NEWARK, N.J. -- Shortly before 3 PM on Sunday at the Prudential Center, the NHL's Jim Gregory conducted the roll call of clubs prior to the league's entry draft. After other preliminaries, including the booing of Commissioner Gary Bettman, the focus turned to the kids, the 210 draftees whose names were rattled off over the next seven hours.
The draft got off to a strong start befitting the top end of this year's crop: The Avalanche, as expected, took center Nathan MacKinnon with the first pick, but defenseman Seth Jones, Central Scouting's top-rated prospect, slid to fourth where the Predators waited gleefully, assuaging some of their pain from the departure of Ryan Suter via free agency last year and turning Nashville into a team that fans in other cities might now want to watch.
But as much as it was a day for the players, it belonged equally to the hockey world's hidden heroes: the scouts.
After a player is selected, one of the first things he does is visit the club's table on the draft floor to shake hands with the staff seated there, including the scouts. It's more than a symbolic gesture. The scouts are almost always the main reason why a player gets picked by a team.
"Yeah, they really put in the hours," Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman said not long before the picks began. "Long trips, cold rinks, late nights. They watch a lot of games."
Starting in September, these men fan out over North American and Europe, wherever the best teenaged hockey players skate, from big metropolitan areas like Toronto to small towns of 6,000 inhabitants like Leksand, Sweden. There can be lots of bad meals and worse coffee along the way. They frequently travel alone.
But, like the players they are watching, scouts, too, have gifts -- the ability to scope out the strengths and weaknesses of hundreds of players each season, to make judgments about their subtle skills that seem like minutia to the average fan: Can he get his shot away quickly enough? (Sometimes, quickly is measured in split-seconds.) Is he vulnerable to opponents skating with speed along the boards? Does he consistently make tape-to-tape passes right on the stick of his teammates? A scout must answer a catalog of questions like that for each player he is watching.
The evaluations pile up, game after game, as scouts observe a player's growth -- or lack of it -- through the winter. They've got to keep watching. Sometimes, a kid looks good at the start of a season, but plateaus or even slips back later on, his development stalled. It can be painstaking work, and there are no shortcuts. For a few years, the cash-strapped Sabres tried to do their scouting largely via video. It didn't work out too well. No one has yet devised an adequate substitute for a scout being at the rink.
And there's more to a scout's job than just watching games. There's also the matter of appraising a player's makeup, his heart and soul. When you hear hockey talk about "character," how can a scout know that the player he's watching possesses it? How did the Bruins know, for example, when they drafted Patrice Bergeron in the second round of 2003, that they were getting the type of player who would have the stuff to suit up for a Stanley Cup Final game with a broken rib, torn rib cartilage, and a punctured lung, and continue playing even after he suffered a separated shoulder?
That manner of courage can only be derived from a scout learning about the player as a person, talking to his coaches, his parents, his billet family, through interviews with club personnel and others. Athletes in other sports may have amazing talents, but few demonstrate with regularity what guys like Bergeron do -- and the NHL is well-populated with character players, heart and soul guys who would not give a second thought to lacing them up under those same circumstances. And that's a credit to the game's scouts for finding them as much as it is to the players themselves. The scouts make sure their NHL clubs know these guys are out there and they make character an essential part of their calculations.
So while the NHL celebrates its latest crop of draft picks, it's also worth celebrating the league's scouts, the men who do so much to get the kids there.