Inside the barns and down the back roads where the game's future is found

Our senior writer made like a scout and hit the road for a three-game weekend, braving blizzard-like conditions and angry dart-throwers, all for the sake of seeing hockey’s next wave of players.
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Scouting1

If you’re heading to Bonnyville, get yourself a heated jacket. They’re battery-powered and every big-box hardware store carries them. Bonnyville, the Northern Alberta town, has been a great host for the World Jr. A Challenge two of the past three years, but it does get nippy there in the depths of December. So, heated jacket: that’s a veteran move.

Scouts are the lifeblood of hockey teams, and they’re on the go way more than the players themselves. The typical scout sees up to 260 games in a year, including tournaments. NHL teams have a variety of talent hawks on their roster, with four major regions covered off: Canada West, Canada East, the United States and Europe. Within those spheres, you can break things down even further. Teams may have two dedicated scouts just for the WHL or OHL, for example, and one or two for the QMJHL. Some scouts see their territory stretch across the U.S. from Minnesota high school to New England preps, with the USHL in between. Others may just tackle Jr. A out west. No matter what they do, these scouts travel.

In order to get a glimpse of that life on the road, I took a three-day trip in early February to see what it’s like. I hit up OHL games in Niagara and Hamilton, with a USHL game in Youngstown, Ohio, in between. The biggest lesson learned? There’s a reason scouts always tell each other “safe travels.”

 FUTURE KING Akil Thomas (left) is considered a prime piece of the Los Angeles Kings' future.(Vivid Eye Photography)

FUTURE KING Akil Thomas (left) is considered a prime piece of the Los Angeles Kings' future.(Vivid Eye Photography)

THE MERIDIAN CENTRE IN St. Catharines, Ont. – home of the Niagara IceDogs – is a good place to scout a game. Only a few years old, it has a wide concourse behind the main bowl, which is a perfect spot for scouts to perch. The worst place in the OHL to watch a game? Surprisingly, scouts say it’s London, home of the powerhouse Knights. The team’s popularity has something to do with it: London’s rink is usually packed, and unless a scout buys a ticket, the only good place to stand is the wheelchair-accessible section – and that’s generally not a good place to cram into, for obvious reasons. Along with Niagara, other top viewing spots include Guelph and Sault Ste. Marie.

Out in the QMJHL, the far-flung destinations of Rouyn-Noranda and Val-d’Or are the toughest to get to. It’s a long drive from Montreal or Quebec City and for some stretches of highway there is nothing – so you better make sure your gas tank is full before you hit those areas. One scout I spoke to tries to make that run early in the season, because you don’t want to be messing with the weather up there come January or February. You still need to make a return trip in the second half to see how players are progressing, but it’s best to wait until March if possible.

All NHL teams have different philosophies when it comes to scouting, but one of the prevalent themes is that you need to see a player both home and away. One talent hawk said he sees every OHL team home and away, before and after Christmas. That holiday break tends to spark something in younger players, and it’s also when a lot of stars get traded to contenders, which shakes up the roles and sometimes the teams of draft-eligible players.

The same scout also makes sure to see every Ontario Jr. A team twice, even though that circuit produces just one or two picks per season – last summer it was Jack McBain (Minnesota) in the third round and Dustyn McFaul (Boston) in the sixth.

The visiting Steelheads have one blue-chipper on their roster in king-size defenseman Thomas Harley. The IceDogs are loaded up for a playoff run and feature a slew of NHL draft picks, headlined by forwards Akil Thomas (Los Angeles), Jack Studnicka (Boston) and Jason Robertson (Dallas). But they also have an intriguing center in 2019 draft-eligible Phil Tomasino, who is flirting with 30 goals while playing on the second line. According to another scout, though, you can’t narrow your focus too much when you’re at the rink. Fans will often ask him who he’s watching and his response is thought-provoking: “I don’t mean to be rude,” he’ll say, “but they’ve all got skates on.”

