Neutral Zone.net; North America’s leading indepedent amateur hockey scouting service is proud to celebrate the third anniversary since launching the website: www.neutralzone.net.
The company was founded in 2015 by Vermont entrepreneur, Steve Wilk, who noticed a void in information relative to how hockey players of similar ages compared to each other and where they stood as recruits, in the general sense. Steve’s son, Stephen, played prep hockey at Holderness School and was recruited by several junior, club and NCAA programs upon graduating. “We had no idea how good he was, we had no idea if he should play junior or go straight to college. I realized right away, it is very hard for players to make informed decisions when they don’t have a concept of where they stand against other players across North America.”
After going through that experience he sat down with Brendan Collins, who had coached at Castleton University in Steve’s hometown and was then scouting for the US Hockey Report. “Brendan shared my vision that hockey was missing an independent, unbiased scouting service that would rank and profile prospects.”
From there, a partnership was born and Brendan spent all of 2015 going around North America, learning the different leagues, studying the CHL draft process, the NCAA recruiting process, and making as many contacts as he could to build a staff. “I spent nearly 200 days that year on the road in hotels and flying all over watching as many players as I could, in every league you can imagine,” admitted Brendan, whose title is Director of Scouting. “I watched everything from bantams to midgets to high school to prep school to Junior B to Junior A. I was sitting down with NCAA and junior hockey coaches and CHL GM’s to learn what they were looking for, what their needs were from a scouting perspective, and that gave me a lot of insight into how we could be of service to them. I then sat down with a few NHL scouting directors and learned a lot about the organizational process of how to manage scouting staffs, manage budgets and travel, having scouts in all the key hockey markets and the layering of the staff so that you have an area scout working under a regional scout who is then working under a national scout who oversees them so the key prospects would have three sets of eyes on them at least not including myself or the other directors.”
Once a staff was built and the team finished a grueling year of scouting, the site launched in April of 2016 with over 1,500 players evaluated, ranked and profiled with scouting reports as well as some analytical data on CHL Drafts and NCAA recruiting classes. The company added women’s hockey in 2017 under the direction of former All American goaltender Jessica Cameron and the company also launched free league websites in 2018 (New England prep school and Massachusetts high school) as well as an educational/analytic arm for hockey players and parents to learn more about their options and the different routes from an independent, unbiased perspective. Today, in its third year Neutral Zone has evaluated nearly 20,000 prospects, the scouting staff has grown to over 75 scouts and the brand has become the go-to-source of amateur hockey scouting and information in North America.
Steve credits the incredible growth of the company to their scouting staff. “You are only as good as your scouting staff and that is why we put so much time and resources into the hiring process. We want sharp, experienced, unbiased scouts who know the game, know the markets they are scouting and have a passion for identifying talent,” said the owner.
Brendan joked that in 2015 he spent as much time scouting scouts as he did scouting players. “We landed two foundational scouts in our first year in Marlin Muylaert and Brian Murphy. Both had over 20 years of coaching experience at the NCAA/USport level, they both had considerable contacts and experience and they took Neutral Zone to another level.” Marlin is the Director of Canadian Scouting for Neutral Zone and runs the CHL Drafts as well as the hiring and coordination of scouts across the country. Brian Murphy is the Director of US Scouting and Vice President of the company. He oversees all operations. “Once we had them, we were able to go and bring on some great minds; we brought on former NHL players looking to stay in the game, we brought on former NCAA/CHL players and coaches, we recruited some scouts working for junior teams and ended up with an impressive staff of experienced professionals.”
Neutral Zone has a dual part grading system that it mastered over the past three years. The grading system relies on performance and talent based grading. Scouts attend events and scout players, fill out their report and give each player a grade relative to the other players in the tournament. Then, after being seen by several different scouts, the player will be given a star rating between 1 and 5. The star rating system is, in many ways, the bread and butter of Neutral Zone. Its ability to accurately grade players is evidenced by its impressive 3 year track record. This past season the star rating system had over 96% accuracy in predicting where players would fall in CHL drafts as well as NCAA placement and rookie performance.
The company prides itself on hiring scouts who have backgrounds in the leagues or regions they are scouting. For example, Paul O’Hagan is the Director of Ontario scouting and runs the OHL Draft; he played in the OHL, was the captain of a Memorial Cup team and went on to be drafted in the NHL. Sean Tallaire runs Michigan, a former NCAA standout at Lake Superior who was a Hobey Baker finalist. Sean Collins ran Massachusetts, a player who grew up playing youth hockey and high school hockey in Massachusetts before being an All American at UNH. The list goes on and on. The USHL draft scouts are former coaches in the league, the Minnesota HS scouts are former players and coaches in the league, etc.
While the growth of the business has been exciting, it has also come at a major cost as Steve Wilk admitted the expenses are heavy. “If you want a quality product you have to spend money; we have a state of the art website, we have the best photographers in hockey in the Hicklings, and we have a large scouting staff that is traveling every weekend to watch games. While other companies subsidize with free scouts or internship scouts, we pay all of our scouts and we will never sacrifice our quality or integrity to earn an extra buck.” He went to say while the company’s growth has been exciting, what he is most proud of is that players today have the opportunity his son never had which is to go on the website and get a neutral, independent evaluation and context of where the player stacks up against others in his age group.
Photo Credit: Dan Hickling/Hickling Images