“All at once it’s half past three/And it’s down to just the trucks and me/And I’m holding on to nothin’ but the wheel.” Peter Wolf and Mick Jagger.
The towns are small, the roads dark and lonely, and the plane trips and car rides can last for days.
You could be in Chicoutimi one day, Krakow the next, and your luggage might be on its way to White Horse.
“I’ve learned to pack a change of clothes in my computer bag because sometimes I have to wait for my luggage to catch up with me,” laughed Panther scout Eric Ginnell.
Such is the life of an NHL scout, who must endure snowstorms, cancelled flights, tips on players that turn bust and, occasionally, crazed wildlife.
“I took out five geese a few years ago,” Ginnell recalled. “There was nothing I could do. They flew out of a ditch on the side of the road.”
In the process of evaluating talent for the June 22 Entry Draft in Columbus, Ohio, Ginnell and dozens of other NHL scouts have cris-crossed North America, Europe and Russia in search of young talent that can one day play in the best league in the world.
And they’ll go anywhere to do it. For instance, consider Jaroslav, Russia.
Scott Luce, the Panthers’ director of scouting, flew to Moscow and then took a train five hours north to Jaroslav to see a potential star play in the Russian city.
“The kid we went to see got injured during his second shift of the game,” Luce said. “So we turned around, got back on the train, and came home.”
And it’s not easy getting anywhere from Jaroslav. “I set my stop watch once going to Jaroslav,” Ginnell recalled. “It took me 26 hours from Calgary to Toronto to Amsterdam to Moscow to Jaroslav. But it’s all just part of the job.”
Ron Harris, an NHL scout for more than 20 years, has driven 10 hours to see a junior player. “You do it all the time,” Harris said. “Someone sees a kid in some small, small town, tells you how great he is, and you’ve got to take a chance and see him.”
And if the player turns into a bust? “You’re driving home and cursing in the car,” Harris said with a laugh. “You’re thinking, ‘What the hell were they thinking?’ ”
Luce, who enters his sixth season with the Panthers, went to Sanok, Poland last year to scout Lars Eller, considered one of the top European skaters in the upcoming draft.
“I went to scout him at an Under-18 tournament,” Luce said. “I flew from JFK (Airport) to Amersterdam to Poland to Krakow and then Sanok.”
Luce keeps notes on his travel. For instance, he spends an average of 160 nights a year in a hotel. He spent 21 days in December in a hotel and 24 during the month of March.
“It can be fairly taxing,” Luce said. “Eating the right food can be difficult for me. So when you’re traveling with someone you try and hit the treadmill or take a long walk.”
The most difficult trips are not always due to snowstorms or distance traveled. Harris said the most dangerous driving conditions are when there’s a combination of freezing rain and fog.
“It’s called black ice,” he said. “I was driving back to Toronto one night and there was black ice and a guy behind me, and I never saw him, slid right by me and into a car and missed me by an inch.
“That’s when you go back home and have two beers at once.”
Ginnell remembers driving the 130 miles one evening between Brandon and Winnipeg after a scouting trip. “I left at nine at night and got back at seven the next morning,” he said. “There was a wind storm, almost complete white out.”
Another night, Ginnell and a number of other scouts spent the night in a small-town gymnasium after driving to Red Deer to see a potential draft pick. And then there was the flight from Calgary to Regina.
“The captain gets on the microphone after takeoff and says we’re returning to Calgary because the flaps on the wings weren’t working,” he said. “We circled for an hour to burn fuel then came in sideways into the runway at what seemed like full speed. I later found out if we came in slow without the flaps we would have nose-dived into the ground.”