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Behind the Draft

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB /

BUFFALO - There are snowstorms, of course.

And how many flight delays over the course of a career? Hundreds? More?

Last spring there was the 40-car pile-up during the U-18 world championships in Slovakia that made it impossible to get to some games.

Ah the glamorous life of the amateur scout.

And the Murphy's Law of scouting is that stuff always happens at home when the scout is furthest away or has the crappiest cell phone service.

Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill recalls an early trip to Russia when he was with the Detroit Red Wings and the septic tank at home went bust. There was no way to have regular contact with home unless he happened on a working pay phone, which is to say there was almost no way of contacting his wife during the emergency.

Naturally, those trips are always when the kids get sick.

Kids' hockey games and concerts, plays and presentations, all those take a back seat during the winter months as members of the Dallas Stars amateur scouting staff crisscross the hockey globe like prospectors in search of hockey gold.

Lonely? Sure. Sometimes.

Moments of self-doubt?

Dennis Holland recalls his first trip with a veteran scout to Prince George, British Columbia, seven hours north of his home, after Holland retired from playing and had decided coaching wasn't for him.

"It was a little bit overwhelming to be honest with you," he said recently. "I remember I went home to my wife saying I'm not sure I can do this."

But he could. Holland has been scouting for the Stars now for 14 years.

The very essence of the game is 'the team'. How we define the term and what goes into building a winning one, well, those are harder elements to identify and even harder to acquire in quantities large enough to mean on-ice success.

But to build a successful National Hockey League team requires shrewd drafting of young talent and that only happens through the work of a successful, dedicated team within a team; the scouts.

When the NHL's 31 teams gather in Chicago for the draft in a few days, each will rely on their own small group of scouts to guide them in selecting the components that they believe will form the nucleus of the greater team and bring them success in the form of playoff appearances and maybe, who knows, a Stanley Cup.

What happens in Chicago will for some teams define them, make or break them. It's that simple.

Draft well and all things are possible. Draft poorly and you are doomed.

"This is what we work for all season long," said Joe McDonnell, the Stars' director of amateur scouting. "Long process. Long grind. A lot of detective work. A lot of snowstorms. A lot of airport delays. Different things like that. For our whole group, it's our team type of thing, so it's like our Stanley Cup," he said.

McDonnell's staff - there are 12 on the amateur side counting McDonnell, plus player development coordinators J.J. McQueen and former Stars forward Rich Peverley - and each of the scouts will see on average 250 games per season. Some will see more than 300 games.

They will gather in person only infrequently over the course of a year and yet when they do there is an easy camaraderie among the group. Like an NHL team, they come from different backgrounds and have different levels of experience and skill sets they bring to the table.

McDonnell is the coach, though, the man who brings it all together.

The 56-year-old played in Dallas in the old Central Hockey League for the Dallas Blackhawks after a successful junior career in Kitchener, where his teammates included Paul Coffey and Al MacInnis. Like many on the Stars' scouting staff, his connection to Nill is strong, having played with Nill in the Vancouver Canucks organization and then worked for the Red Wings, where Nill was a longtime executive before joining the Stars' staff in 2013.

McDonnell was an important part of the building of four Stanley Cup winners in Detroit, even though the team rarely drafted near the top of the draft because of their regular season and playoff successes. Now he hopes to replicate that kind of success in Dallas having moved to the team along with longtime Detroit scout Mark Leach after Nill took the Dallas post in 2013.

"It's a pretty tight knit group," Nill said of his scouting staff. "Without them there'd be no team."

Nill knows the job, having done it for years and done it from the ground up.

"I'm the manager now, they're the ones doing the work," he said. "There's a great trust."

There are no easy drafts, but this June's installment is particularly important for the Stars coming off a disappointing 2016-17 season that saw them miss the playoffs. The team got a break by moving up to the number three spot in the draft courtesy of the draft lottery and they also own the 29th pick thanks to the trade of Patrick Eaves to Anaheim at the deadline.

The stakes, always high for scouts everywhere in the NHL, are even higher this week for McDonnell and his staff.


"Yeah. For sure," McDonnell said. "Just like a playoff game you have no idea how it's going to turn out. And we're picking three, we have no idea how that's going to turn out. We don't know who's going one and two. We have a good idea who we want at three, but who knows. It's nerve wracking and we won't know until draft day."

There is about all successful scouts a kind of Zen attitude to the job. Unlike coaches and players who are used to immediate gratification; you score, you win, you make a save you move on to the next game in two night's time; the scout must look at the here and now and see what might become.

