NHL

John Scott can take a joke: His All-Star journey and return to reality

Former Coyotes enforcer, current AHLer John Scott named NHL All-Star Game MVP
The John Scott NHL All-Star game saga came to a happy end Sunday, with the winger captaining the Pacific team to a win and earning MVP honors.

NASHVILLE – John Scott steps outside his downtown hotel into a heavy rain, pushing a cart loaded with luggage. It’s still dark out, not yet 5 a.m. on Monday morning. He lifts his baseball cap and rubs his eyes. He has not had much sleep, not with the adrenaline still pulsing and the memories of Sunday night still fresh. His two young daughters—Eva, 4, and Gabriella, 2—follow him onto the curb. They wear matching pink sweatshirts with outlines of their home state, Michigan. The family is headed there now after the wildest weekend of Scott’s life.

The evidence is all here in two chauffeured cars. His wife, Danielle, more than nine months’ pregnant and scheduled to deliver twins later this week, who received doctor’s permission to take a trip she never expected. The cell phone in Scott’s pocket, filled with 125 text messages he hasn’t yet checked. The duffel bag from the 2016 NHL All-Star Game, which had been held across the street at Bridgestone Arena, where Scott won MVP honors. The equipment bags from the St. John’s IceCaps, the minor-league team awaiting his return, his ninth employer in eight seasons of professional hockey. The bundle of sticks, two of them autographed by fellow players.

“Johnny,” one wrote. “What a weekend. All the best.”

And the other: “To Big: You’re a legend.”

Over the past two months, ever since the beginning of the fan campaign to vote the journeyman fourth-liner into his first All-Star Game, Scott had become many things to different people. To some, he was the working-class model, a college graduate with a mechanical engineering degree who was now earning standing ovations in the building where his jersey sold out in half an hour. To others, he was the ironic candidate of an Internet campaign, and self-aware enough to handle a joke played at his expense. He was a symbol of a broken voting system. An undeserving enforcer with three suspensions to his name. A victim of an untimely trade. A headache dumped into the league’s lap.

“I think they went about it the complete wrong way. It was very offensive to me and I didn’t care for it. When they called me, I was like … Let it go, really. Let it happen. What’s the worst thing that could happen? I don’t understand. This has gotten so much publicity and it would’ve been so much easier to have fun with it and go with it. They could’ve done so much more. Instead of have all this negative publicity, it could’ve gone a completely different way. And I wish it would’ve gone that way.”

In the end, he was the character who pumped life into an event that badly needed revitalization. He was the comet who commanded everyone’s attention.

“I’ve been everything,” Scott says.

But right now, he is simply a father rushing to get his family situated curbside. He strapped Gabriella into her stroller and pulled the family’s passports from his pocket. An airport employee began loading the bags on a luggage cart.

“How was the trip here?” he asks Scott.

“It was really good,” Scott replies. “Yeah. Good trip.” 

Oh, deer

Know this much: John Scott can take a joke. 

His classmates at Michigan Tech learned not long into their freshman year. A prank war had been escalating among them and Scott, the goofball giant from Ontario who never even considered college hockey until a partial scholarship offer came along, stood in the middle. It started with the rip-and-run practice they called “tornadoing,” which involved swiping dorm keys then turning bedrooms inside out. For a little while, dead fish were turning up under mattresses. Once, Scott pooped in a bucket, hid the bucket in a teammate’s bedroom and cranked up the heat. “That was a good one,” he said, “because I pushed it way back in the corner and it took him four hours to find it.” Somehow, this did not inspire a cease-fire.

The prank that topped them all, though, came at Scott’s expense. One night, shortly before Christmas break, a teammate found a dead deer along the side of the road, frozen stiff by the Upper Peninsula winter. Someone had already removed its innards, but the head, hide and legs remained intact. The sub-zero temperatures, meanwhile, ensured no gushing blood and no decaying odor. The scene was clean when the teammate pulled his truck over. Just the ultimate one-upper—a dead doe in the snow.

