Lessons from the Road: A Scout’s Life

By, Brendan Collins, Neutral Zone Director of Scouting

In 2015 I was hired by Neutral Zone to be their Director of Scouting. Basically what that meant was to travel around North America and evaluate the best players from every region. I thought after coaching at the NCAA level and scouting for a NHL/NCAA scouting company that I had a strong grasp on amateur hockey…I didn’t. Looking back I didn’t have a clue. You don’t know what you don’t know.

In honor of our three year anniversary since the site was officially launched, I was asked to look back and tell some tales of the road. Anyone who knows me knows I don’t have an ago and I don’t claim to be something I am not. I am in hockey because I have a passion, not because I was a superstar. We have a highly successful ranking system because we have an experienced scouting staff and the only reason we can do that is our founder Steve Wilk has given me the budget to acquire that level of talent. I am merely 1 person of a 75 person team that work together to make this go. The only difference for me, and same could be said of Jess Cameron who runs the women’s side of the site, is that we see all levels in all regions instead of scouting for a team or geographic region or for a particular age group. That means I am scouting the WHL Draft, OHL Draft, QMJHL Draft, USHL Draft, NCAA DI and DIII prospects, bantams, midgets, high school, prep school, junior, etc. It also means I spend more days in cheap hotels than in my own bed and I have quasi-burrow in the trunk of my car with three drawers for all my clothes (assist to my brother’s wife Sam who engineered this contraption).

I figured I could talk about the essentials of 4-wheel drive in Western Canada and Northern Ontario or how to survive filling up your gas tank in Saskatchewan in sub degree weather and 40mph prairie wind. Literally the first time I objectively questioned my career choice. I could even speak to the inaccuracies of subway commercials as they say Jared ate only Subway and lost over 100lbs. Well I was scouting in the middle of nowhere Canada where Subway was my only option. 6 days of nothing but Subway…I didn’t lose weight. Not even close. I could write a whole piece on how to manipulate airlines, how to get deals on rental cars and where to find the cheapest hotels you can stay at without getting robbed or being witness to a crime. Tips for 10 hour drives, the art of podcast selection, what pens work best in cold rinks and on and on. But instead I’ll focus on three stories during my travels that really made an impact on how I viewed the game.

 “There is a lot of fluff in the hockey sandwich”

I am in Ottawa, ON scouting a U18 hockey tournament to evaluate prospects for the upcoming OHL Draft. I made an effort to go down to the locker rooms and speak with the coaches to get insight on the players because it was my first viewing of many of them. It’s always a good idea on a tournament spanning multiple days to get coaches input day one so you can have some extra intel going into day two and three. A coach tells me about one of his players who was getting draft hype and said he didn’t work hard in practice and was kind of a punk on and off the ice. Of course the kid went out and scored two goals in the first two periods of the next game. During the intermission I talk to an old Ottawa scout who has been covering this level for 25 years and ask him what he thinks of the tournament so far. We talk shop and then it comes to comparing notes on the draft prospects. I tell the scout that I think that particular kid who scored two goals is a good player but that he’s a punk, he doesn’t work hard and coach doesn’t love him. I felt pretty clever. The extra knowledge I gained by going down and talking with the coach paid off. The old timer chuckled at me and said, “I don’t believe in, he’s a good player…but. I am here to watch good players and that’s it.”

At the time I was turned off by the comment. I am thinking back to every lecture I got at every hockey camp I attended as a player or even every speech I gave in coaching about being a good kid, being well-rounded, playing multiple sports, getting involved in the community, be a leader in the locker room, compete at both ends. I, like many coaches, would tell prospects at camps and showcases that coaches don’t recruit or draft players who are lacking character. Well, what happened in that game is the player went on to score the game winning goal in overtime to complete the hattrick in front of a rink full of scouts. He went on to be a top 10 pick in the OHL Draft and would then go on to be drafted in the NHL two years later. The lesson of the story isn’t to condone being a punk or not working hard, but to point out that the old timer was right; we are in the business of scouting talent.

Last year I ran into him in Toronto and I told him that what he said to me three years ago impact on me. He replied, “don’t eat the fluff in the hockey sandwich or you’ll choke on it. Teams want talent and that is why we go to the rinks. If they wanted scholars we’d go to the schools, if they wanted multi-sport athletes we’d be watching soccer and lacrosse games, if they wanted work ethic we’d be going to the gyms. They send us to the rinks because they want good hockey players. I wouldn’t ignore character, I wouldn’t ignore their off-ice activities, but we aren’t psychologists, we are hockey scouts.”

