This is the second in a series of profiles on the Dallas Stars’ amateur scouting department as we inch closer to the 2012 NHL Draft in Pittsburgh on June 22-23, where 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, DallasStars.com 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.
When the Stars moved to Dallas back in 1993, it didn’t take long for Shane Churla to become a fan favorite. There were the big hits, and of course, the fights. Almost 20 years later, he is still probably one of the most popular players ever to play for the Stars.
Churla has been back with the team for the past seven years in a lower-profile role as an amateur scout, helping find young talent that one day he and the Stars hope will bring another Stanley Cup championship to Dallas.
“It was more so staying in the game. Like many other people, it’s been my life, being in hockey in one form or another,” said Churla. “My objectives are no different than when I was a player, I want to win a championship. Now, I am going about it in a different application. The desire is as high as when I was a player.”
And that desire to win and a willingness to work hard at the job is what has made Churla an effective member of the Stars’ scouting staff.
“He’s really serious about it, and has a real passion for it,” said Les Jackson, Stars Director of Player Personnel. “He has a high value of care about the Dallas Stars. He’s done a really good job. No job is too big or too small for him. He gets his hands dirty and works.”
Getting his hands dirty isn’t foreign to Churla, who spent 11 seasons in the NHL as an enforcer after the Hartford Whalers drafted him in the sixth round (110th overall) of the 1985 NHL Draft. He played eight seasons with the Stars, appearing in 366 games and registering 60 points (24 goals, 36 assists) and a franchise-record 1,833 penalty minutes. He also played for Hartford, Calgary, Los Angeles and the New York Rangers.
After his playing days ended in 1997, he took some time off before joining the Phoenix Coyotes as a scout in 2000 and was hired by the Stars in 2005.
Churla, who lives in Montana, scouts the United States Hockey League, Alberta Junior Hockey League and Western Collegiate Hockey Association. He also does some of the key cross-over work for the Stars’ amateur scouting staff, venturing into the domains of other scouts to give a second look to high priority prospects.
It’s a lot of work for Churla, as it is for any amateur scout. He sees a couple hundred games a season. And the monthly travel?
“Let me put it this way, I’m usually only home two days a week,” he said. “Do the math.”
And there are game reports to file, a draft list to maintain and interviews to be conducted to ferret out more information on prospects.
“When we talk about Dallas Stars criteria, character is at the top of the list for us,” Churla said. “He’s got to have good character, he has to be a good teammate and he has to be a good person.”
There’s more to a scout’s job than just watching games.
“There’s a pile of work that people don’t understand. People think it’s a great job because you get to go and watch hockey, which in all respects you do, but you throw in the travel, sitting in airports, cancelled flights, bad hotels, bad coffee and everything else, it’s a grinding job,” Churla said. “But coming from the hockey world and living out of a suitcase, the transition was easier for me than maybe some others.”
Other parts of the transition to an amateur scout weren’t as smooth. It was an adjustment for someone who had played in the best league in the world and had suited up with the likes of Mike Modano and Mark Messier to grasp the art of assessing the play of 17-and 18-year-old kids.
“When I first started scouting amateur (hockey), I clearly didn’t see the talent of the league until I saw the whole league. Then I could say if this is a group of players I am looking at, then this guy is pretty good and that guy is pretty good,” he said. “But initially it was tough. You have that mindset of knowing professional players and their habits, and you forget about what it was like as a young player trying to find your way as an amateur.”
Now, Churla can use his experiences as a player – both as a pro and as an amateur – to his advantage as he evaluates teenaged prospects.
“I think being an ex-player helps me in a lot of ways because I see things the average fan won’t see because you’ve lived it and it was your life,” he said. “You can tell when a guy is cheating, you can tell when a guy is scared, which somebody else may not see those signs. So I think it is a huge advantage.”
He knows what young players are going through as well, what kind of factors may affect their play and the challenges a 17- or 18-year-old hockey player can face. And that’s part of the job he’s grown to love, working with young players, watching them develop and helping them along the way. Again, leaning on past experiences, and giving today’s young players someone to lean on.
“I like the fact of building. I like that aspect,” Churla said. “Coaching is as close as you can be to being a player without being a player, but longevity isn’t very good in that occupation. It seems like you are hired to get fired. I like working with young players and giving something back, and even the guys we have in our system, I am in constant contact with players.
“I wish that when I was a player, I had someone to bounce those things off of when I needed answers. Hopefully they take advantage of it because it is coming from people that have had the experience, have been through the ups and downs and can clear a lot of things up for players.”
And not only does he enjoy working with and guiding those young players, he’s loyal to them as well. In his playing days, Churla was an enforcer, and part of the job was to protect his team’s star players. He still can be protective, especially when it comes to those young players he and the Stars’ amateur scouts have helped draft. Some of those players will make it and some won’t, but Churla has their back as they take a crack at making the NHL.
“When you are on the scouting side, the mentality with us is that it is moreso for tomorrow than it is for today. We’re always projecting out because we are dealing with young players, and there is a time process and a development process involved,” Churla said. “You do so much work on players that you hope people have the patience to let it play out. That’s the hard thing. We’re always protective of our players and we’re protective of the young guys, sometimes to a fault. They all can’t play, but we guard them that way.”
Missed any of our pre-draft coverage? Read 'Scouts: The Lifeblood of a Franchise' here.