JOHNSON: So you just had to go into the family business.
BUTTON: Both my dad and mom worked for the league, actually. My first memories are going to games when my dad was assistant GM in Pittsburgh. We lived in Amarillo, Texas, for a year, too.
As a kid you couldn't go to any weeknight games but Saturday nights were a staple. The big line in Pittsburgh back then was Lowell MacDonald, Syl Apps and Jean Pronovost. I remember my dad drafting Pierre Larouche. Glen Sather was on the '70 or '71 team. Jimmy Rutherford played goal in '75.
A lot of guys.
I also remember how distraught my dad was when Michel Briere was killed (car crash, aged 21, in 1971). I was only six or seven years old at the time but I vividly remember that. It leaves an impression.
When the team went bankrupt in Pittsburgh in '75, my dad was named the first Central Scouting Director so we moved to Montreal. We were there for three years before Max McNab hired him in Washington in '79.
JOHNSON: So you dove into this crazy, time-exhaustive career with eyes wide open, fully understanding the good and bad of the scouting world?
BUTTON: Absolutely. You saw it every day. Up close. Growing up in Montreal, when we moved there, everyone was into hockey. I played all sorts of sports in Pittsburgh. In Montreal, there was only one sport.
JOHNSON: What are the lessons you gleaned from your dad that serve you well today?
BUTTON: Be thorough. Be organized. And never leave any stone unturned - always push for more information.
JOHNSON: Networking is vital, right?
BUTTON: It's just time and communication. Being involved with people - talking with coaches, talking with trainers. We have a varied staff with a lot of experiences. Coaches. Managers. Assistant GMs or what-have-you in the juniors. So the network comes naturally, builds over time.
When I first started in '97 for the Flames I was pro scouting. You couldn't really get the same access to the trainers, the bus drivers, all those people that you do in junior hockey. In junior, there's always somebody at the rink to talk to. Long-time radio guys, for instance. And you develop those relationships. Every, any, scrap of information can help.
JOHNSON: Best part of the job?
BUTTON: When a player you've drafted makes it, establishes himself.
JOHNSON: Does one player in that regard stand out for you?
BUTTON: Oh, I'd say Johnny (Gaudreau). He had a lot of the same pitfalls as Theo (Fleury). Too small, can't play. When he left college hockey people were saying the same things about him, right? So for me, the most satisfaction is in the longshot, the guy other teams say 'Oh, he'll never make it' and he does. Or a guy like Micheal Ferland, who's overcome a lot of personal obstacles to get where he is.
JOHNSON: Worst part of the job?
BUTTON: Travelling. Those long winter trips through the prairies. You're in Moose Jaw one night and Prince Albert the next night. Getting into cold cars. You like to be able to go out and walk around during the day but when it's minus-30 you can't go anywhere. The times you travel and get to see different cultures is great but the grind of the season can wear on you.
The routine now is so ingrained that it's become second nature but for sure when you're been on the road for 10 days, you can't wait to get home.
You can't do this job without a good family backing you (Button and wife Lana are the proud parents of three daughters). Fortunately, all my kids got into dance. So it wasn't as if we had two into one activity and one in another or three with different interests.
When you're gone for extended periods - world juniors, for example - it's tough.
Your wife is the rock. You're on a 10-day road trip and something happens at home, she has to deal with it. You can't do this job without great family. The good part of my job is when I'm home, I'm home. And being here in Ontario is easier than being out west, because I've got six rinks within 45 minutes.
JOHNSON: A best-ever draft story?
BUTTON: I'd say when David (Poile) drafted Petr Bondra in Washington. It was a situation where the scouts were at the end of a long road trip and the European Central Scouting Director said: 'Hey, there's this kid you've got to come and see him in Slovakia.' It was a bit of a hike. Petr was born in Ukraine so he never played any national-team hockey, wasn't well known at all. But my dad rearranged his whole schedule to see this guy. A bunch of the scouts went home, they weren't going to do it. But my dad did. And Petr, if you'll remember, was a seventh-round pick that went on to score 500 goals.
JOHNSON: So much work is funnelled into draft weekend, the stakes are so high and there's no guarantee you're going to snare who you'd projected, so is it a time of fun, or of dread?
BUTTON: It's so exciting I can't even explain it. Once we finish the Combine, things really begin to take shape. 'Maybe we can get this guy in the fourth round' or 'Maybe this guy slipped a little bit and we like him.' You just want to get there and get it done. I love draft day, I love the week leading up to it and I love right now, where you're trying to get as much information as you can, dot the 'I's, cross the 'T's, right?
JOHNSON: Scouting is so refined and so extensive these days, the days of landing a Theo Fleury in the eighth round or Gary Suter in the ninth are largely gone, correct?
BUTTON: You hope you can find something. I still think there's players that aren't seen, late developers that come along every now and then. But the Datsyuks and Lidstroms, the guys of that calibre who go late, that doesn't happen anymore. There's too much media attention, too much communication over the internet that it's hard to think of a player you can scoop out of nowhere.
JOHNSON: Few jobs come saddled with as much public scrutiny.
BUTTON: It's easy to look back. What you always do in this business is look ahead. What can you do different to be better. Whether it's with analytics or physical screening. Looking at the game in different ways. Asking yourself: are we missing anything?
JOHNSON: Any particular nervousness on the draft floor over the years?
BUTTON: Oh, geez … when we took Johnny, for sure. If you remember, that year we didn't have a third-round pick. Jay (Feaster) had said we were going to take Johnny or the Tampa guy, (Nikita) Kucherov. Two guys, we'll take them where we see fit. So at 56, we take Tyler Wotherspoon, then Kucherov goes 57. And we're like: 'Oh, no. Now we've got to wait until 104 for Johnny!' We thought we had a good chance at still getting him but from 57 to 104 we sweated a little bit.
Rob Pulford of the U.S. scouting was sold on him. I'd seen enough of him to be sold on him. When you go around rinks and talk to people, there were a lot of teams that liked him. It was more of a where-can-you-get-him type thing. That fourth round, that's when you start going in all different directions. We'd have taken him in the third if we had a pick there. We didn't.
We knew a lot of teams liked him. Boston had as much information on Johnny as anybody. Philly, New Jersey, because of proximity.
So it was a bit nail-biting. Cause we did really like him. We saw the same things other teams did, the skill and the lack of size. Talk to other scouts and it was always: 'Oh, this guy's so much fun to watch. So exciting.' It's a matter of when do you pull the trigger.
JOHNSON: Have you ever clocked the number of miles or kilometres you log in a year or over your career? To while away the time, maybe?
BUTTON: No, but I reckon I've spent the equivalent of about eight years of my life in a hotel room.
JOHNSON: Worst hotel experience?
BUTTON: The Cosmos Hotel, just outside of Moscow. There was a casino, a nightclub … let's just say there was nothing good about it.
JOHNSON: After all these years, does finding 'that' guy still provide the same charge it did in, say, '97?
BUTTON: Absolutely. It's a challenge. What's great is that every year is different, every draft takes on its own identity. This year it's wide open, high stakes. It's gonna be wild.
When you get to watch Connor McDavid or Sidney Crosby at 16 years old, you see them and go 'Wow! This guy is amazing!' and you know. That's special, too.
So there are a lot of positives. But you have to love hockey to do it.
You're always growing, always learning different things. Watching how other teams do business - it's a copycat league, and not only in style of play but how you gather information.
Everything's changing. It's not like Groundhog Day, where it's the same situation every year. Which helps keep you hungry.