendations, can you point to any one quality that unified those scouts? Were there any common qualities to the best scouts you observed? To the worst?
Scouts, good and bad, are a mixed bag. It should be a business of outcomes: If you draft good players, you’re a good scout ... bad players, you’re looking at unemployment. Yet there are some good scouts who aren’t working or are heaved out of organizations
Q. Do you think those scouts who were once professional players have an advantage over scouts without that up-close experience on the other side?
In very broad strokes, I have no doubt on that count. Former pros’ understanding of the game, its nuances and demands, is just at another level from that of a rec-league player. I think it’s probably especially true when it comes to goaltenders. Such a specific skill set, personalities all over the place ... in that case I suppose it really takes one to know one. But that’s not to say that the best scouts were the best players—that’s another matter entirely. Sometimes those who were skill-challenged have a keener eye and better instincts than those who were naturally blessed.
Q. Since so much of the scouting process appears to be a crapshoot, is there an explanation that comes to mind as to why some teams and their scouts (i.e. Detroit) are more consistently successful than others? Or, after your experiences researching this book, does the whole thing often seem to be as much a product of luck as anything else?
There is a crapshoot aspect to it. Good scouts can make bad picks—in fact, in a good draft, misses will outnumber finds. If you’re Top 10 pick plays less than 500 NHL games and is no better than a third-liner, something’s screwy. If your pick in the second ten plays less than 300 games, that’s a miss. If your second-rounder plays makes the league and sticks, congratulations, you’ve beaten the odds, at least 5 to 1. Anything after that, odds grow longer. And if you get someone who has a big impact in those rounds, you hang it on the wall.
Q. Do you think the players themselves are affected by how the scouts rank them?
Absolutely. Any player who says he isn’t paying attention is lying. Angelo Esposito was a classic example of a kid whose performance suffered because of that. Those who can be blissfully unaware for as long as possibly—Jakub Voracek seems like the nearest thing—are lucky.
Q. Scouts look at various personal issues, as well as hockey talent on the ice. Did you observe how they weighed those considerations against each other? For example, when evaluating a player like Steve Downie after the World Juniors, certainly the media was forgiving of Downie’s fairly notable personality/behavior issues—as you noted in your book—but are the scouts affected the same way?
I think scouts look for disqualifiers—first and foremost, reasons to eliminate players—rather than cut prospects slack or give them the benefit of the doubt. “Issues” as teenagers, they believe, have echoes that are deafening later in the careers. They don’t tend to forgive. They’d much rather move on and look for another prospect rather than rationalize a prospect’s “issues.”
Q. Do you think xenophobia plays into how scouts - particularly North American scouts looking at European players - judge the suitability of players for the NHL? Is the old Don Cherry-esque attitude of “Europeans are soft” still a notable foundation on which scouts judge foreign players, do you think?
Scouts know that lots of Canadians are soft too. I don’t think that it’s a question of character or xenophobia—recent history indicates that drafting players out of Russia has been hit (Ovechkin, Malkin) and miss (Svitov, Chistov, most of the 2003 world junior team) proposition. A lot of those who were expected to hit fell far short of the mark.
Clearly, signability is a stumbling block with Russian players, especially in the absence of an agreement with the Russian federation. Cherepanov would have been Top 10, Top 5 really, if he were from anywhere else.
Q. Finally, did the research leading to this book make you more cynical about the hockey business, or less?
I’m not cynical at all about the game or the business. I go into every story with an open mind and an open notebook. I’m more of a professional innocent than a deep thinker. I don’t presume to have all the answers, just a lot of questions. I think I’m realistic rather than cynical about the business of the NHL and the business of junior hockey—bad things sometimes happen to good people, just like any other business. Those are your Heartbreaks. Overall, I spent a year trying to learn about the game. I made some friends along the way, some great people, players, scouts and folks just around the rink. Were some disappointing or less than swell? I wouldn’t dwell on them. Maybe I caught them on a bad day. I had a chance to see some players as juniors who’ll go on to be NHL Future Greats—that’s a memory I have of Orr, Gretzky and Crosby. It’s still a charge. I think it’s the same for any real hockey fan—it’s sort of like seeing the Beatles playing the Cavern in Liverpool.
I had a great ride while the season lasted.
Future Greats and Heartbreaks is available at Amazon.com
* Links to the book are affiliate links of KK
**My sincere thanks to Gare Joyce and Random House Publishing