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Book Review: "Future Greats & Heartbreaks"

by Mike Vogel / Washington Capitals
“I’ve always been fascinated by drafts. It doesn’t matter which sport, which pro league, I just pore over previews and forecasts for hours at a time.”

Those are the first two sentences of Gare Joyce’s recent book, “Future Greats and Heartbreaks.” The book is subtitled “A year undercover in the secret world of NHL scouts,” and that’s a fairly accurate description of what’s between the front and back covers. It’s also a clever hook; there are many of us who share Joyce’s passion for pro sports drafts. Joyce claims more excitement for covering his first NHL draft than he had for his first Stanley Cup.

Joyce was permitted into the war room of the Columbus Blue Jackets as the NHL team prepared for the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. He sat in on interviews with young prospects, and was present when the team’s scouts and hockey operations staff set about making its list for the 2006 draft.

The Jackets believed the 2006 draft had seven top echelon talents. With the sixth overall choice in that draft, Columbus knew it would get one of the seven. The Jackets believed they would have no hope of getting Erik Johnson, Jordan Staal or Jonathan Toews, and one of the team’s main exercises heading into the draft was to rank the other four: Nicklas Backstrom, Phil Kessel, Derick Brassard and Peter Mueller.

The Jackets ended up with Brassard when all was said and done.

Besides giving readers a glimpse inside that process, Joyce also shows how widely lists vary beyond the very early portions of the first round. At least one player chosen in the first round in 2006 was listed as “no draft” on the Jackets’ list, meaning Columbus would not have chosen that player in any round of the proceedings. Yet that player was ranked highly on the lists of several publications, draft previews and mock drafts that many fans digest each year prior to the draft.

One of the oddities of the NHL Draft is the tendency of journalists and bloggers to grade and assess the picks as they’re made, or shortly thereafter. This questionable practice produces one of my favorite passages in the book:

“Never is so much written and said about so many based on so little first-hand knowledge. Thousands of words are written about players who represent the future of the franchises, yet those doing the writing – and during the ranking of winners and losers – are seeing most draftees for the first time at the draft. In their street clothes.”

Joyce argues that the days after the draft are not the time to assess the winners and losers. That process will always take years.

Joyce also shows what goes on during the interview process at the annual draft combine in Toronto. His account includes the Jackets’ interviews of a couple players who are currently in the Washington organization.

Joyce spent the following year on the road at various tournaments and junior hockey games around the globe, watching young and soon-to-be-draft-eligible players trying to improve their stock in the eyes of scouts from around the league. He talked with scouts, learned how they lived, traveled and saw the game. He tried to see the game and the players with their eyes for a year, and the result is “Future Greats and Heartbreaks.”

As anyone who has ever spent time chatting and discussing the game with scouts knows, these men comprise a different breed. They watch the game differently, see it differently and discuss it differently.

“I’ve always known that I watch one game and the scouts watch another, rich in the subtleties I miss,” writes Joyce.

Joyce gives his readers a peek into the science of scouting and the trials of the trade as he watches games around the globe, watching the 2007 draft-eligible players in tournaments and junior games in Europe and Canada. He tells us why scouts sit where they sit, and what they’re looking for and looking at when they watch games.

In the course of the 2006-07 season, the Blue Jackets’ front office and coaching staff underwent some changes because of yet another frustrating season on the ice. Joyce shares the uneasiness of the scouts in the wake of these changes. Scouting is somewhat of a fraternity in the NHL. Even scouts from rival teams are friendly with each other, and scouts have their ears to the ground as to what is going on with other organizations. They know where turmoil exists. They’re sympathetic to the plights of their peers in other organizations, knowing that their own fates also hinge on being able to find a few talented hockey players each year.

I’m one of the few fortunate souls who has been given some of the same access that Joyce had to write his book. I’ve sat in on player interviews for several different drafts, sat in the war room on trade deadline day and sat at the team’s table on the draft floor on draft day, the one area of access that eluded Joyce. Unlike Joyce, I wasn’t given the "inside" access in order to write; I was given this privileged viewpoint in order to broaden my knowledge and background in the game. Those who granted the access knew how thrilling it was for me to have it, and they also trusted me not to reveal what I saw and heard.

I can say that Joyce’s account of his year behind the scenes does jive with my own similar experiences with a different NHL team. The Jackets warmed to his presence a bit as the months went by; they allowed him to ask questions of some of the 2006 prospects during the interview process, and they accepted some of his background reports on a few of the 2007 draft-eligibles. The Columbus organization might not have been pleased with the final product, but they also knew he was a reporter and that he was going to report what he saw and heard. He certainly did that.

During the summer, we’re all looking for enjoyable ways to pass the time until training camp starts again. If you like the draft process like Gare Joyce and many others do, you’ll definitely want to get your hands and your eyes on this book. It’s an honest, entertaining and thorough look at a murky but critical aspect of hockey and the NHL.

Here's a link where you can order a copy of "Future Greats and Heartbreaks: A year undercover in the secret world of NHL scouts."

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