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Life as a Scout... with Neil Little

by Neil Little I Philadelphia Flyers Scout / Philadelphia Flyers

WEEKS 16-20:  College Crazy & My Comeback??

Destinations: Boston (MA), Bridgeport (CT), Trenton (NJ), Denver (CO), Albany (NY), Atlantic City (NJ), Manchester (NH), Providence (RI), Calgary (AB).

I hope this blog finds you all healthy, and happy!

Me tending net at R.P.I
I have certainly watched my fair share of collegiate hockey games this month.  With so much time spent on various campuses witnessing enthusiastic teams vie for playoff glory, I often reminisce how special my college days were to me.  Whether it be running into my former coaches and exchanging stories or tracking down an old teammate for a few laughs, I truly cherish the memories. But what really triggered my nostalgia was a recent late night message…

I tend to turn my phone to mute when I climb into bed these days.  The sounds of various rings and pings attached to email accounts, alerts, texts, and calls, is too much for any weary traveller to endure if a good sleep is needed.  But every so often I awake to find a message that I wish I had answered.  Last week, one of these messages was awaiting my morning coffee.  My old college teammate and great friend, Xavier Majic, had just turned 40.  'Zave' is now living in San Francisco, happily married with a house full of kids.  His 4:30am voice message was highlighted by renditions of hazy college stories, interspersed with hearty laughter at the fact we managed to make it through four years of 'schooling' without incarceration or deportation back to Canada.

The one thing that stands out is that whenever our 'class of 94' ends a conversation, we say, 'love you', or 'love you, bro'.  The bonds that were formed still hold, and to this day I still regard my college teammates among my closest friends.  We were a collection of kids far from home, embarking on a journey that glistened of endless possibilities.  Wide eyed, but blinded by our small town naive perspectives, we somehow managed to stumble through the rigors of a challenging academic schedule, while trying our best to become stand-out collegiate athletes.  I would like to think, with a touch more focus on studies, and less on foregoing study hall in favor of an in-house ping pong championship, or thoughts of the upcoming weekend 'big games', I could proudly show my son the epic GPA of a valedictorian!  Alas, I must to settle for the 'commendable' accomplishments attained in the classroom, mixed with ping-pong glory, and a pro hockey contract.  Ahhhh, I could have had it all…

These past weeks have taken me west to Colorado, and east to the shores of Boston.  A day off in Denver allowed me to explore that fantastic city, and the opportunity to make a quick sight-seeing/spa stop to nearby Vail. 
Soaking in an outdoor hot tub at the base
of a ski hill in Vail.  Not Bad!!!

On the east coast I attended the ECAC championships in Atlantic City, then travelled north to Manchester (NH), and Providence (RI), for the NCAA's east semifinals. 

Four teams survived, and traveled to Pittsburgh for the Frozen Four -  Quinnipiac, Yale (Ben Stafford shout-out!), St Cloud State, and UMass-Lowell. 

There were two Hobey Baker finalists still playing, Quinnipiac goaltender Eric Hartzell, and St Cloud forward Drew LeBlanc.  In 1994, I was a finalist for the award, but the honor went to Chris Marinucci of Minnesota-Duluth that year.
Next year, Philadelphia will be the proud host of the Frozen Four.  2014 is a big year for the Flyers and the Wells Fargo Center, as we also host the 2014 NHL Draft!

This past week was also 'turn back the clock night' for me! 

A late trade deadline deal that sent our goalie Michael Leighton to Columbus left us few options for a backup for the Flyer game at 7:30pm.  Cal Heeter was in Glens Falls, NY, but it was going to be cutting it close as the drive is 4 1/2 hrs in good traffic, and we called him at 3pm!  Our only option was a retired goalie-turned-scout, namely myself!

Now, the last time I strapped the gear on was last years Winter Classic Alumni game, and before that it was way back in 2007!  I quickly rounded up some gear, which included a mish-mash of various items from the storage room at the rink, including Brian Boucher's pads, Leighton's gloves, and a pair of pants that Bryz was trying out.   I did have my own skates, and a mask, so that helped.
Out of our staff meeting, and home to brazen a suit for the game, the come back was on!!  I called a few close friends for some self-imposed heckling, just in case I was harboring any crazy thoughts of NOT pulling any major muscle group.   I arrived at the rink, donned some Flyer under-gear apparel, stretched a minimal amount, and taped a stick that I took off the rack.  Then a tap on the shoulder was felt, and I was out of luck.  The 'boys' were great after my inevitable dismissal, and actually looked disappointed that I was scratched just before warm-up.  Thanks fella's!  It was fun while it lasted!

