David Conte remembers the first time he witnessed Patrik Elias on a scouting trip to Kladno, Czech Republic.
Conte, who at the time was the New Jersey Devils director of amateur scouting, recalls how difficult it was to evaluate Elias since there was a group of national team players who commanded much more attention. He and his staff made special trips to watch Elias practice and spend as much time with him as possible.
"We picked very late in the first round (of the 1994 NHL Draft) but he was a guy we thought we could reach for even with limited game exposure," Conte said.
Conte, now a special adviser to hockey operations with the Vegas Golden Knights, is one of many grateful to have known Elias.
Elias, the Devils' all-time leader in points (1,025), goals (408) and assists (617), will have his No. 26 retired prior to the game against the New York Islanders at Prudential Center on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; MSG+, MSG+ 2, NHL.TV), joining Ken Daneyko, Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer and Martin Brodeur.
Video: Patrik Elias joins the show
"He was clearly gifted," Conte said. "He was not big yet and was more boy than man at 17 years old. Our physiologist, the late Garrett Caffrey, felt he was a special athlete, which he is if you've ever seen him fool with a soccer ball or play tennis.
"We did a lot of work outside of conventional scouting even to the point of really encouraging his agent back then, Ritchie Winter, to bring him to the 1994 draft. In all my scouting years, he's the player we did everything possible to know as much as possible. Caffrey and Jan Ludvig were involved, as well as Dan Labraaten and Milt Fisher, so it was a comprehensive effort."
The Devils selected left wing Vadim Sharifyanov in the first round (No. 25) of the 1994 draft and were fortunate to get Elias in the second round (No. 51).
"Clearly, we were rewarded," Conte said. "He has been such a great player. My son worked at his hockey school in Wayne, New Jersey, and I have visited in his home country (Trebic, Czech Republic) and he is one of the big rewards and satisfactions I have experienced in the game. He was a great prospect, a super player and better person.
"Few guys live up to a scout's expectations but he played it better than it could have been scripted. He has personality, talent and sincerity, and was always a guy that was better when it mattered most and had a flair for the game."