Monday, February 04, 2008

The Top Shelf--Future Greats and Heartbreaks (Books)

The Top Shelf

Future Greats and Heartbreaks: A Year undercover in the secret world of NHL scouts

Gare Joyce

Doubleday Canada

To and from the far corners of the hockey universe they travel, a band of generally unheralded men (for the most part they are universally men), watchful, quick to scribble and fully aware that their livelihood depends on uncovering the next great talent.

Gare Joyce takes us into the upper reaches of any arena across the world, into a world of late nights and frequent travel, as the hockey scout looks for that one player that may change an NHL team’s destiny.

In Future Greats and Heartbreaks, Joyce reveals a hierarchy of the scouting profession, which is as regimented as any military branch.

There’s the top echelon, those scouts that jet to only the highest of profile tournaments, generally putting the finishing touches on a recommendation that has been climbing the food chain since as early as Midget hockey, if not earlier.

Then there are the Regional scouts, the full time employees that travel in their particular portion of the hockey world keeping tabs on the up and comers, making sure that there is no slippage of a talent’s profile, and more importantly no need for a second thought.
They are followed by the Bird Dogs, they are the ones that put the most mileage on the automobile, traveling mile after mile from small rink to small rink, checking out a rumour, or verifying that the young phenom that has been whispered about is indeed the real thing, seeking out that one gifted player that can make or break an NHL GM’s career.

They all trade in one thing, what has become the currency of their trade; their reputation.

You could be a top scout but if you hit a slow period and your list doesn’t pan out, that Bird Dog in the small towns may just find that they have the ear of the higher ups in the organization, if that carries on for any length of time any tenure a scout has at the top, would seem limited.

Yes, it would seem that the scouting world is an industry built on insecurity. Subject to the whims of owners and managers, who can change their scouting staff with nary a thought. A hockey scout needs intelligence not only on the players he watches, but on the teams he works for. One day you’re on the road and over the local radio station comes word that your organization has changed GM’s, making for a good day to give some thought to resume planning and contact calling, just in case the new broom sweeps a wide swath.

Then of course there are those GM's that take all your hard work and lay waste to it through some rather bad decision making. For a case study perhaps research the New York Islanders of the last ten to fifteen years, a team that regularly traded away the best picks provided, generally for over inflated salaries of underperforming players. For the scout, vindication comes when a Roberto Luongo sets the goaltending world on its ear, but for a team far removed from the one the scout originally may have made his recommendation for.

All of that work of course leads up to the graduation pageant that is known as the NHL draft, a one time backroom operation that has now become one of the key made for television spectacles for the Sports television networks. An event that seems to provide for more planning, more mock ups than many past military invasions have required through the ages. The teams have their “war rooms”, the networks have their "war rooms”, and in the midst of all of that, the scouts sit in their bullpen on draft day, ready to make that last bit of input that may sway a GM at the last moment.

Joyce recounts the one year that the event was not televised, the 2004-05 draft, a year when the lock out had come to an end, but the bad feelings were still quite hot just under the surface.

As Joyce tells it, the draft then scheduled for Ottawa's home of the Senators, was instead held at a hotel conference room, the inference is that perhaps it was to save Gary Bettman the less than welcoming accolades, of what should have been the assembled masses at Scotiabank Place in Kanata.

Joyce joins up with the Columbus Blue Jackets a struggling team in the bottom ranks of the NHL, gaining access to their War room he gets some first hand exposure as to how NHL teams fine tune those decisions that culminate on Draft Day.

In the end what we learn is that it all seems to be about lists. Tthe “can plays” for one scout, are the “can’t plays” for another. Sure things become sure misses and on it goes, until they can whittle down the hundreds of the possibles to dozens.

From around the hockey world the scouts offer up their input, strengths, weaknesses, potential problems. All guarding their work like top secret plans destined for only the highest of generals, and to be limited to their eyes only.

His year of study for the book, the problem wasn’t an actual player, but an entire nation. Russia is getting a bit hard headed with the exodus of young talent and getting draft picks out in recent years has become harder and harder. Some potentially explosive players get red flagged, due to their status with the Russian hockey federation and thus tumble down the NHL scouts depth charts. A situation which could change the dynamic of the NHL in the years to come.

Joyce tells the tale of Don Murdoch a former NHLer and one time scout for the woeful Tampa Bay Lightning with a colourful history. It was Murdoch, who recommended Vincent Lecavalier to the Lightning, perhaps not the hardest stretch ever made in hockey. But his next recommendation was Brad Richards, a Lecavalier team mate in junior and one who has become a solid NHLer with Tampa. That recommendation should have given Murdoch some currency with his bosses, but ownership changes and management shuffles to come, soon had Murdoch packing, his wisdom suddenly forgotten, as it soon would seem that he would be as well.

Such is the lot of a scout, only as good as the last recommendation and sometimes even that isn’t enough.

Canada Day is a day of celebration in the Great White North, but for some Hockey scouts it’s possibly the first day of yet another unemployment claim. On July 1st, Hockey teams can and do make changes to their scouting rosters, sometimes sending long serving employees off on yet another search, not for the next great star, but just for the next job. It's a rather cold existence, not sure if you have a job to go to, another rink to visit, or yet another prospect to check out.

Joyce proves to be an astute observer of the trends of hockey over the last few years; he recounts how the style of play of the Russian teams and players that he watches has changed over the years. Where once a team oriented approach was the gospel of hockey, it’s a much more individual approach that is forming in the Russian ranks. Some become puck hogs, less and less likely to make those famous passes that they've been known for, seeking the puck and the glory for themselves. Unsaid in his analysis, is perhaps the realization that he who holds the puck longest, keeps the attention of the scouts the longest.

It highlights a case where the players are changing their approach and perhaps occasionally forgetting their coaching, all in order to get a notation in a notebook for the clubs in North America.

Joyce spent a great amount of time wandering the roads and into the rinks of the junior leagues of Canada, he doesn’t sugar coat his observations. Whether the subject is an iconic Junior A coach like Brian Kilrea, or any number of fumbling NHL executives or starry eyed would be draft picks. The beauty of his book is the honesty that he portrays in entry after entry, just the pure details and impressions of what it’s going to take to work your way up the ranks of developmental hockey.

His travels with the Swift Current Broncos for a few days make for an interesting ride on a road trip with one of the WHL’s historic teams, one that has tasted success and tragedy during its many seasons in the Dub. A number of interesting observations come from that trip, which give the reader some valuable insight into how the players perceive the process leading up to draft day.

This 2008 draft is projected to be one of the best samples of talent in recent years, for the dyed in the wool hockey fan this book serves as not only a valuable resource, but a primer of the talent on the way up to challenge for spots in the NHL

Many of the names that we heard from the recent World Juniors in Pardubice are mentioned during the course of the 330 pages, most have already been drafted by NHL teams, but a few key others will come to the surface during the various Junior A playoffs soon to come and we will surely hear of some of them again on draft day in June.

After you put down Future Greats and Heartbreaks you’ll understand how some have been pegged as the ones to watch, names that perhaps we knew all along were sure bets for an NHL career.
However, we also share in the shattered dreams of those that gave it their best efforts, but never made it to those final lists and with that, never get their chance to stand on a podium and slip on that draft day sweater.

You can check out the official Random House web page listing for the book here.

Future Greats and Heartbreaks is available at Chapters-Coles-Indigo and Amazon Books , or you can ask for it at your local bookseller across Canada and the USA.

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