HOCKEY SCOUTS – THE SECRET SOCIETY

By Puck Chaser Total Sports Staff

Photo by Kevin Raposo / OJHL Images/ Pictured Wendel Clark

Overview

We have all seen them. 

Men and women usually dressed in dark coats with a handful of crumpled notes and programs, clutching a coffee and weaving their way through the rink before navigating toward a dark corner with a good sight line, but out of the sight of the main crowd.

This may be a bit of a stereotype, but much of the world hockey scouts live in is a mystery to many hockey parents.  We see them at the rinks and wonder what they are looking for in a player or what makes one player stand out from another. 

Others think, ”That’s a cool job, I could do that.”  

Be careful what you wish for …

“Hockey has got to be your passion,” said one NHL scout, who wishes to remain anonymous. “There are lots of lonely nights and long travels to deal with that are mixed in with some great times and rewarding outcomes.”  

We compiled responses from 20 different scouts and coaches that scout representing NHL, OHL, CJHL and NCAA teams about their unique job. Many wished to remain anonymous, which we allowed in order to get more candid responses to our questions. 

The Job

Scouts come from varying backgrounds, ranging from former players — from the NHL, junior and college ranks — to former coaches, including some with limited hockey playing experience. Believe it or not, there is even a former referee. Some have scouted for over 30 years and others only a couple. 

The common thread for these scouts is that they are passionate about hockey. They have to love the game because although scouting sounds glamorous, there are some difficult times. 

“My friends see me on the stage at the draft schmoozing with players and GM’s but what they don’t see are the lists of cheap hotels, airports, car rentals and long nights away from family that do get tiresome as the years progress,” one NHL scout said. “ I would never complain about the job because I love what I do but it is not as easy as it looks.” 

Most of the scouts we talked to echoed these sentiments. Many talked about the grind and the research that goes in to doing job effectively. 

“You can’t have an opinion unless you have the information,” another NHL scout said. 

The path to becoming a scout is not defined. Most have some serious hockey backgrounds but others are experienced, just not at the highest of levels. 

“You can’t just apply to be a scout usually,” one OHL scout said. “Usually it’s through relationships and networking that you get these jobs. “  

The scouts obviously have to possess a solid hockey background but it really comes down to trust. The GM’s and head scouts need to trust that these regional scouts are in line with what they are looking for and understand what they value in a player. 

How do we decide what we are looking for?

“In my experience, the good organizations provide specific criteria for their scouting staffs.” said one former NHL and now CHL coach. “Teams will usually rank the various skills in order of importance to their organization (i.e. skating, skill, sense, size, compete level). Each team will have slight differences in preferences but these rankings become an essential element when building your draft list.” 

Former NHL and current OHL Scout Mark Seidel of North American Central Scouting echoed this sentiment.

“The best example of this has been the Soo Greyhounds from when Kyle Dubas was there,” Seidel said. “They wanted to play a quick puck possession, skill game without a huge reliance on size or toughness. The staff went out and drafted that type of player that fit that style …”

Analytics helps with some of that decision-making. Certain teams have placed a greater emphasis on analytics than others in recent years, but the consensus is that the analytics provided are just another tool utilized by scouts and team management to evaluate players. 

“Analytics provide a tool for greater in depth player analysis but cannot be the sole criteria. It is a tool to create a tangible case to support the “eye test” and to verify the criteria rankings,” said one scout. “Conversely, analytics provides data that forces all scouts to reassess certain evaluation processes and criteria. Sometimes what you see in a player does not actually materialize on the ice in a consistent manner.” 

Mistakes are made and every tool is needed by the scouting community to mitigate the risk of a wrong evaluation in scouting. Mistakes cost jobs. 

The hardest part of the job is not picking the best players in the moment but how those players will project out. The business of evaluating teenagers is an inexact science and a very difficult task. Consensus among all of the scouts is that to look at a 15-year-old kid and project out to how good they will be at 19 or 20, or projecting a 18 year old kid out to guess how they will be at 22 or 23 is the most difficult aspect of the job.  

Character, upside, hockey IQ maturity and intelligence are all key factors only discovered through thorough ground work and multiple views of a player.

“I guess that is one of my pet peeves,” said one OHL scout. “There are a number of media scouting lists or Internet pundits that put out lists and unfortunately they haven’t put in the time to truly evaluate players. Parents get wrapped up by these sources of information. Even the well known media types that focus on the NHL draft are not seeing the players as often as we do.” 

One NHL scout went on to say, “That is the biggest mistake made by scouts. You cannot listen to outside influences. You cannot walk into a rink with a preconceived notion about a player because you may miss something or miss someone else.” 

Another scout said, “We must battle biases and stick to factual evidence. Too often we see scouting with your ears rather than your eyes.”  

Mark Seidel echoed those comments, “I despise when you hear scouts say that a kid is a bad kid or has character issues. Unless I have personal knowledge of an incident I discount it. Do your own research and make your own evaluation.”

All of these statements speak to the need for scouts to form their own opinions. 

“I’ve been at the draft table and had to fight for a player that I believed in,” another scout said. “We really stick our necks out if it is a player that can be a difference maker, but you have to spend the time (evaluating the player) to be sure before you do that.” 

What Are Scouts Looking For? 

