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Life's A Trip for Hockey's Good Scouts

by Staff Writer / Florida Panthers

Want to Know About the Road to the NHL? Ask These Guys

By Sun-Sentinel Staff Writer Ethan J. Skolnick

Sun-Sentinel Staff Photos by Michael Laughlin

The draft nears. The road calls. The chase resumes. The sport-utility vehicle barrels off Montreal's Marriott Chateau Champlain property, up Highway 20 along the south side of the St. Lawrence River, past snowmobile trails and the CCM warehouse, bound for Drummondville.

The phone chirps.

The passenger adjusts his earpiece to receive a most anticipated report.

Scott Luce is the director of scouting for the Florida Panthers, at 37 the NHL's youngest. He lives in St. Thomas, Ontario, but spent 17 recent days in six European countries and the previous night in Boston. He has seen 158 games since August and will see five more in five of the 18 Quebec Major Junior Hockey League towns over these next five days. He has Panthers personnel stationed today at 11 sites worldwide to monitor prospects' progress.

Still, there are two prospects from St. Thomas that he can never seem to see enough.

"So, how are they doin'?"

His chief household scout assures him Harrison and Griffin are faring well under her supervision. Naturally. They are 10 and 8, in Fort Lauderdale on the second Saturday in March and embarking on a spring break week of swimming and attending Panthers games.


He's continuing the search for more players to put in those Panthers jerseys.

"Love you too," Luce says. "You be good for Mum."

"Hey Darwin, chicken or Chinese?"

You thought the Scopes Trial was a landmark decision?

This could be momentous.

Drummondville, you see, is not merely home to 40,000 or so Francophones and the QMJHL's Voltigeurs. It is home to two half-chicken joints, the ubiquitous St. Hubert and the upstart Scores, plus the Poulet Frit Kentucky featuring the Colonel's familiar face. Ronnie Harris, the area scout who drives the SUV in which Luce sits, estimates having eaten "35 birds" this year alone.

"That's a lot of legs," Harris says, smiling.

And scouting, as Luce laments, is "a lot of Groundhog Day." You do what you know.

Scouts know chicken.

This evening, however, they dine on the wild side. Darwin Bennett, the area scout on the other end of Luce's line, chooses the strip mall Buffet Chinois.

"This is a new spot, Ronnie," Luce says, excitement genuine.

Luce, Harris and Bennett share a table, laughs, yarns, weather reports and sickeningly sweet sugar pie with Barry Trapp, the Toronto Maple Leafs' scouting chief. Bennett and Trapp are Regina, Saskatchewan, residents. Sort of. Trapp hasn't spent two consecutive days there since before Christmas.

Such is the bargain. Luce knew the deal. He was playing goal for a junior team when his father, Don, a former Buffalo Sabres forward, started scouting. Nor was it kept secret from the future Ann Marie Luce when she became his girlfriend two decades ago; Scott's mother provided "the talk" about life as a hockey scout's wife. The schoolteacher takes one trip with Scott each year, to a European tournament in Slovakia.

This isn't as exotic an assignment, yet Luce, Harris and Bennett wouldn't all be here if the night lacked promise.

Two Voltigeurs are of particular interest.

One, Olivier Legault, was picked by the Panthers in the 2005 fourth round as a long-term tough guy. He is a big, raw project requiring observation, since the Panthers must provide a qualifying offer by June 1 or relinquish his rights.

The other, Derick Brassard, is regarded as one of the top two QMJHL forwards eligible for June's draft, a possible top-10 selection. Safe to say a dozen NHL teams didn't send scouts here for that sugar pie.

"I know this guy better than his mom does," says Harris, with 25-plus sightings already.

Harris, 63, can't hear in his left ear. That's why he drives, so Luce, sitting to his right, won't have to keep repeating himself. Luce does trust the hockey lifer's eyes. Harris was a scrapping NHL defenseman for 11 years, has coached in every junior league and has scouted for the Panthers since their start. In 1994, before Panthers General Manager Bobby Clarke chose Ed Jovanovski over Radek Bonk as No. 1 overall, he chose Harris to shadow Jovanovski for 10 days.

"The first-round guy floats," Harris says. "You can see it like that."

He clearly saw it in QMJHL alums Mario Lemieux, Pat LaFontaine and Ray Bourque. Still, it's hard to say if Brassard is floating, or if the visitors are just grounded after eight hours of bus bumps. The Val D'Or Foreurs, spirited when taking the ice to techno music, never are again. The first-period shots are 23-2. The hosts win 7-2.