I have personally evaluated just about every player in the past 4 years who was drafted in the WHL, OHL, QMJHL and USHL drafts and I don’t know of one example of a third-line talent who was captain and played hard at both ends that went in the first round of the draft. That is not to say they didn’t develop later and end up going to the NHL because that certainly happens. However, we have all seen a lot of high end talent who cheat defensively, who aren’t captains and who aren’t the best locker room guys go high in the draft because of their talent. Taking that a step forward, I would add that it is not just talent that scouts covet but distinguishable skill sets. We are often in rinks for 14 hours a day during showcases and tournaments so if you are above average at everything but don’t stand out in any one area; a lot of scouts, particularly at the junior level where most of them are part time guys, are going to overlook you. Players who have a distinguishable skill set get drafted higher than players who don’t, even those with a better well-rounded, complete games. That’s not an opinion, that’s not even an endorsement that I think its right (because I don’t); it’s simply a fact in every region and every league I see.  A kid with elite speed who cheats a bit on defense, is weak in the corners but scores a lot of goals is going to get drafted higher or be recruited more than the kid who is above average offensively and defensively, stops on pucks, blocks shots and wins faceoffs but doesn’t score. Nobody seems to want to admit that, but it’s the truth.  

So I will try and do my part in taking the fluff out of the sandwich; coaches and scouts top priority is the acquisition of talent (speed, size, skill and hockey sense) and everything else is secondary. Its not irrelevant but it’s secondary.

“I’d rather tame a lion then push a lamb”

I am freezing at the St. Sebastian’s Holiday Tournament in Dedham, MA watching some top NCAA/NHL prospects in New England prep school. There is 5 minutes to go in the game and one of the prized NHL prospects’ team is up 3-1. His goalie makes a save and gets sprayed by an opposing forward following up the play of a rebound. The kid I am watching goes crazy, punches the opposing forward and not only throws him to the ice but jumps on top of him and continues to go. He gets hauled off for a four minute penalty and all the scouts in the stands are shaking their heads; not surprised given his reputation. The other team scored on the power play, but weren’t able to tie it up. At the end of the game I pulled a few college coaches aside and asked their thoughts on the play and they all said the same thing; that the kid is undisciplined; he can’t be trusted at the end of the game and is selfish. I agreed. I went home and moved him down in our rankings because of his poor decision making and evidence of being a bad teammate.  

One month later I am out in Edmonton, AB scouting a midget showcase and I see almost the same exact play in almost the same exact circumstance. The players team was up two goals late in the third and he took a bad penalty followed up by a skirmish. The reaction from the WHL scouts was entirely different. A few laughs and a few “gotta love it” comments. I was taken back. Why would anyone think a dumb, selfish penalty in a crucial part of the game is funny? I grabbed a reputable WHL GM after the game and asked about the play. He smiled and said “you can’t teach compete and girt. That kid wanted to put the other kids head through the boards. If you draft a kid like that you know you’ll have to rein him in but I’d rather tame a lion then push a lamb.” When I thought about it from that perspective I realized I was looking at it from the perspective of a coach and the impact it had on the team, and the GM was looking at it from the perspective of a scout and the traits it showed in the player.

The New England private school kid did was seen as a punk in his region and looked upon negatively while the same play in Western Canada was seen as a tough, rugged and highly competitive.  So the lesson I learned was to be aware that sometimes what we are criticizing in a player could actually be strength depending on how you look at it.

I had a similar experience the following season. I am in St. Paul, MN scouting the high school state tournament and see a player make a poor decision trying to dangle a defenseman on the offensive blue line and got stripped. His coach lays into him on the bench and so I make a note but don’t really give it much credence. Next period same kid, same situation tries to dangle the defenseman in the neutral zone and gets stripped again; this time resulting in an odd man rush and a goal for the other team. His coach benches him for the rest of the game after having a borderline meltdown on the bench. I talked with a few scouts sitting in my section and we all had the same consensus; dumb play, selfish play, liability on the ice, doesn’t listen to his coach and lacks vision and awareness.

A few days later I am in Toronto at the OHL Cup watching OHL Draft prospects and I see a similar situation where a kid got screamed at for trying to beat a player 1v1 on the power play instead of making the pass. Fair enough. He goes out literally the next power play and does the same thing and loses the puck and they ice it. Coach goes crazy. I started writing similar notes thinking about the Minnesota High School player the week before. As I walk out of the rink at the end of the period I run into a well-respected OHL GM who is asking me what I think about that very player.  I came right out and said, he’s got some skill but he didn’t learn from his mistakes and keeps messing up their power play. He fired right back, “yea but didn’t you love how he went right back out and tried it again.” And I looked at him with such confusion. I said, “yea I think his coach did too that’s why he didn’t play another shift that period.” He laughed and said “I love the confidence and the fearlessness. You can’t teach that.”

Again, what was seen in Minnesota HS as undisciplined and foolish was seen for its positives by an OHL GM. He thought it showed great confidence and willingness to try and make a play without fear of making a mistake and being benched. Both are fair but they come at it from a different perspective. The OHL GM needs players who are ready to play in front of 10,000 fans at 16 and 17 years old which will require a lot of confidence and fearlessness. The college hockey coach is under different circumstances; the player are older, the schedule is shorter and maybe most importantly there are no trades so they are stuck with their recruits for four years.