Sure, the 2019 NHL draft is the most pressing matter, but what about the kids who have slipped through the cracks? They could easily become free-agent targets for an NHL club, or, at the least, earn an invite to development camp. The same scout will even write up reports on players already drafted by other NHL teams because you never know when a trade involving prospects will be made. Scouts have to be prepared for their GM to call them at a moment’s notice and give the boss the lowdown on a player who might be acquired as part of a bigger NHL deal.

There is also next year’s draft to consider. That same scout had already written up nearly 60 hopefuls for the 2020 class. It’s never too early to get a baseline on a player.

For me, Harley, the Steelheads two-way D-man, is looking like a star on this night. I saw him live earlier in the season and his confidence on the blueline is impressive. Measuring in at 6-foot-3 and 185 pounds, he’s a graceful skater who plays in all situations and logs a lot of minutes. He comes from a family of hockey players, with an older sister at NCAA Robert Morris and a 6-foot-5 older brother playing Div. III college in Wisconsin.

Meanwhile, Tomasino is the type of player who you can tell wants to make a difference. He executes two dangerous dashes with the puck during the game, just as he did last year when I saw him as an underager.

Among the drafted players, Mississauga goalie Jacob Ingham looks more confident than I’ve ever seen him, and the Los Angeles Kings pick is maximizing his athleticism because of it. On Niagara, it’s clear why two-way threat Studnicka will be with the Bruins sooner rather than later. As for free agents, I’ve always liked Niagara defenseman Elijah Roberts, dating back to his days with the minor-midget Toronto Marlboros. Back then, he played on a top pairing with Vancouver first-rounder Quinn Hughes. Roberts was an exceptional skater but undersized and underdeveloped. He looks stronger now, but has the game gotten faster and smaller enough for him to make it as a pro?

Along with watching games, getting to know the kids off the ice is crucial for scouts. They’ll talk to coaches, trainers, security guards – anyone who knows the player and his personality. Obviously they talk to the kids themselves as well, in meetings that can last anywhere from 10 minutes to half an hour or longer. These are generally scheduled on off-days or whatever time is convenient for the player, who is usually still in high school. There’s less pressure than at the draft combine, where some NHL teams are known for putting a scare into prospects or throwing them off-balance with wacky questions. “It’s pretty casual,” Tomasino said. “They try to give you positive feedback. They want to help you, and it’s fun to talk to scouts, seeing what they have to say about my play.”

Like a lot of sportswriters, some scouts are obsessive Marriott points collectors (“I’ve seen guys stay two hours away from the rink just to get a Marriott,” said one scout), but that’s easier now that the hotel chain’s rewards program merged with Starwoods. Being a rookie, I booked a Holiday Inn in St. Catharines – but at least there was a Boston Pizza across the parking lot. If your NHL team is playing a West Coast game that night, you can hit up Boston Pizza after the junior game you’ve scouted to catch the action, and the chain is nearly omnipresent in Canada. As for pre-game meals, OHL Windsor is the best according to scouts – the Spitfires consistently put out a spread with a homemade vibe to it. In many markets, the meal is a dozen boxes of pizza from a chain.

(How do scouts actually make their reports? During the game, everyone has their own way of writing down information – some have custom papers, others just use the roster sheets provided by the home team and scribble notes on those. Tampa Bay’s director of amateur scouting, Al Murray, is one of the best in the business and is famous for having his own shorthand that he uses to take notes. After the games, usually the morning after, notes are uploaded into a computer program called RinkNet, to be shared with the rest of the NHL team’s staff. One scout I spoke to prefers the old-school method of writing everything down on paper before typing his reports into the system, because then he’s writing twice and that strengthens his memory of what happened.)

 TRAVELLED GOALIE Youngstown goalie Christian Stoever has played for Des Moines and Cedar Rapids in the USHL as well.(Scott Galvin)

TRAVELLED GOALIE Youngstown goalie Christian Stoever has played for Des Moines and Cedar Rapids in the USHL as well.(Scott Galvin)

"SAFE TRAVELS" IS THE secret handshake of scouts, and with good reason. You can’t avoid the road, and the worst time of year to drive just happens to encompass the main part of the hockey season. This year has been particularly bad for weather, according to talent hawks, and I find that out the hard way when I leave the Niagara region and head south to Ohio. My route sees me skirting along the southern edge of Lake Erie where, on this particular day, the forecast calls for 60-mile-per-hour winds. Great, I think to myself.