Slight but swift and spunky, Brassard has a goal, an assist and a knack for creating chances teammates can't convert, which compels Luce to call him "too good for the level." Val D'Or has no enforcer, so Legault gets only six shifts, drawing a delayed penalty that leads to a goal.

The unusually crowded Centre Marcel Dionne, named for the local product turned legendary Los Angeles King, has no scouts' room, so Luce, Bennett and Harris lean elbows over a top railing and peer over a sea of purple Thunderstix. A pair of Pittsburgh Penguins scouts, including former NHL goaltender Gilles Meloche, are parked a few rows forward.

Interaction among competing scouts is cordial but, with just three months until the NHL entry draft, increasingly guarded. Quantitative coverage has become qualitative, with prospects identified by now. The goal is to get last glimpses before seasons end, without giving away intentions.

With 3:54 left, a Sunday date in Shawinigan to see Brassard again and a hankering to hear reports from Sweden to Sunrise, Luce zips his coat and bolts for the exit. He isn't in the near-freezing night long. At the curb, he finds Ronnie Harris' SUV, revving, ready and warm.

Everyone has a Shawinigan story. Once, officials fled pelting oranges for 15 minutes, then returned to call four consecutive penalties in the hosts' favor. When Lemieux played here, the barn was so stuffed and smoky that fans couldn't claim to have seen him.

"My favorite rink in the Quebec League," Luce says.

It is Harris' least favorite. There can be no indifference. Aréna Jacques-Plante assaults every sense.

Sight. The benches are a cornucopia of color -- red, blue, yellow, orange -- with banners and advertising boards covering the rest of the rainbow. A Canadian Indian likeness is suspended in the air, then soars over center ice after each Shawinigan goal.

Sound. The only English you hear is, "Go, Cats, go," as in Cataractes. You instead hear, "Moitie, moitie!" relentlessly repeated by ushers promoting the 50-50 raffle that is a QMJHL staple. One winner takes half the cash pot, the team and its charities the rest.

Smell. That unmistakable aroma of poutine: french fries smothered in cheese curd and brown gravy.

"Never had a poutine in my life," Harris says. "Can't do it."

Luce's stomach is full of Montreal smoked meat, washed down with Tim Horton's coffee and doughnuts. He stakes out three spots, shadowed by a primitive electronic scoreboard, behind the net. Bennett is here, as are many of Saturday's opposing scouts. NHL-drafted players dot the rosters, yet Brassard again is the attraction.

Bennett's quarter-century of scouting includes five years for Florida. He likes Brassard and his numbers, but Bennett wants Brassard to dominate more than he did Saturday.

"This kid doesn't always make a difference," Bennett says. "Tonight, you hope, `Make a difference.'"

Luce tries to see first-round possibilities six times, to cover all situations and focus on finer points. For this matinee, Brassard encounters a small rink and tough crowd. He contributes to a 5-2 Drummondville win but doesn't transcend.

By game's end, Bennett is long gone. It takes half a day to get home, and he needs clothes before an eight-day trip starts in Minnesota on Tuesday.

Luce and Harris greet Legault outside a locker room, and chat over Michael Jackson's Beat It.

"How ya feelin'?"

Legault can't be spent, as little as he played. Luce tells him to use his size to protect the puck. Puck confidence. Puck patience. That's what it's about.

"Yeah, that's what I've got to work on," Legault says.

The baby-faced enforcer is 19 now, making him a QMJHL high-earner at $120 Canadian (roughly $105 U.S.) every two weeks. He's reverential. And he's a scout himself.

"He's a good guy to go get," Legault says of Brassard. "In four years, I've never seen a guy with that skill."

Luce and Harris see little on the 90-minute return ride to Montreal, which gets Harris within 30 kilometers of his home, and the beer he hopes his wife, Carol, has waiting. He fails to notice the vibration signaling her first 22 calls.

"How's the weather?" Luce asks Ann Marie, 2,200 kilometers, or 1,400 miles away. "It's foggy here."

Not so the next morning, after a short flight.

"It's beautiful," Luce says by phone to Panthers player development director Duane Sutter after landing in hilly Halifax, Nova Scotia, where the Residence Inn offers the popular NHL scout rate.

Red Wings scout Mark Leach has stayed here a week and mocks the latest arrival, a friend, for arranging to fly to Sydney rather than drive eight hours the next morning.

"Weak," Leach says, smiling.

Luce tries to make up for it with 30 treadmill minutes. He takes calls from agents trying to peddle college free agents. He takes a power nap. He catches up with scouts and on reports. He catches himself before saying anything revealing about the Panthers' draft plans during a local radio interview.

