If you were to compile a list of the most intriguing and alluring professions (outside of being a highly paid pro athlete), what might be called “dream jobs,” you might include a ski instructor at Vail, a photographer for Hugh Heffner, perhaps a road test driver for Porsche. My list would include being paid to travel around the world to watch hockey, with rinks as my office, as a scout. On conference calls I’d be asked to discuss slick-skating Slovaks and mischief-makers from Moose Jaw.
In this role I could envision myself shamelessly dropping the names of athletes and locales, annoying my fellow air travelers in their comparatively mundane business comings and goings with “Once I land in Stockholm I’ll race over to national team headquarters to obtain a progress report on Jergen . . . for I understand he’s tearing up the Elite League.” This likely explains why I am not a hockey scout; at times I lack subtlety.
Of course, our perceptions of these professions are premised on myth and an outsider’s necessarily flawed vantage. When you actually get a chance to talk to someone in them, markedly different realities are detailed for you. This was my experience recently in an entirely unplanned and altogether fortuitous exchange I had with a full-time NHL scout. From the moment I confirmed his identity I knew I wanted to pick his hockey head clean of its “a season in the life of” experiences and analyses, for his is a line of work long shrouded behind the scenes, in mystery even, by design.
In this scout I had not only a fertile and fruitful information source but an emblem of hockey’s most impassioned: you don’t go into hockey scouting because the loading gig at Home Depot didn’t come through, you scout — necessarily making unfathomable sacrifices on your personal life — because you possess in inexhaustable fire for life on ice, he told me. He didn’t merely answer my questions in rich detail but created compositions with my readers’ perceived curiosity foremost in mind. He asked of me only that I preserve his anonymity and that of his NHL employer. I happily obliged.
He is based in the U.S. He covers a major region of the country — its colleges and prominent high school programs. He is responsible for all of the teams and players in one of college hockey’s power conferences. And at times he is also tasked with scouting junior hockey and the occasional professional game.
pucksandbooks: Most hockey fans have an impression that the life of an NHL scout has to be pretty much the closest thing to Heaven on Earth as far as careers go. I mean, what could be better than getting paid to watch terrific hockey! Jet planes, morning skates, and hotels with embroidered bathrobes. Firstly, how accurate are our general impressions of this career, and would you identify for OFB readers both your favorite and least favorite aspects of it?
NHLScout: I love when people talk about the glamour of this job. Let me make it clear from the start that I love my job. There is literally nothing I would rather be doing in the world. As you said, I get paid to watch hockey — what could be better? I’m sure people will skip this disclaimer and read what follows as me complaining, but that’s not my intention. I just want to strip the “glamour” idea from the job. Scouting is a grind. The glamour is for athletes, GMs, and some coaches. The scouts are the faceless drones who do the grunt work without the public recognition.
I’m one of the younger scouts, and single. On a “home” week for me, I’ll spend Tuesday through Sunday driving to games, watching games, and sitting at home filing game reports. I frequently drive 5 hours to see a game, then drive 5 back (through snow, rain, ice, whatever else) when the game ends. That means I’ll leave my house around noon on Friday, and get home around 3 a.m. Saturday. I haven’t had a Friday or Saturday night off since the last weekend in August. When I’m on the road, it’s long drives, small towns, and hotel rooms. Ever been to Medicine Hat, Alberta? Or Sioux City, Iowa? Or some random town I can’t spell in Latvia? NHL scouts have.
And this isn’t NHL hockey we get to watch every night. I’ve seen high school games where one player is a borderline 7th round pick, and the rest of the kids can’t even skate. It’s painful to watch and hard to focus — you end up trying to find attractive women in the crowd, or staring at the clock as the minutes count down. Scouting is a time consuming, exhausting job, especially for wives and children. I’m incredibly lucky to not be married at this point — I don’t know how the wives are able to do it. Their husbands are gone for weeks at a time, work strange hours, and have very little time off. Honestly, the toughest people in hockey are the wives and children. It’s amazing what they have to deal with.
My favorite part of the job is hard to choose. I love the community. Scouts are a tight-knit group of men who do their best to look out for each other. Older scouts helping rookies with things like hotels, directions, back doors to rinks, etc. Rookies driving the older guys while they catch up on some rest. Going and talking to the athletes and coaches and finding out information. Hearing the stories of guys who have scouted for 50 years (“I remember seeing Bobby Orr back in juniors. One game . . . “) never ceases to entertain me. I love the first moment of every day when I walk into a rink, and feel the cold, and smell the sweat, and just feel at home. I love those infrequent games where you see something special — a player you just know will be a star, or a goal you’ve never seen before, or a great fight. I love that my job changes every day.
My least favorite part of the job is just the travel and lack of free time, which gets old pretty fast. For every trip to a great city like New York or Boston or Madison, Wis., there’s the trip to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, or some small town in Western Canada, or a place in Russia where no one else speaks English. I don’t really have time for a social life because I’m working every night. I also wouldn’t mind if women were more impressed by the job title. When I get a rare night off and go out to a bar, I usually end up surrounded by male hockey fans who are asking me questions, while the girls of the group walk off to find a doctor or a cop.
pucksandbooks: I think we fans are often curious about the formal relationship scouts have had with hockey prior to getting their jobs. What is your personal background with hockey? What region of the country did you grow up in, did you play the game, and if so, what level did you reach?