The next night, around 3 a.m., blanketed by darkness, the deer was hauled into the dorm and towards Scott’s room. A camera, equipped with night vision, filmed the whole thing. The haulers paused several times along the way—not because the deer was too heavy, but because they couldn’t stop laughing. They opened the door, which Scott never locked while sleeping, and placed the deer at the edge of his bed. Its head was turned to look at the pillows. Its eyes were opened. Scott’s stayed closed. When he finally awoke, panicky screams followed.

“There’s a deer in here!” Scott roared. “Who the hell did this?”

Out in the hallway, the other hockey players howled with laughter. They knew Scott had an early class scheduled that morning, so everyone had gathered to watch. They also knew he had the perfect personality to handle the surprise. After all, this was the stooge who informed teammates that he would pretend to fall during introductions for an intrasquad game, then backed up his word by toppling at the blue line. The defenseman who many already considered a locker-room leader, partially for his ability to diffuse tense situations with humor. The giant who now emerged in the doorway, groggy and fuming and still wearing his boxers, cradling the dead deer with those massive arms.

This was the guy who would soon lug that dead deer outside and drape it over a teammate’s bicycle, arranging the legs to look like it was going for a ride.

Fear and loathing

Know this, too: Scott understood the reason behind his All-Star selection. “I was just not a fan of it,” he says. “This was, I think, a mean-spirited joke.”

The campaign began in mid-November, on the popular podcast hosted by Yahoo! writer Greg Wyshynski and Sportsnet’s Jeff Marek, not long after the NHL announced that its latest mid-season exhibition would feature a 3-on-3 tournament with a $1 million prize. Given the open ice and likely speed under the new format, the calculus was simple: Would any player be more fun to see compete against the league’s most skilled than the 6' 8" Scott, owner of five career NHL goals, six assists and 542 penalty minutes in 287 games? Perhaps even Scott would enjoy it, they suggested.

“Just because of who I am, my role, my size, I’m an easy target for anybody,” Scott says.

Then with the Arizona Coyotes, Scott was in Detroit on an early December road trip when goaltender Anders Lindback broke the surprise. Wyshynski had written an article asking fans to “vote early” and “vote often.” Other podcasts had circulated the idea to their listeners and support swelled in Reddit’s hockey subsection. Pretty soon, Scott was leading not just the Pacific Division, but the entire league.

Still in Detroit, Scott told reporters on Dec. 2 that he didn’t deserve the honor and hoped the buzz would fade away. The Coyotes were among the league’s most surprising teams and Scott believed he was playing well. “And this was a huge distraction,” he says. “I just hated that I was that guy. I wanted to be focused on winning. Not just my All-Star s---.”

So he approached Dave Tippett, Arizona’s head coach, and asked, “Is this OK? What do you want me to do with this?” Tippett advised him to “either ignore it or have fun with it,” Scott recalls, “but don’t let it get out of hand.” Scott began declining more interview requests. He feared anger from teammates and disruption in the locker room. “I was worried about that a lot,” he says.

Scott had always prided himself on persistence. He flipped that partial scholarship to Michigan Tech into a full ride, then spent three extra years taking summer courses to graduate. He went undrafted and figured he'd end up back home working for General Motors as a quality engineer in a car plant but signed with the AHL’s Houston Aeros straight out of school and made his NHL debut with the Minnesota Wild within three years. He spent a solid chunk of college futilely asking Danielle, his future wife, out on dates before finally convincing her the summer after his senior year.

But as time passed and Scott remained atop the All-Star voting leaderboard, the ensuing criticism became difficult to handle. He had read some stories calling him a “goon,” and seen others question his integrity for not declining the invitation. So he deleted the sports apps on his cell and went an entire week-and-a-half-long road trip without reading newspapers or watching television. He would joke with teammates in practice, which offered some reassurance, “but I was not happy and I did not want to go at all.

