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The Art of Scouting

by Sam Kasan / Pittsburgh Penguins
Ron Pyette, 39, has been an amateur scout with the Pittsburgh Penguins for the past three years. Prior to that he worked two years in the scouting department of the Montreal Canadiens.

The Ontario native also scouted part-time for Jackson (ECHL), Vancouver and Spokane (Western Hockey League) while working eight years with Hockey Canada as manager of the national teams.

Pyette gave an inside look into the scouting process, as well as some interesting tidbits he’s experienced over the years.

First of all, when Pyette arrives at the rink for a game, he isn’t walking into the situation with a completely blank slate.

“You pretty much know most of these players already because you’ve spent last year watching the league inside and out,” he noted. “When you show up at the rink there aren’t many surprises of who’s on the ice. You already have a feel and know some players really, really well. It’s not like you’re watching 40 guys for the first time ever.”

That said, in the early part of the season Pyette will evaluate a vast number of players. He could end up writing reports on up to 20 players, although some of his reports won’t be too intensive or taxing.

“Some of the reports can be pretty simple,” he said. “A report may be: ‘this guys is not a draft pick and here is why: 5-foot-7; not a good skater.’ Done.”

Pyette will zero in on players that possess first-round talent. Those players will usually retain most of his attention.

“You’ll watch every shift that they’re on the ice,” he said. “You’re going to get a feel of what kind of hockey player they are. You can paint a picture of what kind of player he is and if he meets the core components that we’re looking for.”

Pyette, like most scouts, has a particular approach and routine to scouting players during a game. He broke down period-by-period, and player-by-player, how he evaluates the talent on the ice:

“The first half of the first period I just let the game unfold. I let the players jump out at me. I let it be as it is. I watched generally and don’t try to search anyone out. Someone may grab me in the first 10 minutes with a big goal or big hit. It’s easy to make note of that.

“After 10 minutes if there are some kids I wanted to watch and haven’t seen yet, I’ll start looking for them. When I see that specific player hit the ice I’ll put on my ‘player cam’ and I’ll just watch him and follow him on the ice for that 40-second shift. I try to get a feel of his skating, work level, etc.

“Then I’ll start pinpointing guys throughout the game. I’ll look for the really important players that I have to write reports on. Sometimes you’ll get lucky with two important players on the same line. You can watch them work together. I’ll do that until the third period.

“In the third period I’ll just watch the game as a whole. I’ll let it unfold and see who stands out. I see who can make an impression on me. I’ll give any player on the ice a chance to make their mark.”

Evaluating a player’s on-ice potential is only half of the battle. The second criteria scouts must account for is the personality and character of the player.

“I wait until I’ve seen the whole league and get a feeling on which players we would truly have interest in,” Pyette said. “Around mid-November I’ll start to pop in and see these kids. I’ll go to the rink during a practice day. After practice I’ll meet with two or three kids, however many I want to meet. I’ll just talk to them at the rink in the coaches office.

“Sometimes after a game if you have to get on a plane the next morning that will be the only chance you have for meeting with this kid. I’ll meet him after the game at the rink for 10 minutes. It’s just an initial meeting, trying to get a vibe on what kind of person they are.”

Pyette keeps the initial conversation pretty light. He understands that the players can sometimes be nervous. After all, in their eyes they aren’t talking to Ron Pyette, they’re talking to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

“I ask them about the game, how it went, how they played,” Pyette said. “I let them talk while it’s fresh on their mind. I try not to visit kids if they just lost. I don’t think it’s a positive thing to do. If they win, I’ll go visit.

“I’ll ask about home and what their parents do. It’s simple stuff, easy so they can feel at ease. I’ll try to have fun and joke around a little bit. I’ll ask who they like in the NHL, who they play like. I really just want to see how they conduct a conversation with a person. I want to see their body language, if they’re a good guy, simple stuff. I’m not looking for anything earth shattering in terms of information. It’s more about getting a feel for the personality and character of a person.”

Pyette typically speaks with a player on three separate occasions. With each meeting the conversation will become more detailed.

“We talk about teammates,” he said. “We’ll talk about situations on the ice. Why did you do that and what were you thinking about this. We talk about what they do with friends in the offseason.”

