If you are reading this, you are likely among the millions of people who love to watch hockey played at its highest level. Imagine being paid to watch hockey for a living as a professional scout. The life of a scout may not be as cut-and-dry as this – there are numerous challenges they face on a daily basis when going about their work – but who of us has not shared this dream?
For many of us, it stays this – a dream. The world of pro hockey scouting is an elusive one, if not for the right personal connections within the game.
“A lot of ex-players get into scouting after their careers are over,” says Winnipeg Jets Director of Pro Scouting Mark Dobson. “For many including myself, it begins as a part-time endeavor – a way to stay in hockey and it just develops from there.”
Dobson oversees a crew of pro scouts who are enlisted to keep a vigilant eye on any and every hockey player in the world that may be of service to the Winnipeg Jets at some future date. The players they are generally focused on are those playing in professional leagues, as well as some high end junior players that have already been drafted. Of course, this means keeping tabs on thousands of players, when really only a small fraction of them will actually figure into the Jets’ future plans. It is impossible to concretely know who may become available down the road.
It is almost like a school teacher running a classroom of students. The teacher has a report card on every student. We have to have a report card on every player we see.
“It is almost like a school teacher running a classroom of students,” says Dobson. “The teacher has a report card on every student. We have to have a report card on every player we see. It is difficult to isolate one or two players that you like or that you think may become available because sure enough, when you start concentrating on a player you like, maybe the guy you are not watching is the one who becomes available, and you have no information on him.”
In certain cases, it is possible to narrow the search to an extent.
“Obviously we do put priority on certain players,” says Dobson. “Players who are about to become potential free agents are targeted, for example.”
Due to the importance of having up-to-date information on every player in every corner of the elite hockey world, Dobson directs a staff of six pro scouts who each are responsible for a different region. The majority of their time is spent in NHL and AHL rinks, though some will keep tabs on ECHL and junior players too.
“I scout a lot of NHL and AHL players, but I also try to get to junior games,” says Dobson. “The World Juniors is a nice tournament to see as a pro scout, because most players are drafted already and it’s a great concentration of the best junior players in the world. It is nice to see these players and to get a feel for what they are about before they make the jump to the pros.”
If possible, scouts will try to keep their NHL-AHL affiliations in mind when scouting particular teams. If a scout is watching a particular NHL team on a regular basis, it is only fitting that they also keep track of the corresponding AHL affiliate, due to player movement between the clubs. But in a job where travel is at the forefront, geographical location takes the highest priority. A scout enlisted to watch the San Jose Sharks will not be so inclined to then travel 3100 miles to see their AHL affiliate in Worcester, Massachusetts.
“Affiliation connections are nice, but we try to make things work as easily as possible, geographically-speaking,” says Dobson. “For example, we have a scout who lives in Buffalo, so for him to do Rochester, Syracuse, Hamilton and Toronto, it is very convenient for him. I am still stationed in Atlanta, so the closest NHL city for me is Nashville, a four-hour drive. That makes things a little bit more difficult. I am typically away from my home 23-24 days each month.”
One of the key points for scouts during the course of a season is the trade deadline – a moment where their hard work could come to fruition in a deal that helps their team make that final push toward a successful playoff push.
“The trade deadline period can be hard to predict,” says Dobson. “It depends on a lot of things, such as how your team is doing in the standings, whether you are you buyers, whether you are sellers. There are a lot circumstances that affect the trade deadline period, but certainly it is a very busy time.”
Fortunately, with so much at stake in today’s NHL, technological advances have made for easier and more effective communication between Dobson’s team of scouts and Jets management.
There is nothing greater than when you're on the road and you see on the out-of-town scoreboard that the Jets are winning. That is a great day.
“Face to face or over the phone communication is great to have, but (our scouts) are so busy, and (GM Kevin Cheveldayoff) and (Assistant GM Craig Heisinger) are so busy that it is usually not practical,” says Dobson. “But nowadays with technology the way it is, we are able to enter our player scouting reports on the road electronically, and at the touch of a button (Cheveldayoff and Heisinger) can access up-to-the-minute information on any player they wish to.”
The significant amounts of time spent away from home can be difficult to endure, however you won’t hear Dobson complain about his line of work.
“I grew up playing hockey on a pond,” says Dobson. “I think those things tend to stay with you. It’s in your blood. As gruelling as our travel schedules may be, when I get to watch hockey seven nights a week, it’s hard to complain. And there is nothing greater than when you’re on the road and you see on the out of town scoreboard that the Jets are winning. That is a great day.”