"They're at a unique age - only 17, 18 years old," said Leach who played for four years at St. Lawrence University in the early 1980s and coached at the college level before becoming a scout. "I think it's a challenge trying to figure out what they're going to be at 22, 23 and that's the big thing. And some guys make it and you look back and you say, boy I never thought that would happen and it happened. Even to this day 22 plus years into it, it's still a challenge because you're dealing with young men."

The paradox of scouting is that you're dealing with young men, boys really, but these boys if they're selected represent an investment by the organization of literally millions of dollars. And so, the challenge isn't just in picking the right players, but in not picking the wrong ones.

"You can't just go and see a kid play once and say, oh, that's what he is because from September to April they change and sometimes it's a good way and sometimes it's in a bad way," Leach said.

Added Holland, the younger brother of long-time Detroit GM Ken Holland, "Maybe sometimes we watch a whole season, you won't draft one guy you've seen. But you're crossing the guys off the list."

"We're a team. We sort of a live and die as a group in here and we try to do the best things we can. It's been a good group, we work well together," Holland added.

Buddy Powers played college hockey at Boston University in the 1970s and then coached collegiately on and off from 1980 through 2014 before joining the Stars' scouting staff. He also spent one season with the National Team Development Program.

It's not just watching the games but doing due diligence in talking to the players, their coaches and others connected to their lives, Powers said.

"It's certainly not an exact science," he said. "So many things that impact kids' lives between the time they're drafted and the time they're going to play.

"I still think the character element is huge," Powers added. "It might be as important as any other element to someone's game because you certainly need good character to build a successful franchise."

The game is fluid and so scouting the game requires that scouts are also adaptable. They must train themselves to see what players might fit the way the game might be played in two, three, five years' time.

"When I first started it was the big guys, the tough guys. If you weren't a great skater it didn't matter," said Jimmy Johnston.

If you could fight that was a bonus. If you were small, that wasn't.

Now that thought process has been tossed on its ear.

"Now you go in with a totally different view of them," said Johnston who grew up with former Stars GM and Hall of Famer Bob Gainey in the Peterborough, Ontario area.

He's been with the Stars organization 20 years.

But, Johnston added, "whether you got the 25th pick or the third pick or the fourth, you just got to do your homework and have your list in order and things should fall into place pretty good."

When we meet with the scouting staff, it's at the annual draft combine in Buffalo.

At this stage, the interviews with the top prospects have a certain sameness to them, given the maturity and the polish that these players bring to the table with them. Still, there are a few light moments like when Portland center Cody Glass is asked if he recognizes anyone in the room from looking at old pictures at the team's home rink.

It's a good history lesson for Glass as Holland was one of the greatest Winterhawks players of all time and it allows Holland's peers to have a little chuckle at his expense.

Center Josh Norris tells the group that he's good pals with Brady Tkachuk on the National Team Development Program.

"We talked to him and he said he had a different best friend," someone notes in mock seriousness before everyone has a good chuckle.

After each interview assistant GM Mark Janko produces a synopsis of the exchange - noting injuries, family background, strengths and weaknesses that the team can continue to refer to as they get closer to draft day and beyond.

Each member of the staff will have his own idea on what the team's list should look like when the draft begins Friday night in Chicago. But all or any competing notions will be distilled to one definitive Dallas list. As Leach points out, in the many years that he and McDonnell have been working NHL drafts together, they've never taken a time out when their team has been on the clock because they were in flux about making a pick.

"We understand the severity of a good pick to a bad pick and that we have to do good jobs," Holland said. "I know myself, I'm going over notes and running things through my mind to make sure I believe what I saw and what I'm saying is the right thing for the future."

"It's sort of the R and D (research and development) of the business in a sense," added David Kolb, who worked in the Red Wing office in Detroit doing co-ordination before Nill gave him a chance to do some scouting in his home state of Minnesota before joining the Stars staff.

"But player development plays a huge role," Kolb said. "The biggest role is the kids themselves. They have to be self-motivated. Everybody can skate now. Everybody trains year-round. It's tough to be a player if you don't have the mental desire to be one."

So, Friday night in Chicago a group of men who have spent the past year dodging blizzards and car wrecks and driving through the night from one rink to another will put their reputations on the line.

As they do every year, shoulder to shoulder with their teammates.

This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. You can follow Scott on Twitter @OvertimeScottB

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