Just before the Canada-U.S. border, on the desolate stretch between St. Catharines and Fort Erie, I hit a mixture of high winds, snow and fog. Visibility is down to about 50 feet. A transport truck ahead of me sways like a drunk. Then I cross the border at Buffalo, and things get much, much worse.

I’m on the New York Thruway near Angola when the SUV in front of me suddenly disappears from sight like an apparition. The fog is gone, but the winds have hit their peak and snow is swirling in every direction. At Dunkirk, I momentarily lose all visibility: my windshield goes completely white, and all I can do is hope that no one is in front of me. I’m going about half the speed limit, but I also don’t want to stop: when you’re going through hell, keep going.

The weather relents for stretches, but a fellowship of hazard lights with other drivers becomes a comfort from despair as I white-knuckle it for an hour.

Finally, outside of Erie, Pa., the weather is tempered enough that I feel safe to stop for lunch. With so many miles on the road, the typical scout can get pretty bored with fast-food options, and one told me he seeks out unique restaurants with mom-and-pop feels, or ones you might see on the TV show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. I’m in no mood for adventure at this moment, so I settle in at a Cracker Barrel right off the interstate.

Since trips and flights are planned well in advance, sometimes you don’t get everything you want as a scout. For example, 2019 draft prospect Shane Pinto used to play for the USHL’s Lincoln Stars, but he was traded to the first-place Tri-City Storm in late January. Scouts who went to Rimouski in early February to see goalie Colten Ellis were dismayed when he was the backup for a game pencilled in as a start for the 2019 prospect. But that’s life on the road.

As it is, I still have a solid slate of draft-eligible players to watch in Youngstown, including Phantoms forwards Jack Malone and Trevor Kuntar. The Stars counter with center Josh Lopina, the wonderfully named defenseman Hunter Skinner and goalie Samuel Hlavaj.

 DINNER & BREAKFAST The Federal in Youngstown offers a burger that quite literally will keep you occupied for breakfast as well.

DINNER & BREAKFAST The Federal in Youngstown offers a burger that quite literally will keep you occupied for breakfast as well.

Malone, Kuntar and Lopina make the biggest impressions on the night, which turns out to be a win for the home team. Skinner likes to make a difference on the blueline, but sometimes his attention strays in the ‘D’ zone. He was acquired from Muskegon this season and wasn’t playing much for the Lumberjacks, so the trade to Lincoln was good for his visibility. Hlavaj gets beat up top a couple times that night and takes the loss.

For scouts who cover the U.S., travel can be all over the place. Many are based in Minnesota, where the high school season runs from late November until March, and those games happen throughout the week, while the USHL schedule tends to be around the weekends. The NAHL, a junior league a tier below the USHL, gets scouted to a lesser extent, and one of the scouts I spoke to only saw himself going to the NAHL’s prospect tournament outside of Boston this year. In terms of tough travel, Roseau is quite the trek. The northern Minnesota high school requires a three-hour drive from Fargo, N.D., or a flight to Winnipeg and a two-hour drive from there. But when a player like 2019 prospect Aaron Huglen is on the Roseau roster, the scouts make the trip. In terms of viewings, Sioux Falls is a favorite USHL stop, as the Stampede play in what one scout called a “mini-NHL arena.” Fargo and Waterloo (Iowa) are other favorites.

Out west, some of the more popular WHL towns are Kelowna, Portland and Victoria. Prince Albert is good for viewings because the seats are tight to the ice. Scouts from the West Coast hit the prairie towns like Brandon and Saskatoon early, though the weather has been pretty decent this year.

As the easternmost city in the USHL, Youngstown doesn’t get a lot of scouts on this evening, but the Covelli Centre is a nice venue with great sightlines. I head back to the hotel and crash for the night, the aftershocks of high winds reverberating in my body, like trying to sleep after a day in the ocean.