Scouts research goes deeper than just talking to the player. They’ll also talk to teammates, coaches and sometimes billets.

“I have a lot of tight, good relationships with a lot of the coaches in the leagues on a personal level,” Pyette said. “If there are 20 teams, I’ll have that relationship with 8 to 10."

And even if Pyette isn’t able to speak with all the kids, he can still get a feel for their personality from watching their performance on the ice.

“The way the player plays reflects a lot about who he is as a person. It’s amazing.”

Even though he has plenty of experience, Pyette is still one of the younger scouts in his profession. At age 38, he is a young talent still honing his scouting skills and abilities.

Since arriving with the Penguins in August of 2008, Pyette has had the luxury of learning from some seasoned scouts inside the Penguins organization.

“Chuck Grillo and Wayne Meier are two guys that have been around for a long time. They helped me a lot the first couple years when I got started,” Pyette said. “They mentored me. They’ve got a lot of experience and I lean on them for a lot of different situations.”

The NHL scouting community as whole is a closely-knit group of gentlemen. The scouts see each other so much that it’s hard not to form bonds and friendships.

“What’s really neat is the camaraderie of the scouts,” Pyette said. “We are in our little world as a group. We all go do the job and we don’t talk about the players. But we spend a lot of time together. We travel together, eat a lot of lunches and dinners with each other.

“You have this group that see all the time. You can walk into a room and you don’t even have to say hello because you just saw them the night before. You might run into a guy at the airport or in a mall. You see these guys all the time."

For the scouts, every season means another chance to see old friends, share good laughs and good times.

“New Year’s Eve we are on the road all the time,” he said. “Last year I was in Winnipeg, myself and 10 other scouts were sitting in a pub around a big huge table. New Year’s hits and we all did a cheers together. It’s kind of a neat dynamic with the guys.”

There is one rule that scouts do not break. They do not talk about the players they are scouting with each other. But that doesn’t mean they don’t help each other out when it comes to the job.

“We all look out for each other,” Pyette said. “We have our secrets about the players you like, but we don’t talk about that. We still look out for each other. Like, one scout will say, ‘head’s up this guy is out of the lineup so you might not want to go to that game.’ And I’ll say, ‘oh thanks. That’s great. I was going to go. I didn’t know.’ So you look out for each other that way.”

As much preparation that the scouts use in craft, there is only one certainty: something is bound to go wrong during their travels.

Any scout will tell you, traveling has its joys and headaches. Pyette will spend 130 nights in hotels during the season and rack up endless miles in the air and on the road. With such odds, there will also be problems that arise.

Scouts spend endless hours on the road
One particular region that has been thorny for Pyette is Victoria, British Columbia.

“I was stranded in Victoria for three days, stuck in a hotel room because of snow,” Pyette said. “Finally on Day 3 I got to leave. The worst part is they never get snow there. The first time I ever had to go there was to catch one game and get out of there. But it snows for three days and I was stranded at the hotel. I sat there for two full days after the game and couldn’t leave. It kept me from getting to the game in Vancouver the next day and the game in Seattle the day after. Now I’m scrambling. I fly home and then I have to try and pick those teams up that I missed along the way. Now you’re in damage control.”

In a separate instance Pyette found himself against in a less than desirable condition in Victoria.

“I lost my luggage in Victoria. I’ve had bad luck in Victoria,” Pyette said. “It snowed again. It never snows but I got hit twice in my first two years on the job. I was there for the Under-17 tournament. I flew in and didn’t get my luggage until Day 4. On Day 3 I had enough and went to a store. They didn’t have much there because I was two hours outside of Victoria where the tournament was. I went and bought deodorant, underwear, a sweater just to get through.”

But don’t think that Pyette’s travel issues are isolated to the Victoria area.

“I got stranded in North Dakota,” Pyette said. “Luckily, there was a Marriott on the side of the road. I couldn’t believe it. There was an ice storm. I had to get off the highway. There was no way I could go anymore. It was awful. I checked in and stayed all day and the next day too, and just sat in my hotel room.

“That stuff happens all the time. Driving and weather conditions keep you from moving around quite a bit.”

Photo courtesy of Ron Pyette
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