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Scouts: The Lifeblood of a Franchise

by Mark Stepneski / Dallas Stars

The 2012 NHL Entry Draft takes place June 22-23 in Pittsburgh, and the Dallas Stars are set to make the 13th pick in the first round, as well as seven more selections. Stars fans might not be as familiar with this year’s crop of future NHL stars as an NFL fan would be with a top Penn State linebacker or USC quarterback, for example. But rest assured, the Stars’ extensive group of amateur scouts is extremely familiar with them. And leading up to the Draft itself, will profile the unheralded, mostly anonymous, but incredibly hard-working and valuable group who has been scouring the globe for the next Loui Eriksson or Jamie Benn.

Being an NHL scout might seem like a dream job for many hockey fans. And in a way, it is. What could top watching hockey games for a living? But’s that only one part of the job. It can be a grind, entailing a lot of hard work and some significant sacrifices to do it well. It’s especially true of a team’s amateur scouts.

Les Jackson, Stars Director of Player Personnel

“It’s a tough job,” said Dallas Stars Director of Player Personnel Les Jackson. “They love what they do, and with that, a lot of the guys give up situations at home for their family life to travel. You add in the different weather things you run into, it can be frustrating. But they love what they do and they have a passion for it, which I think is key. They care about the Dallas Stars and have a passion for scouting. It’s a nice mix.”

Jackson and Kari Takko, Director of European Scouting for the Stars, oversee ten amateur scouts who scour the globe for draft-eligible 17- and 18-year-olds who one day could suit up for the Dallas Stars. It’s not easy trying to predict the future of teenagers, but it’s a task the Stars scouts tackle with zeal.

They hit the road on their journeys armed with the indispensable tools of the trade, many of them technological leaps over how things were done in the past.

“We all have our cell phones,” said Bob Gernander, who is based in northern Minnesota. “We are always in contact. We have to contact coaches to make sure players that we are planning on seeing will be playing that night. We want to make sure there have been no injuries.”

“We have reports to file after every game, so you have to have your computer with you,” said Jimmy Johnston, who operates out of Peterborough, Ontario. “Before computers, we’d write them down and every three weeks, we’d fax them in. Now, they have it the next day.”

Added Gernander: “Before computers, Central Scouting would send us a weekly update on injuries and so on. That came by mail and it usually arrived by the time you were gone. We’d be two and three weeks behind in knowing what was happening, where now we are updated by the minute or at least by the day.”

“The GPS,” said Dennis Holland, who scouts out of Kelowna, British Columbia, of his most valuable tool. “I remember my first year scouting many a night driving around cities and not sure where I was, and places that I had played. I had played in the Western Hockey League, so going into Tri-City or Spokane, places I had been to hundreds of times but on the bus and going in as a team, now all of a sudden you’re stopping at gas stations trying to find the rink or the hotel. The GPS has taken the worry out of finding places.”

Stars scouts have to find plenty of places over the course of the season. It’s a global operation as they search for talent across the United States, Canada and Europe.

It’s a lot of travel. Over the course of a month, a scout could be on the road 20-22 days. There’s not much time for the family.

“I’m lucky, my wife likes the sport and she’s supportive,” said the Finland-based Takko. “I think that’s what you need for the marriage to succeed, for all the scouts. You are gone so much. I was lucky that when I started, the kids were already kind of grown up, so that helped a lot.”

And the travel can be arduous at times. There’s driving through rough winter weather and dealing with the cancellation of flights.

“If there’s a bad part to scouting, it’s the traveling and the weather,” said Johnston. “You can’t predict that and you don’t know what it is going to be like.”

Johnston joked he has one key rule: never travel with fellow scout Shane Churla.

“Bad weather follows him around,” Johnston said.

Churla is based in Montana and covers the United States Hockey League, Western Collegiate Hockey Association and Alberta Junior Hockey League, and he also crosses over into the various regions Dallas scouts handle.

“I live out west, so I do games out here in the Western Hockey League. Everywhere you go out here, you are traveling over a mountain pass and there are a lot of white-knuckle nights,” Churla said. “I’ve come home with my nose a couple inches shorter because I’ve had my nose pressed against the window the last five hours trying to find the road. It’s part of the job. We always kid about getting danger pay thrown in for some of those trips. It can get exciting.”

British Columbia-based Holland also covers the WHL and has his share of bouts with the weather.

“One night, another scout and myself, we were traveling together because the weather wasn’t great. We had to sleep in our car overnight because the road got shut down back to Calgary after a game in Red Deer,” Holland recalled. “The easy part is when you are at the game evaluating; the toughest part is getting to the games.”

And there are hundreds of games.

“I would say it’s almost 230 games this year,” said Sweden-based Rickard Oquist.