“I wanted it to go away,” he continues. “I was terrified of what might happen if I got voted in. I just didn’t want to go.”

What did he think might happen?

“Exactly what did.”

Tornadoed

Halfway through the voting process, around the time Scott accepted that he would win the popular vote, the strangeness climbed to new heights. Across the NHL, players and coaches reached out to express their support, even some whose phone numbers Scott did not recognize. They told him he would represent the bottom-six forwards who rarely received such widespread attention. “Just go for it,” they said. Scott’s spirits returned. He informed Arizona that he wanted to participate.

“They said, ‘Great,’” Scott says. “I thought everything was cool.”

Still, reminders of his outlier status were hard to shake, encouraging his belief that many wished the situation would simply disappear. The NHL hid ballot totals and barely publicized the process on its website; several of Scott’s friends told him they wanted to lend their support, but couldn’t find the link. Messages played on the video screen at Gila River Arena in Arizona, encouraging fans to vote for certain Coyotes, but Scott’s name never showed up. “And I’m sitting there like, well that’s kind of a kick in the teeth,” he says. “I’m literally in first place in the whole NHL and they didn’t even mention me.”

The worst moment came the day before the captains were announced, when a league official called to, in Scott’s words, “gauge how I was.” As Scott later disclosed in an article for The Players Tribune, the official invoked Scott’s daughters, wondering if they would be “proud” of him should he accept the fans’ wishes and attend the All-Star Game. That officials were taking Scott’s temperature seemed odd enough. This particular tone struck him hard.

“I think they went about it the complete wrong way,” he said later. “It was very offensive to me and I didn’t care for it. When they called me, I was like … again? Let it go, really. Let it happen. What’s the worst thing that could happen? I don’t understand. This has gotten so much publicity and it would’ve been so much easier to have fun with it and go with it. They could’ve done so much more. Instead of have all this negative publicity, it could’ve gone a completely different way. And I wish it would’ve gone that way.”

Instead, on Jan. 15, Scott found himself called into the stick room by Coyotes GM Don Maloney, who informed him that he had been traded to Montreal in a three-team, six-player swap. Scott had also promptly been demoted to the AHL. He would report to St. John’s, a few weeks before Danielle’s due date.

The conspiracy theories quickly emerged. Maloney explained Scott’s inclusion as a way “to make the finances of this deal work,” but Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin did little to quiet speculation when he told reporters of Scott, “I can’t really tell you why I had to make that trade.” And even now, Scott hasn’t shaken the feeling that the campaign caused the trade. (SI.com’s request to interview Coyotes personnel was flatly declined.)

“It definitely happened right around the time where, if something were to happen, it’d be looking suspicious,” Scott says. “It happened right at the perfect time. It’s like, OK, you got named to the All-Star Game, you’re the captain, the game’s going to happen in a week-and-a-half, and I get sent down. It’s either a crazy coincidence or just too much to ignore.”

He laughs. The NHL had still allowed him to attend the All-Star Game, sure. But his family had been uprooted and his world had been tornadoed.

“The soap opera kept getting better and better,” he says. “It was one thing after another. I thought, ‘When is it going to end?’”

The people’s All-Star

At the players’ hotel in Nashville early Sunday afternoon, Scott sat down for a lengthy interview with SI.com in the same section of chairs where NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman had requested a meeting. That conversation happened on Thursday night, the day after Scott’s first-person article was published. To Scott’s recollection, their talk lasted maybe five minutes. The commissioner told Scott that he was happy Scott had come. In Scott’s view, Bettman wanted to quell fears that he might further criticize the NHL on media day. “Smoothing things over,” Scott says. Bettman echoed his welcome during his state-of-the-union address Saturday.

“Once [Scott] decided, taking everything into account, that he wanted to be here, it was a closed issue from our standpoint,” Bettman said then. “He was welcome to come and we welcomed him here. There was never any issue beyond that, despite all of the commentary and suggestion to the contrary.”