NHLScout: My hockey background is not overly impressive. I spent some time in Canada and some time in the U.S. I played up through Junior Hockey, before realizing I had peaked as a player. I took some low-paying jobs as a part-time coach or scout while I went to school, then eventually moved into it full time. Scouts are a good mix of guys — some played for years in the NHL. Some only played up through juniors, some played in the AHL, some played college hockey. One important distinction is that I’m willing to bet that every guy working as a scout was one of the smartest hockey players on their team. Athletic background is important because of the perspective it gives you, but it’s not vital. Hockey intelligence is more important for a scout than how fast you used to skate. You need to know what a player should be doing, you don’t have to be able to do it yourself.
pucksandbooks: When in your fluency with hockey did you first entertain thoughts of becoming a scout, and how did you formally initiate that process? Share with our readers some sense of what it takes to demonstrate to an NHL team that your eye for hockey is sharp enough to warrrant the weighty responsibilites of evaluating talent that is expected to shape the big club’s roster year in and year out.
NHLScout: I decided at a young age that I wanted to work on the management side. For me, I took a variety of low paying or unpaid jobs in order to make contacts, build a resume, and gain experience. I worked as a part-time scout for a couple years getting paid $100 bucks a game. I took two unpaid positions with teams in order to get in the door. I know guys who started out doing video for junior teams. Others worked their way up slowly through the coaching ranks. At each of my jobs, I immediately found the smartest people around me and just latched on to learn. As a younger scout, I still try to sit near or talk to the veteran scouts every game, just to see what I can learn.
Every scout is constantly proving his worth to his team, and you always need to improve and learn, or you’ll be replaced. How do you prove your worth? It’s pretty easy: find players. If you are, for example, the scout for the OHL for your team, you better know the best players in that league like the back of your hand. Every scout makes mistakes — hundreds of mistakes throughout his career. Teams know that — it’s how guys like Andy MacDonald go undrafted. But you have to hit more than you miss.
pucksandbooks: One of the reasons hockey fans know so little about its scouting is, it seems, the pains taken by the hockey community to shroud it in mystery and vagueness. Rarely, for instance, do teams publicly identify the names of many of their scouts, or make them available to media, although the Washington Capitals now list theirs in the team’s media guide. Can you address this climate of mystery a bit — why the secrecy, what’s it premised on, is it comparable to other sports?
NHLScout: Honestly, I think part of the “cloud of mystery” is because scouts don’t care. You don’t become a scout to get famous or get rich. You become a scout because you love the game and you want to stay involved. Almost every guy is a former player who simply loves hockey too much to do anything else. A lot of them are brilliant guys who could be successful in any number of fields, but they chose the life of a scout because it makes them happy.
We don’t need recognition from the general public — we know what we’re doing, our bosses know what we’re doing, and we can see our success or failures every day when we open the paper and see the standings. We know that GMs live and die by our reports and opinions. Scouts are an interesting balance between arrogance and humility — it takes a degree of arrogance to say that you know for sure that an 18-year-old kid playing high school hockey is going to be the next star, and it takes a degree of humility to do it without wanting to get credit.
Is it comparable to other sports? I would assume so. I’m a die-hard baseball and football fan, and I couldn’t name one scout from any of my favorite teams. We’re happy seeing our contributions on the ice every night, we don’t need to read about them in the papers.
pucksandbooks: Take our readers through a typical week in your professional life at say the height of the college hockey season — when you’re at your busiest. Like me, I think OFB readers would really like to gain a full portrait of just how much hockey you see — including practices and such — in the given in-season week; how much you interact with other scouts or NHL staffers; what are your typical interactions with university coaching staffs and players; and especially what products you are tasked with generating in this typical week, things like this.
NHLScout: A typical day in the heart of the season? In large part it depends on if I’m on the road. Let’s assume I’m doing home games Tuesday-Thursday, then flying some place for Friday-Sunday. Tuesday through Thursday, the games will probably start at 7:00. I wake up early, work out, do whatever errands I have to do around the house. I leave in time to get into the area I need to be by 5:00. Some games I can leave as late as 4:30, some games I have to leave by noon or 11. I try to get there by 5 so I can eat a quick meal and don’t have to eat “rink food.”
I like to get to the rink by 5:30 for a 7:00 game so I can talk to the coaches, trainers, other scouts, and whoever else I need to talk to. You never know what information you’ll come up with if you get there early and just talk to everyone.
I watch the game until there’s about three minutes left in the game. An older scout once told me “A good scout never sees the last two minutes of a game.” The general consensus is, if the kid hasn’t shown you something in 58 minutes, he’s not going to do it in the last two. So, unless I have a reason to stick around — really want to see a kid in crunch time, have to talk to people afterwards, just feel like seeing the end of a great game, etc. — I beat the traffic and head out. I go home, and fill out my game reports — just about every team uses a computer program, so I file through that. If it’s Thursday night I’ll get back from the game and pack.
I always take the earliest flight wherever I need to go, just in case. You never know when an hour delay will keep you from making a game. That usually means leaving my house around 4 a.m. to get to the airport. If the Thursday night game was a ways away, I might be getting on the plane without sleep (it’s happened plenty of times). I sleep on the plane, pick up my rental, drive to my hotel, and nap. Then I get out to the rink by 5:00 again, eat, and hit the rink. Go back to the hotel, and file the reports. If I’m up for it, head down to the hotel bar and grab a drink.
There’s almost always other scouts around, depending on where you are. Scouts like to stay in the same hotel in the same city. Everyone knows where you stay if you’re in Detroit, for example. So wandering down to the hotel bar, you’re usually lucky enough to have a few guys around. As I said, very glamorous and exciting. Sometimes you get lucky and have a week of games that are an hour from your house. Sometimes you have to spend three weeks on the road. Just depends on the schedule and where the priority players are.
I do not usually watch practices during the season, but I will go in occasionally in the fall to see teams skate. In the average week, I see five or six games. If there’s a high school tournament or junior tournament, or just strange scheduling, I can see up to 12, 13 games in a week. I think my peak is 15 thanks to back-to-back, day long high school tournaments.
Coming up Friday: 10 Questions for a Full-Time NHL Scout, Part II