A Scout's Life: Wild ride
James Sheppard, Cal Clutterbuck, Niklas Backstrom and Kim Johnsson of the Minnesota Wild defend their goal against the Ducks. (Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images)
A Scout's Life: Wild ride
“My goal was never to become a pro scout. My goal was to raise my family and get through life and make sure I had enough money.” – Paul Charles, amateur scout, Minnesota Wild
When the Minnesota Wild went to the podium at last June’s entry draft and announced Tyler Cuma of the Ottawa 67’s as its first round draft pick, you can bet amateur scout Paul Charles had a loud voice in the decision-making process.
Since 1984, Charles has been at the rinks searching for talent to help his team succeed for years to come. If you played triple-A minor hockey or major junior in Western Canada in the past 25 years, chances are Charles has seen you.
For someone who has had a hand in building several strong teams – a badge of honorable service in the scouting world – Charles certainly didn’t seek out this line of work.
When his junior career in Manitoba came to a finish, Charles was out of hockey and headed to the University of Alberta. He played senior hockey there and refereed on the side, just to stay involved with the game at some level.
Then, during a triple-A tournament he was officiating, a former minor hockey coach of his who was scouting for the old Winnipeg Warriors of the Western League waited by after the game to say hello. The conversation naturally turned to hockey and his former coach began asking Charles his opinion about some of the players in the tournament.
“He obviously liked what I was saying and he phoned me out of the blue three months later and said ‘Winnipeg is moving to Moose Jaw, would you be interested in getting out of refereeing and start scouting?’ And I said, ‘Well, we’ll give it a whirl and try it,’ ” Charles recalled.
But it was far from a smooth ride from there. One year later, Charles’ contact was gone from the organization and new management was brought in.
“I was scouting for the new administration and they didn’t even know I was working for them,” Charles recounted. “I was sending in my evaluations and whatnot and they were sending me back expenses and then all of a sudden the expenses got cut off for some reason. I talked to the new administration about halfway through the year and they said, ‘We don’t need you.’ ”
Charles’ first job as a scout may not have been the most rewarding experience, but it wasn’t long before he found himself back in the game. The following year he was hired by the Swift Current Broncos, but as evidenced by his first go-around, it’s difficult for a family man to rely on scouting as a sole source of support.
Charles worked as a scout for the love of the game, but worked at the St. Albert fire department to support his family. He would often trade shifts with co-workers so he could travel somewhere to take in a minor hockey tournament.
“It was tough,” Charles said. “I’d shift-trade all winter and then they’d get me in the summer, so I never got a summer off it seemed, or holidays, because I had to pay back shift-trades. I would go to, say, Regina and watch a bantam tournament all weekend and then leave and drive all night and pull into Edmonton eight or nine hours later and go to work at the fire hall. That was just the way of life.”
Charles balanced the two jobs for more than 10 years. After nine seasons in Swift Current, he left the team and joined a group of investors that brought major junior hockey back to Calgary in the form of the Hitmen.
When the group sold the franchise to the Calgary Flames in 1997, Charles was originally asked by the new owners to run the team as GM. However, at that time, some Canadian NHL franchises were on unstable ground, so he was reticent to take on that role. By this time, he was a veteran at the fire hall and was earning a nice pension. Ultimately, he decided to remain in the Hitmen’s scouting department.
His junior scouting career was long and distinguished, though he was never in the spotlight. In a 10-year span, Charles was involved in building three Memorial Cup-bound teams – including one that lost in overtime of the final – and he feels they were robbed of a fourth trip when the 1999-00 Hitmen fell short in the conference final to the Dan Blackburn-led Kootenay Ice.
It was after that the NHL came calling. Minnesota Wild GM Doug Risebrough and assistant GM Tom Thompson met with Charles on separate occasions to gauge his interest in joining the professional ranks. While the offer was intriguing, much like with the situation in Calgary, Charles wasn’t comfortable leaving a sure thing for an opportunity that may only last a year.
He was offered a three-year contract, but in case the transition wasn’t smooth he asked for an out clause after the first year. The fire department had given him a year of leave to try out the NHL, so he was welcome to return if it didn’t pan out. After making sure all his options were still on the table, Charles signed the deal with the Wild and immediately hit the road.
His first task was to tackle the WHL, his backyard for nearly two decades. Charles finished his first WHL search in three weeks and was a bit surprised to find out what the next element of his new job was.
“I went to the Wild thinking I was looking after the WHL,” Charles said. “So I told Tom Thompson: ‘I’ve seen all the teams, do I go through them again?’ And he said ‘No, no, you gotta go see Ontario.’ So I went through Ontario and at about the 15th of November they had me in Quebec! All of a sudden I’m going across the country.”
Late in his first year, Charles was sent to Finland to cover the World Under-18 Championship and was reassured of his place with the Wild. It was there he discussed the job situation with Wild management and when both sides voiced how pleased they were, Charles no longer worried about security, so he stayed on with the club.
To have such a successful career in this line of work you certainly need someone to help you learn the tricks of the trade along the way. Charles credits Lorne Frey, currently the assistant GM of the Kelowna Rockets, with helping him hone the skill of projecting a player’s development curve.
“Not only does he know hockey players, he knows who can scout and who can look at players and figure out if they can develop and that’s the key to a scouting staff,” Charles said. “If you have one weak link in the chain the whole thing can fall apart. Lorne found people who knew how to scout or he could teach how to scout.”
It was never Paul Charles’ dream to become a scout; he simply wanted to stay involved in hockey. So after years of working a job he’s very passionate about, Charles hesitated when asked if he has any regrets.
“The only one I have is that maybe I didn’t get into the pro level sooner,” Charles said. “But I don’t think it was in the cards, so it’s not really a regret. I started right at the bottom and worked my way through the system to where I am now. I have no regrets.”
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.