|E.J. Maguire, Director of the NHL's Central Scouting Service, has been around the sport of hockey for many years and has numerous scouting stories to tell.
Maguire is also “aided” by player agents and parents who regularly contact Central Scouting to “remind” the staff that they could have overlooked a player, although that seems unlikely with all the technology and information on players that is available today.
Maguire and his staff not only have to watch games, but they also have to keep an eye on vital statistics, namely a player’s height and weight, throughout the season. Sometimes there is some cloak-and-dagger stuff that makes this seemingly simple task a tad more challenging.
Players always want to appear taller and bigger and some coaches will “aid” that quest to score bigger in both categories.
"Oh yeah, they know there is this label and thank goodness that the recent change in the NHL has loosened the need for someone to be 6-foot or 6-foot-1," Maguire said. "If you are big and you can skate, that is quite an asset. If you can just skate, that's good enough for today's NHL.
"When I was coaching junior hockey, you'd help them along,” Maguire recalled. “They would put their sweat socks on and stuff a puck under their heels and come clomping and see if the Central Scouting guy would notice. And they would have a couple of five pound weights inside their gym shorts taped to their rear end to make them a little heavier and a little taller. I’d just look the other way. I was privy to this and you know what, Central Scouting was privy to all the tricks of the trade at that time."
Admit it E.J, you weren’t just an innocent bystander, were you?
"Yeah, I’ve promoted it," he laughed. "Being a coach, you want your kids to be looked at more favorably. When I was a major junior coach (with the Ontario Hockey League’s Guelph Storm between 1995 and 1997), the height and weight was a little more important than it is now. I think that's the beauty of our game in that you don't have to be a 300-pound offensive lineman (in football) nor a 6-foot-7 point guard in basketball.
"I think our game can stand on the skill alone and there is less of an emphasis on that height. If anything, there is more of an emphasis on perhaps a big, slow defenseman. We ask in the scouting room; ‘Can he play under the current conditions in the NHL without hooking and holding and causing his team penalties?’"
Maguire said that the puck in the socks and the weights in the underwear were the basic tricks of the trade, but there is no substitute for talent and that is what the scouts are seeking.
"Play on the ice. The tricks? Score a hat trick when the right scout is in the building," Maguire said.
Scouting is a science, but it is also subjective and arguments frequently break out as scouts have very strong opinions about players. Longtime National Football League coach Bill Parcells told a story once of how a fistfight broke out between two scouts while debating a player’s merits during his days in the scouting war room with the New York Giants.
"I have never witnessed (a fist fight) in my time both with organizations (Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, Ottawa, the New York Rangers) and with Central Scouting,” Maguire said. “But people are strong on their opinions of guys from their region. They are proud of their region.
”I once was privy to a scouting meeting room where one guy was talking about toughness in the old days when fighting was perhaps more important than it is now in the NHL and one scout across the table was talking about a good fighter (and another said), ‘I never saw your guy fight but my guy is tougher,’" Maguire recalled.
In the end, the two scouts were quarreling over two players and the team didn't take either according to Maguire.
"The argument went for nothing," he laughed. "They took a skill player."
While League employees, Maguire and his staff work for all 30 teams, so they are not looking to fill any specific needs for a team and it could be argued that they do not have any real impact other than lending an extra set of eyes to a scouting staff. But that is fine with Maguire.
"We advise,” he said. “We are an early warning system. Once we identify these top guys, it’s up to the NHL teams to get in there. At a certain point in the season, we turn our focus to the hinterlands. We have a staff of 15 part-timers, birddogs, and its our job to tell the NHL teams that you know where there is a guy playing for an obscure high school somewhere. We miss one every year, some team knows of a kid they want to draft.
"When I say missed, that doesn't mean that that person will actually play in the NHL. But our mission is to identify...there is a kid playing in Saskatoon or north of Saskatoon who is playing on a team and we think he deserves to be looked at, and that is one of the roles of Central Scouting to identify them."
Maguire and his associates will be hitting all the development league training camps to take a look a players and they will be measuring and weighing kids – also looking for “clomping” players who might also be taping weights to their backsides.
The toughest part of the job isn’t weighing or measuring players or even watching games night after night. It’s actually getting to the arena that is difficult, particularly in the Western Hockey League.
“I, myself, eclipsed the 200-game mark,” Maguire said of his travel in 2006-07. “Of our full-time staff of 10 alone, I might be high because I am privileged in the metro Toronto area to see a lot of doubleheaders. Our full-timer in Regina, Saskatchewan can see the Regina Pats, but it’s a tough drive to the next town over. The Western League is tough with the overnights both for players and scouts and throw in the weather variations, it’s even tougher. When I complain about driving to London, Ontario from Toronto which is about 100 and change in miles, our western scouts whirl their eyes and say; ‘That’s a short trip for us.”
The NHL is a global business and it’s essential that both Central Scouting and all 30 NHL teams have scouts in Europe. In some ways, it’s much easier for European scouts than North American talent seekers.
“In Europe, we have regional staff members in the various countries, but there are crossovers (looking at players from different countries). A lot of their crossover coverage is at international tournaments. They will fly to Helsinki to see these international teams play in competition.
”It’s probably not (as tough to scout in Europe than Western Canada) because it’s a more regional thing and there are more tournaments where players come to certain spots.”
Scouting U.S. colleges is a bit different according to Maguire because not many players are draft eligible anymore.
“Most of the college players are already picked so Kyle Turris (chosen third overall by Phoenix in the 2007 draft) will not be a concern to Central Scouting next year, even though he will be at Wisconsin. We will look at him and be proud he is doing well, but once he is the property of an NHL team, he ceases to become of any interest to Central Scouting. So, the U.S. universities with no age limit generally have one or two players who hold our interest.
So it is off to the Quebec Hockey League, the Ontario Hockey League, the Western Hockey League, the United States Hockey League, to prep schools in New England and Minnesota and all other parts of the world to find the next great player, penalty killer, all-star goaltender or a rock-solid defenseman.
Maguire does have one piece of advice for the young players he and his scouts will watch this season; leave the pucks in the puck bag and the weights in the weight room. It’s won’t help you. He and his staff know all the tricks of the trade.