Scout’s Honor: A Thankless Profession

Ryan Fulford
May 23, 2012

At first glance, putting food on the table by getting paid to watch hockey seems like a dream job for the majority of hockey fans. The luxury of being able to travel to foreign lands to catch a glimpse of the next “Forsberg” or “Selanne,” waltz into any arena free of charge and feel vindicated after unearthing a “diamond in the rough” resonates deep within all those with a passion for the game of hockey.

However, a professional hockey scout’s life is far from the idealistic, glamorized depiction that reigns supreme in the imagination of those who find the profession nothing but appealing.

The fact of the matter is that a hockey scout’s life is one of long hours, lonely days and sleepless nights. It requires strength of mind, steely reserve and, above all, dedication. When one becomes a hockey scout, they don’t become part of the game, the game and all that goes with it becomes them.

The demands of a scout, while unique on their own accord, are equally as taxing as what the game demands from those who comprise the on-ice product. The rigors of each season envelop not only the players who are idolized around the world, but so too the men that discovered them.

Sacrifice. It is a word most often utilized in hockey offices, dressing rooms and by television broadcasters to describe a player that blocks a shot or takes a hit to make a play. In hockey, it conjures up a feeling of temporary pain for the greater good; a firm resolve to endear himself to his teammates, but such temporary pain pales in comparison to the sacrifice made by those who judge whether or not a player is willing to do just that: sacrifice himself. 

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Ironically enough, becoming a scout is akin to sacrificing oneself to the hockey gods, vowing to give up your possessions save for a notepad, laptop and cell phone, and commit to eating, sleeping and breathing hockey.

A scout’s life is spent in airport terminals, airplanes, hotel rooms, take-out food joints and hockey rinks. It’s a far cry from the luxurious life of hockey players and coaches, who enjoy fine dining and upscale hotels throughout the course of the season.

The game of hockey will take a scout to the four corners of the Earth, to lands seemingly barren and desolate save for a 200-foot long patch of frozen water and back again. Standby, turbulence and the longing for a home-cooked meal – or at least one that isn’t lukewarm – all come together to define a scout’s life over time. All in pursuit of an elusive, 34.5 lbs. silver chalice.

There are ramifications for every giveaway, poor decision or missed assignment that a hockey player makes. Some mistakes live on longer than others. Some come to define a player’s career (right Patrik Stefan?). Yet, for every mistake made on the ice, no so-called “mistake” rouses the ire of fans, pundits and analysts like a player who proves to be a “bust.”

The history of the NHL Entry Draft bears witness to the fact that there has been no shortage of “busts,” or players who failed to live up to the lofty expectations set for them, and nothing is as damaging to a scout’s reputation as a player failing to merit his selection at a specific point in the draft.

For every “no-brainer” selection (think Sidney Crosby), there is an Alexander Daigle, a player who by all accounts displayed the skills necessary to succeed at the NHL-level prior to being drafted.

When a scout misses on a selection, particularly one near the top of the draft board, job security becomes a little more volatile. So too does the criticism levied towards them. That is, if fans aren’t calling for the general manager’s head, as it is he who usually makes the organization’s draft decisions on advice provided to him by his scouting team.

Yet, there are myriad reasons that players can’t translate junior or NCAA success to NHL success, chief among them: drive, determination, willingness to learn and other, less talked about factors such as whether or not statistics were inflated due to talented teammates.

For every “diamond in the rough” that is uncovered by a scout, such as Henrik Zetterberg, he of the 210th-overall selection in the 1999 NHL Entry Draft, there is a general manager being hailed as a messiah. Many don’t even know the names of the scouts putting pen to pad in an effort to tilt the odds of a player’s future success in favor of the organization that drafted them, but their decisions are second-guessed and chastised on an ongoing basis, season after season, year after year.

In fact, the decisions of many men who will forever remain anonymous to even the self-described most educated, diehard fan provide the basis for many of the most heated, intense and passionate debates within the hockey world.

And that is the catch-22.

When a scout advises a general manager to tab a Sidney Crosby, it’s a “no-brainer” and anyone could have made the “right decision,” but for every Alexander Daigle, there comes the question of why Chris Pronger went second.

When a scout manages to find a Henrik Zetterberg, they got “lucky.” While luck plays a part in how players turn out, to base the success of any selection on pure luck is condescending, to say the least. No one is ever correct all of the time, but that isn’t what being a scout is all about. It’s about minimizing the potential for disaster while working under an inexact science.

If paltry pay (compared to others within the business), extended periods of time away from friends and family, and the expectation that one will never watch another game of hockey like they did when they were simply a “fan” isn’t sacrifice, than neither is blocking a shot. The very sacrifices scouts make afford players the opportunity to sacrifice themselves in order to prevent a goal, because if no one watched them play before, they wouldn’t be in a position where millions more can watch them today.

Scouting is a thankless, albeit important job. A scout’s contributions are an integral part of any organization’s success, and while there is appreciation internally within the organization, most scouts will forever remain anonymous to the fans – mythical even – looking down upon rinks around the world in an effort to find the missing piece their employers so covet.

Glory is not reserved for scouts in the hockey business; it’s reserved for the players, coaches and management team.

But then again, it’s all about sacrifice.

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The Author:

Ryan Fulford