Until next time, take care everyone!  …and Lets Go Flyers!

WEEKS 13-15:  Icy Scout Looks for Warmth

Destinations:  Boston, Mass,  Various towns in New Hampshire, Sault Ste Marie, Mich., and Madison, Wisc.

I want to start off by letting all of you readers know that I 'know' cold!  I grew up in a small prairie town where snow flakes and dropping temperatures meant endless snowy adventures.  Whether it was trouncing through snow banks with tie-up winter boots, or skating outdoors at the local city rink, winter meant chilled freedom! 

That being said, there were many a night that the temperatures dropped so low that we oblivious youngsters would skate and play hockey until we could no longer feel fingers, toes, or face…or the frozen snot that had formed icy trails from nostril to lip.  But as youth would allow, the debilitating pain of frost-bitten extremities (alleviated by the tender heart of a mother who knew to start a bath of COLD water, not hot), was miraculously erased from memory before the next nights hockey gathering.

Some outdoor hockey in Madison, Wisc.
My local neighborhood rink, located just beyond the back fence of my yard, did provide a 'warm-up shack'.  But, in retrospect, The Shack could hardly hold up to the phrase 'warm-up'.  It consisted of a 10x10 brick and concrete roofed enclosure that sported an antique iron railed heater, spewing just enough heat to warm the protective grate that encompassed it.  The grate provided enough warmth to prevent death, but just barely.

Frozen kid hands, if pressed firmly enough, could dethaw in just under two hours.  It truly was our winterland haven of rosy-cheeked retreat, but locked up tight by an oversized padlock when summer rolled around.

Our house was close enough to the rink to hear my mom call out to her missing children long after dark, and this was the cue to wrap it up, skate down the alley, through the neighbors yard, and back to the house where chilled bath water awaited my teary eyes and woeful cries.  To my mothers credit, she never once told us that we were to stay home… maybe she was just toughening us up for life to come??
Scoob hard at work in the office.

This little story is a prelude to my last few trips, which took me from snow belt to snow belt, never once feeling  warm at any juncture.  The Northeast coast, most notably Boston, was a blowing snowy nightmare. 

Lake Superior State University (Sault Set Marie, Mich.), should be renamed '10 foot Snowbank State University', and lastly chilly Madison, Wisc. 

How, and why do Packer fans brave the weather every home game?  Maybe the same reason I kept showing up night after night at my local rink;  the oblivious love for a game. 

All in all, however, this has been a very productive past couple of weeks. 

I had the chance to watch some intriguing prospects, and also reminisce about times long passed. 

Days when cold weather and snow evoked thoughts of fun and games, not the present mindset of 'where in the world is the closest heater with the dial turned to SCORCHING HOT'. 

Alas, I must be getting old.  I can actually picture myself at retirement age, clad in wool socks and a cardigan on a 70 degree Florida morning, cursing the cold and contemplating moving further south.  Just as long as there are some Flyers games on Satellite TV…

A chance to catch up with former coach Mike Sadgepore and teammate Mark Murphy in Boston.

That's all for now! Until next time…  stay warm Flyers Fans.


PART 9-12: East-West and all points in between
Hello, Flyers Fans!  I hope everyone had a wonderful Holiday season, and all of you are enjoying the return of NHL Hockey as much as I.
First things first:  When mom wonders why she can't find my newest travel blog, a twinge of guilt arises and I must jot some notes down to keep her informed of my journeys.  So, to you Mom, and whomever else is interested in my scouting life, here is a list of the cities I have travelled to over the course of January:

Minneapolis and St Cloud (MN), Moncton (NB), Halifax (NS), Charlottetown (PEI), Fernie and Victoria (BC), Lethbridge and Calgary (AB), Toronto, Barrie, London, Belleville and Guelph (ON), Montreal and Quebec City (QC), Glens Falls (NY), Hartford (CT), Detroit and East Lansing (MI), and finally Pittsburgh (PA). 