Then he catches Halifax vs. Prince Edward Island. It isn't memorable. When Luce jokes that children scrimmaging between periods show the night's most hockey sense, other scouts nod. Plus, the Halifax Metro Centre, host of the Toronto Raptors' inaugural exhibition and the 2003 World Junior Hockey Championship, doesn't belong in the same league as Shawinigan. It's too nice. It has elevators, luxury boxes, catwalk seats for scouts, a video scoreboard, and tonight, 7,258 patrons.

At least the host Mooseheads, owned by former NHL star Bobby Smith, have some "players of interest," including physical forward Bryce Swan.

"What I learned tonight," Luce says, over another Double Diamond ale at Maxwell's Pub, "is that I've got to come back and see him."

He has no luggage, no pride and no choice. He is in the pants aisle. He is lost.

Scott Luce makes the call.

"Hey, dear, how you doin'?"

He boarded the 18-seater for Sydney in a Panthers track suit. Then the captain spoke of dumping cargo for extra fuel, in case weather caused an early return. The weather's fine, but Luce is cloudy, shopping for himself by himself for a second time this season, asking his wife what to buy. He spends $265 at Hudson's Bay Company and at the big and tall section of Tip Top Tailors, even acquiring size 14 wide shoes in the style Ann Marie has been endorsing.

Scouts have benefited from countless innovations, from cell phones to Mapquest to electronic report synchronization. Yet they still often find themselves at someone else's mercy. If the Panthers' recent resurgence hurts their draft position and renders some coveted prospects out of reach, "not one of our scouts would be complaining," Luce assures.

Other stuff is more irksome.

Traveling to see a prospect only for him to be suspended, injured or in a coach's doghouse. Seeking physical defensemen for years, only for NHL rule changes to emphasize speed over size. Craving seafood chowder in Cape Breton, only to find a trusty lunch spot tweaked for the worse.

So you cherish small favors. As Luce is evaluating Cape Breton's James Sheppard, the QMJHL's other top draft-eligible forward, at Sydney's Centre 200, the travel agent calls. The bag is back at the hotel. Luce is too, before PEI wins the shootout.

That's because, at 4:28 a.m., he will be rubbing his eyes in a rental car, joking about it being too early to call Sweden, then beating security officials to the tiny airport.

When he first started, he tried to "manufacture players." His father, now the Sabres' director of player development, told him to not to force it: Not every game has a prospect, so let the prospects come to you. Don Luce didn't mean that literally, however. So there are days like Wednesday. Days you chase them. Puddle-jumper to Halifax. Connection to Boston. Afternoon pickup by newly hired area scout Mike Yandle for a 150-minute trip up Interstate 95, through Kennebunkport, Maine, to the Colisee in Lewiston, home of the Maineiacs, the QMJHL's lone American entry.

Ali was here 40 years ago, when it was St. Dominic's Arena, knocking out Sonny Liston with a punch many saw miss.

Mo is not here. For decades, Maurice Morin has been singing the anthems in full tuxedo; during the 2005 playoffs, the pants famously fell down. He has been ill, and he is missed.

Olivier Legault's mother and father are here, having made the five-hour trek from Chambly, Quebec. Louis Legault is hard to miss. The construction company safety officer is a jolly bear of a man; he pleasantly approaches a heckler to say it's not good for his heart. He calls himself "a tough guy." But when the Panthers drafted Louis and Helene's baby boy, who left home at 15, they both cried.

Jonathan Bernier is here. Lewiston's can't-miss goalie prospect shuts out Brassard's Voltigeurs. The visitors aren't in their regular road uniforms; those burned days ago in a Drummondville dryer fire.

The women, both misses and Mrs., are here after the game, waiting for Legault.

The fawning females offer Olivier cards and cookies, ask for autographs, ask him to write. Before a trade, this was his home building for two-plus years. He had a big hit tonight. He is a bigger hit now, lingering 35 minutes as the bus waits:

"Nice seeing you all."

His father, Louis, chuckles with pride: "I don't know what he has, but he has something special."

Luce and Yandle know what they have: a hankering for lobster rolls at Kelly's. Two hours away. Better be open. Luce already has the next itinerary plotted. He already feels recharged. Back to his parents' house in Buffalo, N.Y., to pick up a car. Game in Barrie, Ontario. Sleep at home for a night, alone. Then to Detroit. Then to Mississauga. And on. And on.

First, check in with Florida. Ann Marie reports that Griffin wouldn't enter the locker room because the Panthers lost 4-0.

"He's so competitive," Luce says. "Aw, jeez. He's just like me, just like Dad. Oh no."

Oh yes.

Kid, the road awaits.

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