They heard the kid had demons. In the weeks before his pre-draft interview, the NHL team’s scouting department went into full detective mode trying to find out what he’d done. He’d been kicked off his team before a major international tournament, but the scouts couldn’t confirm why. When the interview day arrived, they opted for a bad-cop approach to force a confession.
“Listen, we know what you’ve done,” a scout told him. “We want to hear it from you, because we’ve heard a lot of different parts of the story, and it would really help if it came from you.”
The young man paused. The scouting staff braced for a standard reveal. Maybe he broke curfew or threw a rock through a window. Nope. What they got was a confession to something…stranger.
“She shouldn’t have done that to me,” the kid muttered, referring to some unknown betrayal. “I just did it, you know? I just came out of school, saw her car, hopped on the hood of her car, and I s— right on top of her car, and I left.”
The room almost exploded into laughter on the spot, but one staffer held it together just long enough.
“OK,” he asked. “What kind of car was it?”
Scouts’ journeys over the course of a draft year are circuitous to say the least. They endure death-defying travel, artery-clogging cuisine and must adapt quickly when a background check or interview takes an unexpected turn. The key to survival is a keen sense of humour – and cornucopias of incredible stories. The Hockey News spoke to a bunch of the game’s most seasoned bird-dogs to learn their most trying tales of the grind. Welcome to Scouting Nightmares.
The most common war story a scout tells: a hair-raising travel experience. Usually, it involves treacherous driving conditions, which makes sense considering (a) scouts watch games during hockey season, which consists of all the year’s snowiest months, and (b) scouts do most of their hockey watching in wintry places, including northern U.S. college towns and major-junior cities in Canada and the northern U.S. One scout says he survived a hilly drive in central Quebec with snow so literally blinding that he may as well have been driving with his eyes closed. When he reached his destination, other scouts who’d done the same congratulated him on being alive.
“We were all thinking, ‘After all these years, this is the way we’re going to die, right here on this trip,’ ” the scout said. “Because if we stop, we’re going to freeze to death. You get to the point where you might as well keep going. Those were the worst conditions I was ever in. I’ve been in some conditions I don’t even tell my wife about.”
The same scout has been rear-ended three times in accidents and had his car totalled once. He summarises his life on the road with one word: lucky. Another scout almost got done in by snow, not while in his car but because he couldn’t even find his car. The snow on his American Midwest trip had piled so high that it submerged every car in the parking lot of his hotel. Having rented so many cars throughout the year, he couldn’t remember which one was his, so he started brushing the snow off every car, one by one, hoping to find his in a frigid game of whack-a-mole.
Travel isn’t just dangerous because of the weather. Sometimes, scouts find themselves in sticky predicaments in foreign countries where they don’t speak or read the language. Once, a scout said, he and a fellow NHL team front-office member boarded a train during a European excursion – and an official told them they’d accidentally booked tickets for one year later. It was too late to exit, so the employee hid them in the luggage compartment for the entire ride – in exchange for cash.
Surprises like that happen a lot when you travel as much as scouts do. One scout explains that the community operates with a hive mind when it comes to panic if unforeseen circumstances come up that jeopardise everyone’s ability to reach their next destination. Any time a weather phenomenon strikes – from a snowstorm to the Iceland volcanic eruption of 2010 – the scouts begin to freak out collectively. Fearing they’ll miss the game or tournament or draft at hand, they impulsively book new travel routes. One scout says he once convinced his team’s front office to let him and some peers take a full-bore cruise – because it was the only way to make it to their next destination on time.
Another wild incident happened when a group of scouts rebooked a winding route home from Russia that included a train through Rome. One way or another, they ended up in Tel Aviv, Israel – on a beach.
“They’ve got to wait a full day on the beach, and they’ve got the team’s credit card out there,” a scout said. “And they’re in their underwear playing volleyball in Tel Aviv, and there are guys walking around with f—in’ AK-47s, patrolling the beach, and they’re out there getting f—in’ hammered and playing volleyball.”
Sometimes, the craziest stories don’t emerge on the road between hockey games in two cities. The obscure destinations themselves produce danger, too. By far, the place that inspires the most tales, and the strangest ones, is Russia. Some scouts recount getting stopped at random by police on the highway and having to pay them off. Guards with machine guns are commonplace at arenas.
And then there’s the…secret societies? A scout was staying in Chelyabinsk for a tournament a few years back and couldn’t sleep because of the time change after his long flight, so he found himself staring out the window of his hotel, which overlooked a dump, at 5 a.m. That’s when the manhole cover popped off.
“This guy climbs out, and I go, ‘What the hell is going on here?’ ” the scout said. “So I watch him. He walks about 20 feet, drops his drawers, and he goes to the washroom, right there. Then he goes right back down the hole again.”
The next day, after another sleepless night, the scout saw a different manhole cover open and a different man emerge. This guy was decked out: suit, tie and briefcase. He appeared to be starting his workday. The scout asked a Russian member of the team staff what on earth was going on.
“Oh, they live down there,” the Russian staffer said, “like a little city. It’s warm down there. And all the hot water pipes and everything are down there.”
The scout also experienced some you-need-to-see-it-to-believe-it things in Russia when he tried going out for a bite to eat.