In managing scouts from all over North America you come to learn Western Canadian scouts view the game different than Ontario scouts and Ontario scouts view it different than Minnesota scouts and Minnesota scouts see it different then New England scouts, etc. The reasons are likely that the WHL is a little different than the OHL and requires different attributes and the NCAA West is different than the NCAA East, etc. Regardless, it’s important to recognize the bias, acknowledge it and try your best to keep your opinions out of your reports. As longtime NHL scout Bob Crocker told me in my first year scouting, “you are here to say what the player is, not what you think of the player; big difference.”

“The shinning trophies on our shelves can never win tomorrows game”   

I’m in Buffalo, NY watching the USA Hockey Development 16 camp and there is a player out of New Jersey who is having a big showing at the camp and getting buzz from NCAA and USHL scouts. Admittedly he was probably the best uncommitted prospect in the camp, but I had just seen him a few months prior at the U16 National Tournament when the game was on the line and he was soft and invisible. His team was relying on him and he folded under pressure because he was afraid of getting hit. Sure enough he has a great week and ends up committing that summer to a top program. I thought that was a big mistake and that the school was foolish to be committing to player based on one performance in a summer hockey event.

A week later, I’m back in Buffalo watching the Select 15’s and I run into a college coach who was familiar with the player from Jersey. He said that he was really impressed with him at camp and marveled at his improvement from the season until now. I agreed but informed him that a few months prior on the biggest stage the kid folded and was soft. I went on to say my thoughts on over-emphasizing performances in summer hockey in low adversity, low checking environments. He stopped me mid-sentence and asked if I had kids, of which I replied no. He said his son was 4’10” four months ago and today is 5’5”. He remarked that a lot changes in a few months at these younger ages and to never hold on tight to your first impression or something you saw six months ago.

I wasn’t sold, I did the work going to nationals, I put in the time to evaluate his whole game and I saw with my own eyes him dodge checks, cough up pucks in games that mattered. I understood players go up and down and we shouldn’t get sold on our first impression but I couldn’t take back what I saw either.

Three months later I am in British Columbia watching a BCHL Showcase and I was excited to see some midget and high school players in their first action at the junior level. A lot of them had gone from first line goal scorers the year before to a third/fourth line energy role at this level. Some adapted and some did not.  I went to write up the report after the tournament and looked back at what we had said about these players during their midget and high school careers. I wasn’t seeing a lot of the skills at the junior level that we saw them demonstrate a year prior. I ran into an NHL scout at Subway (go figure) in Chilliwack, BC and shared that I was struggling with some kids I knew had skill in prior levels but hadn’t shown it here. I asked what he does in that situation having been an NHL scout for nearly 20 years. His response I’ll never forget. “At the NHL level you may get called up for one weekend due to injuries and you have to walk into an NHL locker room and make an impact right away. If you don’t you’re going back down. They don’t care what you did last month or last year, they only care about how you execute and perform in that one moment. Sometimes it’s the only opportunity you’re going to get. So as in the George Moriarty poem, ‘the shinning trophies on our shelves cannot win tomorrow’s game.’ Yesterday isn’t irrelevant but you have to evaluate what you see today.”

That stuck with me. Every step up in hockey is an adjustment for players and the ones who adapt are the ones who have success. The skill set that made the bantam a pure goal scorer may not translate into midget or high school where the goalies are bigger and more athletic. The big, strong power forward who can muscle his way to the net in midget may not be able to do so in junior against older, stronger competition.

As a result we actually changed our grading system in 2016 from a single star rating system to a two-part grading system. We have an overall grade (1-5) which ranks the players overall ability compared to other players in their age group from across US/CAN and a performance grade (A-F) based solely on the players performance at that specific game or tournament or showcase. This method was inspired by these scouts who took the time to share their knowledge and experience with me and it has helped us increase our accuracy tremendously by avoid hype, tracking real time progress and measuring player consistency over time.

The Takeaway

It’s been an incredible experience these past four years seeing the best hockey players and learning about all the different leagues, the different levels, and meeting and working with scouts from all over North America.

So while all my stories are just stealing tidbits from other people along the way, I have shockingly learned something on my own as well. As a young scout you are encouraged to have strong opinions on players or leagues or whatever it may be. There is a notion that the more conviction you have for a player translates to the more knowledge you have of that player, either good or bad. I disagree with that philosophy entirely. Conviction is ego and ego is the death of a scout. Regardless of where I am in US or Canada, the people with strong opinions are typically the most ignorant. The coaches or scouts who are the loudest and dig their heels in the most are typically the least knowledgeable and lack both perspective and experience.

I don’t claim to be an expert, but listeners are learners and any success I have had has come from seeking out smarter, more experienced people than myself and asking questions. I specifically target the bald and grey haired guys because this is a business that experience matters and the knowledge they have shared with me has been invaluable in my career. Despite all the miles I have put on, all the rinks I have been in and the players I have seen; I benefit from the realization I still know very little and am driven daily to learn as much as I can.

Photo Credit: Dan Hickling/Hickling Images