So much of the desired skills and attributes in a hockey player are built around team objectives, needs and biases.  In general, most scouts will provide the cliché answers — speed, agility, compete level, hockey IQ, size, positional understanding, creativity, athleticism, aggression, physicality, hockey sense, maturity and decision making.  

looked for or other attributes that were unusual. 

A number of scouts spoke to the attributes of mobility and patience with defenceman.  The ability to utilize their edges and escape to make plays and create zone exits is critical to the modern defenceman. 

Another interesting theme was the discussion of size in goaltenders. On average NHL goalie are 6-foot-2. A premium has been placed on size in recent years due to the amount of traffic in front of the net in today’s hockey. Despite these statements, no goalie over 6-foot-5 has ever won a Stanley Cup. Technical understanding of the position is important and a number of scouts discussed the preference of athletic goalies as opposed to “shot blockers” who often lack the athleticism to make adjustments. 

The one point that really resonated consistently was the topic of body language and negative team behaviour. This was the one trait that most scouts drew a line on. 

“Character and the ability to be a team player is paramount,” one scout said. “If we do not draft good people, we do not create a winning culture within our organization.”  

Body language is perhaps one of the biggest indicators of this intangible. 

“We watched a couple of first-round kids fall into the second round because of bad body language and questions around their character,” one OHL scout mentioned. “If a player pouts or slams his stick on the way to the bench, it draws into question not only his character but his mental toughness. “ 

NCAA scouts have very similar tasks but their roles are quite unique in that they must manage their duties as associate coaches as well as act as primary scouts. The NCAA does not allow teams to utilize outside scouts to ensure integrity and fair play.  Most of the NCAA coaches shared similar thoughts about desired skill sets, character and attributes as the other scouts. The one difference was the focus on academics. 

“Obviously we need good students,” one NCAA scout said. “Thats a given. If the player is not a good student they will have difficulties managing the workload of being a student athlete. “

NCAA vs. CHL Discussion

Traditionally the best players in the world are not choosing the NCAA route, but that is definitely changing. Over 30% of the NHL is coming from the NCAA now. A majority of those players are American but we are starting to see some elite Canadian prospects make that decision to play NCAA.  

Cale Makar and Alex Newhook are probably the most notable players recently.

“Some NHL scouts have confided to me that they think the NCAA is now the best amateur league in the world,” said one NCAA coach. “Most of that has to do with the number of older players in the league but also the influx of high end talent deciding to go that route. If an 18 year old can thrive in that NCAA environment there is a very good chance he will translate to pro very well.” 

Most of that discussion surrounds the speed of the NCAA game .The older, more mature players create a very pro style compared to CHL, which is, composed of players between 16-20 years old.  

A former NHL coach said, “Both are wonderful options. Traditionally, the NCAA was for the so-called “late bloomers” while the CHL tended to cater towards the higher end, instant impact players. This thinking has changed for the better as both routes cater to all types of players. 

It is largely based on a players interest, opportunity and finding the ideal situation for the player and the person.” 

Both leagues are heavily scouted. The one caveat to realize is that as a Canadian player you cannot play in the CHL if you choose the NCAA routes. This forces you to play in the CJHL or the USHL before attending school. 

Although these leagues are scouted, players are often not taken as high in the draft or are sometimes undervalued and taken in later rounds. 

“It is true we see players either slide down in the draft or get taken in their second year of eligibility because they chose the NCAA path versus the CHL path,” said one scout.

Many scouts confirmed these thoughts as they found it more difficult to compare a player playing in those Tier 2 junior leagues. There are more intangibles at play and it’s difficult to compare players to other players, not to mention that there are fewer views of these players in these leagues. 

“This possibility of being drafted later than expected is one aspect Canadian players must realize when they choose this route,” said one scout. “The upside for these Canadian NCAA players is that they end up getting a little more time to develop and often get second chances through free agency.”

The scout went on to say, “NHL teams like taking NCAA players especially middle rounds as they are investments that they do not have to spend money on as soon as compared to a CHL player. When you draft a CHL player, decisions on signing that player need to be made much sooner.”

Advice To Parents

In talking to these scouts it is clear that they all have stories of finding particular players or seeing late bloomers blossom came through. Most of the advice the scouts offered to hockey parents centred around patience and enjoying each moment of the journey. 

One CHL coach said, “Don’t rush the process and understand that your son/daughter are the one driving the bus, not you! Support your children in every way imaginable but be a parent first and always. Please do not put sport ahead of all other life priorities.” 

“Do not get caught up with the “right path” because there is none,” another NCAA coach said. “I’ve seen 14 year olds considered NHL locks that never make it and I’ve seen 19 year olds that were told they could never play Division 1 hockey make the NHL.”

“Have your kids do what they love, support their goals and enjoy the ride. “ 

A CHL scout/coach said, “Players develop at different rates and in different settings. To improve, a kid needs to play. Minutes are more important than the level or league they play at. Development requires teaching thus the importance of coaching can never be overlooked.”

Finally, the scouts were asked if it bothers them when someone at the rink asks questions.

One scout said “absolutely not. “I enjoy talking to the parents and spectators, but wait until the end of a period or the end of the game.  If you see me and you have a question, I always like to talk about hockey and most scouts would feel the same.”  

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