“You go into a restaurant, and there’s cats running around in there,” the scout said. “You order a steak or something, you’re so hungry, and you’ve been on the road for a week or two, and you’re just…you’re really not sure. But you eat it anyway.”
Diet is one of the biggest challenges for any scout – because travelling means eating on the go, eating in arenas and not having many healthy food choices in front of them unless they make concerted efforts to find them. One scout, who is a former NHL player and lived a fit lifestyle, estimates he gained 20 pounds in his first year on the road – “like a blow fish.”
The scouting nightmares don’t stop once the bird-dogs sit safely at their destinations with full bellies. Simply watching prospects in action can produce unexpected headaches. The most common: a regional scout studies a youngster and calls up the big club’s GM, excited to have him come watch. The GM shows up, and the prospect lays an absolute egg. It can be embarrassing for a regional scout, but most GMs understand they usually can’t judge a player off a single viewing. One regional scout swears by a “four-out-of-five rule,” figuring if a player he’s watching has just one bad game out of five, that’s 66 good games in an 82-game NHL season.
It’s tougher for some players than others to deliver when they’re being watched. One poor kid, a scout recalls, had a suped-up hockey parent distracting him. Turns out the player’s father had installed a tiny radio in his son’s helmet and was coaching him, in his ear, while the kid was on the ice.
Once in a while, a player blocks out the noise and performs well four out of five nights with scouts watching him – yet still doesn’t pan out. One scout recalls being saved from a dud evaluation by a drunk guy. A friend of his, a scout on a rival team, had brought his elderly father along on a trip in which they were evaluating a big-time prospect, one thought to have a No. 1 overall ceiling. On the car ride home from the game, the old man, “f—in hammered,” according to the scout, began to rant.
“He’s going off, ‘That was the f—in’ worst game I ever went to.…f—in’ four hours of drive time. Why the f— are you guys watching that game? And who were you watching?’ ” said the scout. “(My friend) goes, ‘Dad, we were watching so-and-so.’ And he goes, ‘That guy? I’m better than him. If either one of you drafts him, you guys are gonna get fired.’ ”
The player ended up tumbling to the middle of the first round and never playing a single NHL game.
So scouts have to live with the fear of being fatally wrong. And sometimes, they have to be willing to pivot. Most of them have the green light to shift their focus if a player who isn’t supposed to be their target stands out more than the kid they’re actually on hand to watch, and that can be a lifesaver. One regional scout recalls being asked to watch “a No. 17,” being completely unimpressed, and admitting to his boss, “Honestly, I liked No. 17 on the other team better.” Turns out the regional scout had been given the wrong team on his assignment: the No. 17 he liked was the kid he was supposed to be watching.
The vetting process, via background checks and pre-draft interviews, has just as many pitfalls as driving through a blizzard. Some kids are so nervous they can’t speak. Some get verbal diarrhoea. One scout recalls a prospect so spastic, speaking so rapidly, that team staffers had to calm him and ask him to talk about something other than hockey. It didn’t work. He grabbed the next topic and began another manic, five-minute rant.
The nervous kids can still turn out to be good players. The interviews that really rattle the scouts and front-office members are, for lack of a better word, the psychopaths. One scout explains that his NHL team tried to trump the competition by hiring a sports psychologist to assist with evaluations, and the results of one particular report were shocking.
“It said, ‘This guy’s going to be a mass murderer, he’s going to do this, do not touch this kid, he’s no good,’ ” the scout said. “So we listen. We go to the world juniors the next year, and this kid is the best player by far. And we would’ve drafted him, too. The GM says to me, ‘Why the hell didn’t we draft this guy?’ The kid is a star in the NHL today.”
That prospect didn’t necessarily show signs of being a lunatic in his actual interview. Another scout recalls a player who did, though. The scout likens him to Hannibal Lecter in that the player had control of the room, dictating the direction and pace of the interview, and he stunned the team when they asked him what he could improve about his game.
“He said, ‘Well, I like to go to the meetings when they’re doing the video and that, and I’m just a naked guy. I like to sit naked,’ ” the scout said. “He goes, ‘The improvement I made? I guess I didn’t know when I was in the meeting that it’s a huge distraction to my teammates.”
The toughest interview subjects to decipher are the liars, though, the prospects who try so hard to be perfect that they misrepresent themselves. One scout laughs thinking about a prospect who showed up looking a bit pudgy. The player spun a yarn that he never goes out for chicken wings, avoids the night life, stays home and plans out his meals meticulously. Five minutes after the interview, it was lunch time at the combine. Right beside the team’s table was that same prospect – carrying a plate piled high with nothing but chicken wings.
“One of the guys on our staff walks by and says, ‘Hey, I thought you didn’t eat chicken wings!’ ” the scout said. “And we’re dying.”
So how tough is it to be a scout? Sometimes, after all the work is complete, the long trips, the gross food, the mind games during interviews, a team uses the homework to select a kid – and the warts show up after the fact. One scout remembers calling a player’s name in the sixth round after being assured he was in the arena to take the podium. Cheers could even be heard in the stands from what was presumably his family after the pick was announced, but the player was nowhere to be seen. He was so cheesed about falling to the later rounds that he’d stormed out of the building. The draft happened to be near his hometown that year – not in his hometown, but within about 15 miles of it.
The kid was walking home.