Below are a bunch of the photos I took before continuing my blog... Enjoy.

A Maritime Lighthouse with a touch of Canadian pride.
Halifax Harbourfront
Victoria BC Shoreline with Rocky Mountain backdrop
Chateau Frontenac, Quebec City
High atop the mountain in Fernie, BC

January air travel is often sketchy, with winter weather airport delays that happen so frequently I pencil them into my itinerary.  Here's my secret to putting the odds of smooth travel in your favor; Schedule the earliest flight you can find, as the planes are usually parked overnight at your gate and are awaiting the first flight of the day.  Its much easier to get out in suspect weather, than it is to land in suspect weather.  If this hypothesis fails, a good cup of coffee, a USA Today crossword, and a decent book are the next best options! 

I had the chance to take my son Nick for a day of snowboarding in beautiful Fernie, BC, on a chance off-day of scouting.  This particular activity has become somewhat humbling for me in my advancing age.  He, at 22, shows no sign of fear, heading straight to the very peak of the ski hill (this was no 'hill'!), with me reluctantly in tow.

At one point in my life I would have pointed stable skis straight downhill with no fear of impending moguls, the looming thoughts of death by impalement from a menacing tree line, or a self induced avalanche of body parts and ski apparel caused by a long and painful tumble.  But alas, with advancing age comes wisdom, so I let the little daredevil advance without me as I navigate the daunting, near vertical drops that await my shaky disposition. 

I'm not sure I can even call my technique 'skiing'.  My typical descent is a series of criss-crossing tracks that encompass the entire width of the run, only turning when I run out of real estate, or when my one weight bearing leg barks out in a cry for help from lactic acid overload.  I think for our next ski trip I will simply ride the chair lift up and down all day, enjoying the scenery while watching other fathers try and keep up with their kids.  It sounds much safer, and who doesn't love a good chair lift?
On the bus headed to a Hartford game with our Phantoms team

January also means a mid-season meeting for all of our amateur scouting staff.  We assembled in Toronto this year, meeting in the mornings to align names for the upcoming draft, then scouting junior games around the area in the evenings.  This get together gives us all a chance to cross-reference different leagues, formulate a plan to key on priority players, and get a detailed report of European prospects for the upcoming draft.  All in all, it was very beneficial, and we are all ready to tackle the latter half of the season.

Amongst my trips this month, I had the opportunity to spend a few days in Glens Falls with our AHL prospects.  With such a hectic Flyer schedule, goalie coach Jeff Reese has limited time to get up to NY to put our young goalies through the paces.  I had a few days in between trips, so I packed up my skates and track suit and headed north.

At that time, we had three goalies on the Phantoms roster (Boucher, Heeter, and Munroe), so extra work was needed by all because of limited net time.  It was a pleasure to get on the ice and run some drills, critique and instruct, and made even more enjoyable because of the excellent work ethic and attitude portrayed by all three.

Until next time…  Take care, everyone, and Lets Go Flyers!

PART 8: Winter West

Hey Flyers fans...
Winter driving is not for the faint of heart!

It was back to the West Coast for me this past week, with stops in Kelowna, Kamloops, Calgary, and Red Deer. 

The first of the games was set in Kelowna, BC, where I was joined by my old teammate and good friend Mark Grieg (Mark covers the West coast for the Flyers), along with Todd Hearty (our Eastern scout, and all around great guy). 

Winter has set in north of the border, which makes for cautious driving between games. 

Although the daylight scenery is spectacular amongst the winding roads that cut through the Rocky Mountains, night driving becomes a harrowing task, with whipping snowy winds, and low set fog that test even the most veteran of winter drivers. 

Slow and steady is always the best course of action. 

The city of Kamloops is a welcome sight, vibrant and bustling with Holiday lights, and eager shoppers.  

Former Flyer great, Mark Recchi, is one of the owners of the Kamloops team, which has a storied, and remarkable reputation as a premier Junior club. 

High above the Rocky Mountains, on my way to Kelowna.

Onwards to Calgary, Alberta, where I have a few hours to celebrate my son Nick's 23rd birthday (along with my moms, niece Hannah, and my own December birthday), before the drive north to Red Deer for an evening game. 