“It’s six games a week,” said Johnston. “If you can get seven games a week, you go for it because it is such a short span to catch a lot of kids.”

It’s all part of the process of identifying, evaluating and then putting together a list of players the Stars would like to select at the NHL Entry Draft, which this year will be June 22-23 in Pittsburgh.

“You’re looking for a base of if they can skate, handle the puck and understand the game, but also does he compete?” Oquist said. “Does he have that fire inside?”

“The common denominator for me – and it’s something that can never be measured – is the player’s heart and the desire and his hunger to be a (good) player,” said Churla. “Sometimes people look past that to a more skilled player, but the guy with the internal drive and fortitude, you can never underestimate that facet of their game. To me it’s a defining trait.”

Scouts watch players for key clues, honing in on details the casual observer may overlook or may not even think about.

“You follow that player all the way from the time he steps on the ice until he leaves the ice,” said Gernander. “You have to pay particular attention to what they do without the puck. If he’s made a mistake, you follow him to the bench because the coach may come down to make a correction, and you want to see how he reacts to that.”

“I watch kids away from the puck, the way they enter the ice and the way the exit the ice,” said Holland. “I always try to sit on the opposite side of the bench to see body language and that sort of stuff.”

A player’s performance can’t always be taken at face value. The scouts will try to take certain factors into account when assessing a player’s game. A kid might have a bad game because of heavy travel, some rough scheduling, or he may have just had an off night.

“We always have to look at the situations,” said Churla. “You can’t take it for granted that the kid is getting great coaching. Going back to my own experience, I was homesick as a young player. That first year was tough. You’ve left home, you’re living with a new family, you’re doing a lot of things you’ve never done before and I know I was homesick. There was no question about it. It absolutely affects your play. You have to take all those things into consideration. You’re more patient with guys than someone who comes in and hard lines a guy, saying that is terrible.”

Kari Takko, Director of European Scouting, has a history with the franchise that harkens back to the North Star days.

Evaluating how players perform on the ice is just one part of the job. Scouts dig for information beyond the player’s on-ice abilities, trying to find out more about him as a person. It’s an important part of the process in building a complete profile.

“Yesterday, I drove over six hours to meet a guy and then drove back, and I met him for about an hour and 15 minutes. I just wanted to figure out what kind of person he is,” said Takko. “Before that, I had spoken to his coach, his trainer and the guy who was coaching him before, his junior coach. You have to find out his character, his willingness to work off the ice and practices. You’re only seeing him in the games.”

They’ll talk to teammates and perhaps even teachers.

“You try to turn over every rock” said Holland. “I talk to broadcasters, they are at every game. They are painting a picture, so they have good views. You are really trying to get a clear of picture of five years from now, which is a little murky at the time.”

And that’s a key challenge of the job. The scouts evaluate kids who are 17- or 18-years-old, trying to determine what they may look like as players in the future. It’s far from being a science.

“There’s no easy way, there’s no correct way, there’s nothing perfect where we can do it this way,” said Johnston. “There’s no cut-and-dried way. You have to go by what you’ve learned from other kids over the years.”

“We draft at 5-11 and all of sudden they end up at 6-2, 200 pounds and you look like a genius, and then some other kids don’t grow and take steps back,” said Holland. “It’s a process and you try to lean on some of the things you’ve gone in the past with other prospects. You try to do your due diligence and try to make sure you see them enough.”

Seeing players multiple times over a long period of time is key for the scouts. When the Stars scouts watch players in their draft year, a book on that player likely started a year or two in advance. Every season, scouts are identifying players who could be potential draft targets down the road.

“We start a book on a player two years outside of a draft,” said Churla. “We monitor him all the way up to draft eligibility and hopefully you have done your due diligence and got them in the right order.”

The Stars’ scouting staff works closely together, crossing over into the regions of other scouts to have multiple sets of eyes on a prospect, especially those projected to be going in the first three rounds. It’s a key part of the scouting staff developing their list of targets for the draft.

“If you don’t cross over, you are not able to build up your list for the draft,” said Takko. “You want the brunette and I want the blonde one, but you haven’t seen the blonde and I haven’t seen the brunette, how would we figure out which one was better?”

In the end, they hope it all pays off on draft weekend, which is the culmination of a year of hard work for the amateur scouts. It requires a lot of travel, long hours, lengthy stretches away from home and a lot of hard work. Throw in lot of bad coffee and bad hotels and it is more grind than glamour, but it is rewarding as well.

“It’s an interesting job because these young men are so full of life, so full of energy and passion. It’s neat being around them,” said Holland. “I’ve learned so much and appreciate the opportunity to do this job. I’m kind of sitting front row center with these young superstars as they grow, develop and learn.”

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