Watching games from above is nothing new for scouts of all levels. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
“I think a lot of guys in the business will say the same thing: you have to have a passion for the game to do what we do.” – Steve Lyons, Phoenix Coyotes
From a distance, scouting can seem like a hockey fanatic’s dream. Getting paid to sit in the corner of the rink, watching hockey games and finding a gem no one else notices who goes on to become the next Daniel Alfredsson, Henrik Zetterberg or Steve Sullivan.
But if you want to be a scout – it’s not all glitter and sunshine – you better be in it for more than just fame. You better be ready for a journey of hard work and not just expect to step right into the upper echelon.
“Basically if you want to get into scouting you have to go out and actually scout without being paid,” said Steve Lyons, the assistant director of amateur scouting for the Phoenix Coyotes. “Get to know the players, put your own list together and that way if you approach someone and ask them for a job or a possibility of one, you’re prepared. But, that list has to be accurate.”
Welcome to a scout’s life, the road to which is often a long one. As Rome itself wasn’t built in a day, neither is a reputation of accurately projecting player potential. Your reputation is accumulated over time and the trust accrued along with it combines to become your resume.
“Honesty and integrity are the key components to being a successful scout,” explained Paul Charles, an amateur scout with the Minnesota Wild, who got his start in the 1980s with the Western League’s Moose Jaw Warriors. “There is no one looking over your shoulder and watching you, so you have to go to the games and not just pretend. If someone gives you a chance, be honest because your employers have to trust you.”
To earn your stripes as an NHL scout, you have to first pay your dues. For Stu McGregor, the head amateur scout for the Edmonton Oilers, the journey to the NHL took 17 years. McGregor started as a “bird dog,” or part-time scout, for the WHL’s Kamloops Junior Oilers – who later became the Blazers – in 1981.
“My job grew from being a scout to ending up being the head scout-GM with the Kamloops Blazers and onto the NHL from there,” said McGregor. “It was a long process; I didn’t start scouting in the NHL until 1998 with Dallas and worked there for two years and moved to the Oilers.”
However, if your only goal is to be an NHL scout, this business may not be for you. Many scouts don’t ever dream of, or even put much thought into, joining the brotherhood.
The Ontario League’s Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors head scout Jim Cassidy, who used to be a part-time scout with the L.A. Kings and also helped scout for the Canadian junior program, played a year of semi-pro before returning home to Toronto and coaching triple-A midget teams until he started a family. After that, he kept busy with his own boys getting into hockey, before one day the game beckoned him back.
“I was a firefighter for 30 years and decided to retire a bit early,” Cassidy said. “I still knew some people in the hockey business I decided to call to see if I could get back into it. One of the people I talked to was Stan Butler (coach of the Ontario League’s Brampton Battalion). I’ve known Stan for a long time and so I started scouting with Brampton and that’s how I got back into hockey.”
Already having a rapport with people firmly in the business can certainly help your stock if you want to get into the scouting field, as a trusting foundation will already be in place. Also, having played the game at the major junior, college level or beyond helps you understand what it is you’re supposed to be looking for.
“I think the guys who go on to play major junior, minor pro or D-1 college hockey have a good idea about the game and what it takes to play at a higher level,” Lyons said. “As you get up, especially at the NHL level, everybody is big, strong and can skate, so you have to do it on a nightly basis, so there’s also consistency and passion. The skill factor is just a given.”
But the scouts agree: playing at a high level is not a prerequisite for landing a job.
Darrell Woodley, head scout of the OHL’s Barrie Colts, said scouting is unlike other jobs in that it doesn’t exactly come with an application form. A good way to get started, however, is to step behind the bench, something he himself did before he realized scouting was his real calling.
“Maybe try coaching and getting a team with players in their draft years,” Woodley suggested. “You’ll get noticed if your players are being picked up by teams at the (major junior) draft. So that means (for Ontario) minor midget triple-A is the best case scenario.”
Or, if coaching isn’t up your alley, try contacting your local junior team for opportunities. McGregor suggested going to your local Jr. A (or Jr. B, as the case may be) team or a major junior team’s website and contacting the GM, head scout or director of player personnel. He insists the possibilities are there, because all teams are looking for help.
And McGregor should know. He got his start 27 years ago when Kamloops came knocking.
“I was coaching triple-A midget minor hockey in Edmonton and was approached by Bruce Harrelson (then of Kamloops, now of the Detroit Red Wings) to cover the Edmonton area for him,” McGregor reminisced. “At that time, all Bruce wanted was, if I was coaching, just know the players on our own team - if they were good players - and top players on the other teams; make sure we got the names to him so he could follow up and watch them.”
A scout’s life is one of hours spent on the road, at arenas and over notebooks and computers, compiling report after report on countless players to determine if they are just another skater, or maybe possess something that’ll take them to the next level.
As we explore what it is to be a scout through this season and introduce you to their world, you might discover it’s not quite like the job you’ve fantasized about one day chasing.
A Scout's Life is a weekly look at the world of minor and pro scouting throughout North America. Each week we'll talk to different scouts from all levels of the game, getting a first-hand perspective of the different aspects of talent evaluation.