I spend so much time away from my family that I really treasure these brief, but happy get-togethers!

Myself, niece Lexi, Nick, and Hannah posing
for a birthday pic.
 At this very time last year, I flew to Australia to join Nick and my mom for the conclusion of Nick's remarkable bicycle trek across a good portion of the country. 

Nick pedaled his way from Melbourne to Cairns (approx 3500km) for Mo-vember and cancer awareness. 

Mom volunteered as the driver of the 'support van/traveling hotel', and took on the job of cook, masseuse, and motivator. 

During my short week with them I tried to break up the grueling schedule by taking them both on some nice Australian adventures. 

The Northeast coast of Australia is spectacular, and the only place in the world where two of the Natural World Wonders combine.

(this being the oldest natural rainforest in the world, and the Great Barrier Reef). 

Among our adventures was a Christmas morning boat ride out to the GB Reef, where we snorkeled with some beautiful marine life, and dodged a couple of sleek, menacing, but fortunately for us, uninterested sharks! 

Wallaman Falls, Australia… 300 meter waterfall in the Girringun National Park

I wish the very best of health, and happiness, to all of you this Holiday Season!  Have a wonderful time with friends and family.  Until next time...

PART 7: From Pooches to Prospects

Hi, everyone!  This week I watched teams from three different leagues, mixing collegiate prospects in the USHL, Division 1 College hockey, and lastly our own draft picks in Glens Falls, NY. 

My first stop was Iowa, where I took in two USHL games.  Besides seeing a couple good prospects, the games were highlighted by an unusual intermission show; namely the Second Annual Daschund Derby! 

I often jot some post period notes about the players I am watching, so as to remind myself of nuances and thoughts when I fill out my reports. 

This little ice show that was about to happen tweaked my interest, so I put down the pen…

A dozen or so sausage looking dogs clad in fitted sweaters and jerseys, were being led onto the ice surface by their respective owners. 

The PA announcer informed us all that the pooches were to race from one blue line to the other (racing from one owner to the other), when he gave the 'Ready-Set-Go' signal. 

As the race commenced, it was immediately apparent that the lofty goals placed on the furry participants may have been a little excessive. 

A few of the overwhelmed sausages headed in the wrong direction, several others just sat down, and the rest clamored at pant legs in hopes of a lift. 

But there's hope!  One dog finally figured it all out, and the rest followed suit, skidding and hustling the best they could with 4 inch legs!  I'm not sure who won the photo finish, but my guess was Harley, or Nacho.

The next stop was to check up on our own prospects in Glens Falls, NY.  All was well this night, as our boys held on for a big win against a solid opponent.  The American League is incredibly tough this year.  Rosters across the board include numerous young, talented NHL'ers, mixed with up and coming superstars.

I can compare this wealth of talent to the 2004/05 season in which there was also a NHL lockout.  Our Phantom team got a extra boost of talent that year when Mike Richards, and Jeff Carter, were added late in the year. 

A fantastic ride to a Calder Cup championship ensued.  That year was incredibly memorable.  What a great time!  I wish the same for this years Phantom team.

Phantoms locker room, pre game.

The week ended with two College games in Schenectady, NY, which matched up Union College against Penn State.  Union has come a long way over the past 10 years, and is now considered a formidable Div 1 program (even making it to last years Frozen Four!).

Playing for Union this season is one of our 2012 draft picks, Shayne Gostisbehere.  Shayne is a standout defender with excellent offensive instincts and talent. It will be a pleasure to watch him as he works toward becoming a future Flyer.

Upstart Penn State is guided by the outstanding staff of Head Coach, Guy Gadowski, along with assistants Keith Fisher, and Matt Lindsay. 

I had the opportunity to coach with these three gentlemen when I was a volunteer coach at Princeton University from 2008 to 2011.

Although I played a very small part in the 2008 ECAC Championship the Tigers won that year, I was honored, and humbled, to be included in receiving a Championship ring. 

Thanks to this incredible staff, and to the players who put on an unforgettable show of determination, and fortitude throughout that run. 

See you all next week when I travel back to the Rocky mountains to watch some junior hockey.

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