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Ex-Hockey Players With Laptops

by Bill Fleischman / Philadelphia Flyers
We take you now to where brave men dare to go, to the "scouts' perch" in the press box at the Wachovia Center. Seated on the upper level are former Flyers Mark Howe, Bill Barber and Dave Brown. As the first period ends, they flip open their laptops and begin typing in their reports.

Ex-hockey players with laptops: you write the photo caption.

But seriously, folks...scouts are finding the "new NHL" almost as challenging as the players and referees are. With all the penalties and power plays, the forwards on the third and fourth lines don't play as much.

"We don't get a chance to see them, so we don't learn much about them," said Howe, an All-Star defenseman for the Flyers in the 1980s and now a scout for the Detroit Red Wings.

Barber, the director of player personnel for the Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning, says the new rules have forced scouts to adjust their judgments on some players.

Checking his pre-lockout notes, Barber's report on one player read "Hard to believe he'll make it: lacks the grit factor." Reporting on the same player early in this season, Barber's report says, "Has a better chance of making it now because of the new rules."

Said Barber: "Players with grit have to be careful or they're going to be out of jobs. There's no physical aspect in front of the goaltender any more. You can't (shove) players out of there when the puck is shot, like you could in the old days. You have to step around (offensive players) now and try to play the puck. Smaller, quicker guys are going to be very effective. They don't have to be big on defense anymore. You can have a smaller guy back there that's very quick, can move the puck and jump up in the play."

When Barber coached the Phantoms to the 1998 Calder Cup Championship and later with the Flyers, he was an advocate of "old-time hockey." Earlier this season, as players adjusted to the new rules designed to open up the NHL game, there was very little physical play. As the season progresses, Barber is seeing more hitting.

"It will take a little time for the players to adjust," Barber said. "When they do, that physical stuff might come back. It's a game of emotion and confrontation, meaning the one-on-one battles."

Just as the players are adjusting, scouts had to move into a computerized world. Prior to computers, NHL scouts would file all their reports on paper, then mail them to the team offices. The process was s-l-o-w.

Now, thanks to a program called Rinknet, scouts file their reports via computers. "It really lightens the load on the front offices," Howe said.

Scouts also communicate by e-mail. "If we have a scout in Russia," Howe said, "you almost don't need to talk with him. We start tracking players when they are 16. By the time he's 22, everybody in the organization has a good feel for him. If his name comes up in a trade, and seven out of eight (scouts) like the trade, it's a no-brainer. The system is far more effective (than the old days)."

Howe is in his 11th season with Detroit, the team that his father, the legendary Gordie Howe, had a Hockey Hall of Fame career with. Mark ended his playing career with the Red Wings in 1995. Former Flyers coach Bob McCammon, who later coached Vancouver, also scouts for the Red Wings. He is based in Vancouver.

As a Red Wings scout, Howe had Flyers center Peter Forsberg on his mind many times. Forsberg led the Colorado Avalanche against the Red Wings in frequent regular season and playoff battles.

"With him, (opponents) don't stop him," Howe said. "You try to limit his effectiveness. Instead of him getting three or four points a night, you try to hold him to one or two points."

Howe has been impressed by Flyers defenseman Joni Pitkanen. That's not a surprise, since they have similar playing styles. Howe collected 742 points in 929 NHL games (plus 504 points in 426 World Hockey Association games).

"(Pitkanen's) made a huge jump up in the last month or so," Howe said. "You can really see the confidence in his game. He's really taken charge. With his size and skills, he has the potential to be a really good hockey player."

Howe and Barber agree that the Flyers will have to go through Ottawa to reach the Stanley Cup Finals.

"Ottawa is the strongest team (in the NHL's Eastern Conference)," Howe said, "but the Flyers are right there. I was talking with (Flyers General Manager) Bob Clarke. He said, with the salary cap, some teams had to lose guys and it made them weaker. They lost some depth. The Flyers got a little stronger. They're strong at every position."

But perhaps not as strong as Ottawa. "As far as size, mobility, pucks skills and lines that can threaten you, they're the strongest team that I've seen," Barber said. "A lot of teams have a top six, top two lines. Ottawa has a top nine and a couple guys knocking at the door. They're defense is young (but) they have size, mobility and reach. If (goalie Dominik) Hasek can hold it (at a high level), then they're going to be a real threat (for the Cup)."

Life on the road

Many former NHL players gravitate toward scouting because it keeps them close to the game they have played since they were lads. After a while, however, some decide a scout's life is not for them. Scouts usually travel by themselves. Men accustomed to traveling and socializing with a team often find the scout's life lonely.

Howe and Barber have acclimated themselves to a scout's routine. Since both are responsible for NHL and AHL teams, they keep track of 57 teams. That's a lot of games, scouting reports and miles.

Being based in the Philadelphia area makes their jobs easier. They can drive to New York and Washington for NHL games. For AHL assignments, Hershey and Wilkes-Barre are reasonably short drives, and the New England teams aren't far away.

"I enjoy what I do," Howe said. "I see a lot of games, but don't travel a lot. It keeps me around the rink and the game."

Barber feels the same way. "I'm very pleased where I am, as far as my responsibilities go," he said. "I really don't have any interest in coaching. I had my fun with it. I had a chance to win at the minor league level (with the Phantoms).

"Tampa leans on me heavily for evaluation of players, especially our own players. You can't compare one team to the next unless you're honest with your own team."

Jay Feaster, Tampa Bay's general manager, previously was GM of the Hershey Bears. He and Barber worked together when Barber coached the Bears during the 1995-96 season.

As a Hall of Fame player and later as coach, Barber has always had a good relationship with the media. When he was named coach in Hershey, he joked that the first thing he would do was hand a list of Philadelphia sports writers to security people at the arena with instructions to not let these people in the building. We didn't believe him. Of course, that season I didn't try to get into the arena.

Please note that the views expressed in this column are not necessarily the views expressed by the Philadelphia Flyers Hockey Club.

Bill Fleischman is a veteran Philadelphia Daily News sports writer. He was the Flyers beat reporter for the Daily News in the 1970s, and continued to cover games in later years. A former president of the Professional Hockey Writers and the Philadelphia Sports Writers Associations, Fleischman is co-author of ``Bernie, Bernie," the autobiography of Bernie Parent. Fleischman also is co-author of ``The Unauthorized NASCAR Fan Guide." Since 1981, he has been an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware journalism program.

He is a graduate of Germantown High School and Gettysburg College.
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