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Mike Smith's Blog: Scouting talent

Nik Antropov was the target of two teams on draft day, before the Leafs snagged him at No. 10.

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Nik Antropov was the target of two teams on draft day, before the Leafs snagged him at No. 10.

Imagine you’re eight years old and are told: “Someday you will be a hockey scout. Your job will be to watch hockey games and you will be paid to do it.” You have a difficult time grasping this, but you hope it will be true.

Fast forward a few decades. You are sitting in a rink, watching another game and realize that you have a really good job. You have traveled the ever-expanding global hockey world. You’ve been to Victoria, Quebec City, Halifax, Prague, Stockholm, Grand Forks, Seattle, Prince Albert and on and on. You keep thinking: “I get paid to do this.”

You’ve met a wide range of hockey people. You remember the night Gump Worsley told you about his good days with the Canadiens and the not-so-good days with the Rangers. The night Harry Sinden speaks of Moscow, 1972. The day Lars-Erik Sjoberg recalls when he was worried that he was not good enough to play here, but realizes halfway through his first shift with the WHA Winnipeg Jets that “I’m going to have a long career in Canada.” The day Glenn Hall tells you about Bobby Hull, the new curved stick and painting his barn every fall. Between periods one night, Ted Green recalls, fondly and with a smile, Bobby Orr’s first practice as a Boston Bruin.

You keep thinking: “I get paid to do this.”

My romantic view of a scout’s job is that of a drifter, moving across the landscape of hockey. Pretty much keeps to himself; a loner in a competitive world. Think of Josey Wales drifting into town, the steely, squinting eyes of Clint Eastwood looking for character flaws of players, then riding off in search of the next game, the next player.
 
The job of an amateur hockey scout may be the best job in the game. You are watching young people, full of enthusiasm, brimming with expectations of bright hockey futures playing the game. The task at hand is to find and recommend those you think have the ability and character to play at the professional level. Simple, but not easy.

My first job was with the New York Rangers, part assistant coach and part scout. Scouting staffs were small back then; many teams only looked at junior. In New York, John Ferguson was the GM and he wanted us to look at the U.S. college as well. That was my scouting job.

After weekday practices I would go to Boston or Ithaca or Providence to watch games. On Fridays, after practice, I would head west to watch the WCHA or the CCHA. What can I say? Someone had to do it.

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There was a Friday I flew to Marquette (Michigan) to watch Northern Michigan. It was only their second season in Division I. I’d be surprised if more than three or four NHL teams bothered to watch them. That night I thought the backup goalie looked sharp in his three minutes at the end of the warm-up, and I wrote a report saying: “We might want to consider him if drafting a college goalie late.” We did, and took him in the 11th round. The goalie? Steve Weeks, who played 18 seasons in the NHL.

In the same game, one of the Northern Michigan defensemen was injured late in the second period, shortly after he’d cross-checked someone in the face. Hey, I liked that. We took him in the sixth round. The player? Tom Laidlaw. Good day for the Rangers.

It was not rare then for a team to draft a player seen by only one scout, even if it was only in one game. I think most longtime scouts can tell similar stories. Staffs were smaller and not every team was seen. It was much easier than now. Every team is watched and usually watched by several scouts. Drafting decisions are group decisions. What remains the same, though, is the privileged value of scouting information.

There is a phrase some hockey people have come to use: “Telephone, telegraph, tell-a-scout.” One story worth sharing happened in Toronto in 1998. We had decided to draft Nik Antropov with the eighth pick of the first round. He was from Kazakhstan. I figured we could trade our pick down and still get him.

I was working on trading first to the 10 slot, then to 12 and on down. I had dreams of a score, getting a slew of picks as well as Antropov. But the night before the draft, one of our scouts heard about a Western Conference team trying to trade up to 14 or 12. They wanted Antropov and planned to have him play in North America the next year. So much for my dreams. We did trade down to 10 with Chicago, and they took Mark Bell and we got Antropov.

I still think about how hard their staff worked. Identified a prospect, put a development plan together, then someone let the plan out. They didn’t get the player, Toronto did.

Now what would Josey Wales think of that?

Mike Smith is a former GM with the Blackhawks and Jets. His Insider Blog will appear regularly only on THN.com.

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