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FLAMES EXTRA - DIGGING FOR GOLD

Finding and evaluating potential NHL talent on larger European ice surfaces is a tough task, but one that Flames scout Bobbie Hagelin relishes

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames / calgaryflames.com

It's 4 p.m. Stockholm time, 8 a.m. in Calgary, and Bobbie Hagelin is preparing to go to a hockey game.

Hagelin, understand, goes to a lot of hockey games.

"Today, I'm driving to see Södertälje play, just outside Stockholm,'' he says.

"Then tomorrow I fly to Finland for the weekend to see some games."

As one of two European-based scouts in the employ of the Flames - Ari Haanpaa being the other - Hagelin travels hither and yon to identify, assess and recommend potential talents to draft.

A partial list of his country-hopping itinerary over the past six winters:

Sweden.

Finland.

Russia.

Czech Republic.

Slovakia.

Switzerland.

France.

Germany.

And points in between.

"I love it,'' says Hagelin, who can spend as much as two weeks away from home at a stretch. "I work for a great organization in the best league in the world. I'm lucky. This job demands a lot out of you. Which I enjoy. You have to be at your best every day. No days off. That's how I look at it.

"I like the pressure. I like having to be on my toes, paying attention to everything. This is a details-oriented business.

"There's a lot of different factors involved, finding talent."

Hailing from a hockey-mad family from the city he was travelling to that particular night, Södertälje, Hamelin's younger brother Carl, of course, is a two-time Stanley Cup winner with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Those sort of dreams were once held by the elder sibling in the family, too.

"As player, I was pretty talented, I guess,'' reckons Bobbie. "Captain for the junior national team. I signed a contract when I was 16, played off and on a pro team. Then I began having problems with injuries when I was 21, starting with major shoulder surgery."

Only four years later, playing for the Rodovre Mighty Bulls of the Metal Ligaen, Denmark's top hockey tier, and facing back surgery (that turned into two surgeries), Hagelin made the difficult decision to retire, turning to sports physiotherapy for four and a half years.

Hamelin insists he doesn't in any way feel cheated at having a playing career cut short by something so out of a player's control as injuries.

"No. Not really. I just don't look at it that way. We weren't raised that way. It's not an excuse or a complaint. It's hockey. Things happen. You can't dwell on the bad things. You can't feel sorry for yourself. There's no point in that.

"I'm not saying when you're forced to quit at a young age it isn't hard. It is. But you have to accept it. After that, I was always kind of involved being in charge of my brother's training in the summer so I stayed in contact with hockey.

"Then one day, two teams called me asking if I might be interested in scouting. One of those teams was Calgary. By that time, I wanted to get back into the game.

"I felt Calgary was a good fit."

The big business of bird-dogging has grown by leaps and bounds. In this day and age, there are few secrets, no stones left unturned by any of the 31 teams.

"The biggest difference, North America to Europe,'' says Hagelin's immediate boss, Flames' Director of Amateur Scouting, Tod Button, "is in the size of the ice and how you look at players.

"There's not as much, for lack of a better term, 'close-quarters combat', even though that part of the game has gone away a little bit over here, too.

"The skill, the skating, the open-ice is a lot more prevalent. There's not as much traffic.

"With the goalies, I remember Mike Liut telling me years ago that evaluating a goalie in Europe is so hard because if a puck goes from the corner to the net in the NHL or in North America guys can get to the net for a screen or a tip. There's traffic. In Europe it's almost impossible, so the goalies get a lot more clean looks.

"There are cultural differences, too, right? Russians, Finns, Czechs, Swedes. Knowing those cultural differences is important. You need guys based in those areas. They grew up immersed in it so they're invaluable in sorting it out for you.

"There are subtle differences in the games that have to be taken into account when you're evaluating players."

In season, the life of a scout requires certain sacrifices, such as being on the road. Hagelin spends large swaths of time away from wife Sofia and 16-month-old daughter Leonia.

"Being away from the family is the hardest part of the job,'' he says. "You're on your own a lot. But then you get some time in the summer to be with them.

"I'm not complaining. I think we've got a good thing going in Calgary. Sofia knows what I'm doing and she's happy that I love what I do.

"But of course when you're away from them, especially for long periods, you miss them."

Identifying a potential gem makes the hard work worthwhile, however.

"As an organization, we obviously have criteria, which I look for, we all look for, in players,'' says Hagelin. "And beyond that, there's the gut feeling. You have to be able to trust your gut feeling. When you do this job, it's because you have a pretty good eye and your gut feeling is right a lot of the time.

"When you're at a game, it's all business. A lot of times I couldn't tell you the final score. I'm there to watch individuals."

Both Hagelin and Haanpaa are in constant contact with home base in Calgary.

"I talk to Tod quite often. He's a great leader, a great scout. The combination makes him one of the best in the business, in my mind," says Hagelin.

"The amateur staff we have are all on the same page. Our objectives very clear. But you've still got to be independent and self-motivated, for sure."

A good scout, Button - a 20-year-veteran of the business - knows, is a valuable commodity.

"The hardest thing,'' he says, "is understanding what it takes to be an NHL player. Not just on the ice but off it, too. Training. Work ethic. Professionalism.

"Bobby's always been a highly motivated guy and a very professional person. He and his brother spent a lot of time in Michigan when they were kids with an uncle, with family. So he understands the difference between being a professional here and in Europe. He can evaluate it. He can project players into the NHL.

"First and foremost, he believes in what he sees. He's got a real good conviction in assessing players.

"It takes time to build trust up but very quickly Bobbie was on board with what we were doing and he's brought a lot to the table."

Watching Carl - four years younger, aged 29 - move from Manhattan and the NY Rangers to Pittsburgh and aid the Penguins in back-to-back titles is, of course, a point of pride for Hagelin.

Big brother, though, aims to be part of a Stanley Cup champion himself someday. He cherishes photos of the brothers together with Lord Stanley's big, jug-eared mug.

"For me, with the time difference, the best thing is waking up in the morning and see Calgary won the game the night before,'' says Hagelin.

"My job is to be a small piece of the puzzle and try to find players who can help us win.

"I feel fortunate to still be involved and able to contribute.

"Hockey is my big passion in life.

"It's all about the team. It's all about the organization. We're all in the business to win. It's all about winning.

"Whether you're a player or a manager or a scout, whatever your job might be in the organization, that's what we're working towards. 

"That's the ultimate goal."

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