Some bitterness endured, though, particularly when Scott’s request that he wear either an Arizona or St. John’s jersey for Saturday’s skills competition was denied. (He wore a generic NHL-branded one instead.) But the weekend also organically showcased him at his most charismatic. 

He wore flip-flops and shorts to his presser, then asked reporters to hang around once it ended, so he could snap a picture. He dropped into Edmonton forward Taylor Hall’s interview with the NHL Network. During the shootout portion of the skills competition, he tried a spin-o-rama move for only the second time in his life. He never stopped smiling, never stopped pulling out his cell phone from his pants to take pictures.

“I’m not taking it for granted or just shooing it aside and trying to be cool,” he says. “This is super cool. This is very overwhelming for me and I really enjoy it. I get what’s going on around me.”

It all dovetailed toward the actual game. Captaining the Pacific Division, Scott scored on his first shot during his first shift, unleashing a whirling fist pump in celebration, then whipped his second into the top-right shelf on a breakaway. There were the chants of “M-V-P” during the championship game, a 1–0 win over the Atlantic Division. Then boos when he wasn’t listed among the three finalists for the honor. And a flood of Twitter votes that left the NHL acknowledging another electoral triumph for Scott. Then came the handshake with Bettman at center ice.  

“I’m proud of you,” Scott recalls the commissioner saying. “Quite the story.”

The mini-van, the giant check, the slight shrug of the shoulders as Scott raised the trophy, like he still couldn’t believe this was happening.

Later, in the hallway outside the home locker room, Scott found his wife, who feared all the excitement might induce labor, and his two daughters, both of whom wore No. 28 Coyotes jerseys with “DADDY” on the back. He knelt down beside Eva. She kissed him on the cheek.

“Did you have fun at the hockey game?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

“Did you say, ‘Go, daddy, go’?” 

“Yeah.”

Back to reality

In the terminal, after posing for a selfie while pushing Gabriella’s stroller and signing pucks for a few fans, Scott linked up with Brent Burns, his former teammate with San Jose and close friend. Like every other player in attendance, the bushy-bearded defenseman had cast support for Scott throughout the weekend, insisting that he deserved the honor just as much as anyone else. Burns had been among the group of Pacific Division skaters who lifted Scott onto their shoulders after they won the championship. Outside security, they shook hands and parted ways.

“Great seeing you,” Burns told Scott. 

“Great weekend,” Scott replied.

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After the scripted, packed schedule in Nashville, little about the future was known for Scott and his family. They would connect flights through Detroit and land in Traverse City, where they would move back into a home that had been under renovation for the past year. On Thursday, Danielle was scheduled to have labor induced, for which Scott would be present. The IceCaps told him to take his time and call whenever he felt ready to return, which softened some worry. He had not yet booked his flight back to Newfoundland, back to the minors, back to real life.

“That’s the thing, there’s so many unknowns,” he says. “Even if this whole All-Star thing didn’t happen, the chances of me getting a contract next year probably would’ve been slim, just because of the way it’s going and my age (33). I’m not upset about it. I’m not worried about next year. I’ll find something. I’m a smart guy who can make things happen.”

Standing outside his gate, Scott knew one thing, though: Nothing about the weekend further validated anything about himself. Sure, he will forever be remembered as the enforcer who swiped the spotlight among the game’s brightest stars, the everyman who spun a joke about his limitations into a golden celebration, and maybe the influence for future All-Star voting reform. But he was also still jockeying for jobs on the fringes of the NHL. Still making league minimum. Still headed for Newfoundland.

“It’s all going to go back to the same now,” he says.

The boarding process was beginning. Families traveling with small children were allowed next. Scott steers the stroller through the crowd while Eva clings to his leg. He hands over his ticket and disappears down the jet bridge. A few minutes later, after the wheels kicked up and the plane lifted from the runway, the sun began to rise and the rain continued to fall.

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