NHL teams only decide who they’re going to pick at the draft table after long, heated discussions between scouts behind the scenes. Just look to the Chicago Blackhawks in 1988 and you’ll see how listening to a passionate scout can chart the future course of a franchise.
Boston native Steve Lyons was a 26-year-old, part-time scout for Chicago in ’88, but the team actually thought he was five years older. When Lyons gained the confidence of the Hawks’ Jim Pappin three years earlier, Pappin told him if he wanted a job with the Hawks, he’d have to lie about his age. Good thing he did.
In ’88, Lyons was convinced about the star power of a 5-foot-11, 170-pound high school player from Thayer Academy in Massachusetts. Lyons had seen him play for three years and knew he’d go through the wall for his team.
When the Chicago scouting staff met to debate its draft list, Lyons banged the table for his guy. When the team started comparing the player to a more well-known prospect from the Ontario League, Lyons, admittedly a little obnoxious in his youthful exuberance, didn’t care what they said – this high school kid was going to be better.
Teams don’t pick first-rounders without support from more than one scout, but Lyons was the loudest voice in this case for a team that usually drafted major junior skaters.
Lyons didn’t travel to the draft. But on that day, he was home mowing the lawn when Hawks assistant GM Jack Davison called for one last pitch. Lyons said his guy was nearly NHL ready, one of the best skaters in the draft and a special talent. He hung up the phone, turned on the TV and watched Davison select Jeremy Roenick eighth overall.
What if Lyons hadn’t lied about his age? Rod Brind’Amour and Teemu Selanne went immediately after Roenick. The next 10 players chosen were all from the major junior ranks – they scored 129 NHL points combined. If the Hawks hadn’t hired Lyons and heard his pleas, the city of Chicago never would have fallen in love with the playful and boisterous icon now known simply as ‘J.R.’
This article originally appeared in the July issue of The Hockey News magazine.