In the morning, I grab breakfast in the hotel, and I’m not alone. Hockey wasn’t the main event in Youngstown the night before. My hotel hosted a darts tournament, where the best and sleeveless from Cleveland and East Lansing converged on the 12th floor to do battle. It is now 9:15 a.m., and they’re displeased no alcohol is being served. The night before, I did go for a fun dinner at The Federal, a burger joint that offered the ‘Mac Attack,’ featuring an eight-ounce patty, bacon, cheddar, deep-fried onion petals and mac and cheese. As I eat my breakfast, it occurs to me I’m still full – very full – from dinner.

 CYCLE OF JUNIOR LIFE After winning the OHL last season, the Hamilton Bulldogs have a mostly rebuilt roster this time around.(Hamilton Bulldogs)

CYCLE OF JUNIOR LIFE After winning the OHL last season, the Hamilton Bulldogs have a mostly rebuilt roster this time around.(Hamilton Bulldogs)

MY RETURN TRIP TO Ontario is the polar opposite of my descent, no pun intended. The sun is shining, the clouds have parted, and I see Toronto from the south side of Lake Ontario.

My final stop is an afternoon tilt between the high-flying 67’s and the home side from Hamilton. The Bulldogs won the OHL title last season but have gone into rebuild mode, shedding many top-end players via trade or losing them to pro. But Hamilton still has a first-round talent for 2019 in right winger Arthur Kaliyev, a sharpshooter with size and a potential still to be tapped. The 67’s are where Hamilton was last year: loaded up for a run with veteran leaders and a lot of firepower. Scouts like to see players challenged in different situations: if you’re watching WHL Vancouver Giants D-man Bowen Byram this year, for example, you might want to see how he fares against a tough, older team like Prince Albert. Other scouts have their own ratings system, where they graph out a player’s season in 10-game increments, assigning scores based not only on results, but also on the quality of the competition each night.

As for Kaliyev, he ends up with a great goal on a second-effort wraparound, plus a dynamite assist on a tally by Philadelphia Flyers pick Matthew Strome. I interview Kaliyev, an American born in Uzbekistan, after the game, plus his coach, Dave Matsos. The coach has fielded a lot of questions from scouts intrigued by Kaliyev’s potential. “Mostly, the conversations I have are about him as a person, as a teammate,” Matsos said. “How does he respond when you’re hard on him? Things they can’t see from the stands. They’re doing the right thing, everybody wants to surround themselves with great people. They want to see if this guy is wired to be a pro. They’re asking me about his family, his lifestyle, his siblings, ‘Are they athletic?’ ”

Sure enough, Kaliyev’s younger sister is an elite tennis player down in Florida.

Ottawa ends up putting away Hamilton, despite a scrappy effort by the Bulldogs. Kody Clark, the Washington Capitals second-rounder, looks strong, while 2019 draft prospect Nikita Okhotyuk demonstrates a solid two-way game from the blueline. I make a note on winger Graeme Clarke’s stickhandling prowess and vow to circle back on his game later. Multiple viewings are a necessity in this business.

I jump into the rental car one more time and push across the QEW highway back home to Toronto. Until next time, “safe travels,” I think to myself.

PROSPECT PREVIEWS

While it’s fun to say a certain scout “discovered” a player, that doesn’t happen much anymore. Teams often have their regional guys cross over to other circuits for both a fresh perspective and a form of double-checking (so an OHL scout might also do a tour of the QMJHL, for example), while the amateur scouting directors also go on several road trips. Overall, a team’s scouting staff will meet about four times a year: mid-year draft ranking, final draft ranking and the draft itself, plus either a pre-season meet-up at rookie camp or at the draft combine. The scouting director will also try to meet with all potential first-rounders and some second-rounders for dinner at some point, and last-minute meetings right before the draft itself are common.

All of which is to say that when those draft-ranking meetings happen, there aren’t many surprises; multiple staffers have already seen each player live.

Teams will break down the draft into four or five regions – either two or three in Canada (West and East, or West, Ontario and Quebec/Maritimes) plus the U.S. and Europe. A ranking for each region is established, and then the master list is blended. After the first round of the draft, the scouting department will rehash which players are left on the board for Day 2 and get ready for more picks.

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