Future Greats and Heartbreaks
A Q&A with author Gare Joyce
Sportswriter Gare Joyce has been a busy fellow lately: A little more than a year after his last hockey book, When the Lights Went Out, came out, he's back with yet another entry in the genre, this time an in-depth look at the world of hockey scouts.
What that entailed was essentially a year-long mock scouting mission, where Gare attempted to essentially become a hockey scout, learn the ins and outs of the gig, and, yes, see many, many hockey games. He ended up travelling from Toronto, all through the OHL and Quebec, out to the Memorial Cup in Vancouver, to the U.S., overseas to the Under-18 tournament, world juniors and who knows what else.
The narrative here is quite sprawling and all over the map (often literally), and much of the focus is on Canadian junior players, but the real coup for Gare is that he gets behind the scenes access to one NHL club's scouting interviews and draft preparation: the Columbus Blue Jackets. Given the turmoil in that organization, and the end result for GM Doug MacLean, this adds a big of an undercurrent to all of the travelling, interviewing and hockey watching.
I caught up with Gare this weekend to ask him a few questions about the new book. (This is quite long and not without a few quirky tangents — but that's what happens when you put two journalists together).
What made you want to write this book in particular? Where did the idea come from, and how did it evolve as you waded into the material?
My Crosby and Piestany books were the children I planned on. Future Greats and Heartbreaks was an accident. I was more than halfway through my research — about mid-December — before my publisher gave me the green light.
I had always wanted to do a book that featured NHL scouts. That probably spins out of covering the world juniors and other age group tournaments over the years. Tim Wharnsby from the Globe, Donna Spencer from CP, and Terry Koshan from the Sun are the core group of what we'll jokingly call the World Junior Hockey Writers Association — we'll commiserate over a jet-lagged breakfast in some far-flung place and own up to caring a little too much about junior hockey. I'll admit I'm an extreme case, being the one who's made it out to summer and spring U-18s and U-17s.
At the world under-20s the hockey writers are all pretty aware that there's a lot of NHL business going on all around us. When the tournament is in Europe the scouts outnumber the media folk by about 20 to one at the arena. At the summer under-18s, when Sidney Crosby played there in 2003, say, I was the only media type and there were over 100 NHL scouts in the arena and the only others in the stands were the families of players.
The hockey media doesn't cover the u-18s at all (editors citing the expense, writers not wanting to travel in August or before the Stanley Cup playoffs) and yet the scouts cover it like a blanket (the u-18s being more important than the u-20s in their books) ... What is a pretty crucial bit of hockey business goes on in a media vacuum. I always figured a book about scouting would have to fill in that vacuum and take the reader to the events that aren't usually (or ever) covered.
A good lot of Future Greats and Heartbreaks — Part 1, the three weeks I spent behind closed doors with the Columbus Blue Jackets at the 2006 combine in Toronto, at individual workouts and interviews in Columbus and at the 2006 draft in Vancouver — really was an accident. I was working on assignment for ESPN The Magazine, a 3,000-word piece on what it's like for top prospects in the weeks leading up to draft, focusing on Phil Kessel, Derick Brassard and Peter Mueller among others. I got a little carried away with my research, I guess. Just on my notes for that story I would have had enough to write a book on that alone. And as far as "immersion journalism" goes, the idea of participating in the story, it started at the combine too. After over 100 interviews with players, the Jackets' staff was pretty punchy so they would occasionally let me ask the prospects questions.
What was also an accident (and dumb luck) was the organization that I ended up writing about: Columbus. Everyone else I pitched slammed the door in my face — most of them politely. What looked like a last resort, though, turned into a better story than I could have expected and not just because the Blue Jackets have had a great start through the first six weeks of the season. Columbus is breaking out in prospects all over. In a season, the third-rounder the Jackets took, Tom Sestito, went from a luggish 10-goal scorer to a 40-goal first liner. Brassard was the AHL rookie of the month with Columbus' affiliate in Syracuse — he'll be up this season. Jakub Voracek is on fire in the Q — by far the best player in that league right now. The Mason kid they drafted from London will likely be the Canadian under-20 goaltender. Kris Russell makes the roster as a 20-year-old and looks like the second coming of Brian Campbell. Any one of these players would rate as the best the prospect in the Leafs organization.
From the outside, Columbus looked to be in serious trouble last year, but there have certainly been positive signs in the post-MacLean era.
Would the book have been drastically different without cooperation from an NHL team?
There wouldn't have been a book. Plain and simple. That's why there hasn't been a book before. Probably not one after. And I have to say that the co-operation went only so far — by midseason, after Boyd's demotion and with MacLean on the firing line, I was more of a witness on the inside than a participant.
I know in Moneyball, one of the real key points Michael Lewis makes is that traditional scouting is an archaic and ineffective way to find good players, yet I don't get that sense from you here. Do hockey scouts do things right? Is there a right way to do it? And why are so many stars drafted in the late rounds by certain organizations?
Moneyball shook up book publishing more than it did MLB scouting. There was a notion that Billy Beane had come upon a better way of conducting business: a stats-driven approach, talent evaluation by computer, the replacement of scouts by statisticians, former players by MIT ciphers. It was sexy-sounding stuff, but a few seasons down the line, the Athletics still don't have a World Series banner (and are a lot further away than they were in 2003).
Fact is, the Athletics' success had a lot to do with a pitching staff and some players like Tejada that were inherited. The big draft in his book — with compensation picks, the five picks up high in the draft — haven't panned out. His most daring pick, the catcher Jeremy Brown hasn't panned out and he was dropped from the 40-man roster. The one player who did pan out in a big way was Nick Swisher, but Beane was hardly the only baseball executive who liked him. Joe Blanton's been good but no better than the player picked right behind him in the first round, Matt Cain, who would have been the last player Beane would have been interested in. John McCurdy, Steve Obenchain, Brown, Brant Colamarino ... don't go looking for them at the All-Star Game or even in the Athletics' lineup.
Maybe traditional scouting — in baseball, in hockey — isn't an effective way of doing business. But, like Churchill's take on democracy, it's a system that looks better when compared to others. Right now, with the prospects in the Columbus organization — Brassard, Sestito, Mason, Voracek, Russell, Stefan Legein with Niagara in the OHL, and maybe Maxim Mayorov — they're looking pretty good right now. Fact is, they're looking better a couple of years out than the Moneyball class did.
The outfit that seems to do best in the late rounds is Detroit — a tip of the hat to long-time scouting director Joe McDonnell, Euro head scout Hakan Andersson (who believed in Datsyuk when no one else did and owns a chunk of credit for Zetterberg) and assistant GM Jim Nill (who was in the mix back in Ottawa in the building of the Senators). No coincidentally, Detroit looks after their scouts: You don't see the likes of Mark Leach and others leaving the organization for other teams. They give their scouts a chance to do their jobs and they've had the same crew in place for a good long while.
You talked a little bit about the travel involved with the book — was it the most onerous part of the whole deal? Do you think you got a sense of the sort of schedule an NHL scout would keep?
Admittedly, I logged fewer games than a full-time scout ... about 85 give or take across the season, when they're doing over 200. I couldn't have written a book or had a semblance of a family life or worked on other outside projects if I'd aimed at a full load of games. That said, it's not like I "lived the life of a scout" for a week or two. It was a real, yearlong immersion in their life and work. I did travel with scouts on several occasions along the way and I probably logged as many miles as some, what with crossing over Canadian leagues and making it to international events — draft in Vancouver, under-18s in Czech Republic and Slovakia in August, bouncing around the OHL in the fall, the Dub in December, under-20s in Sweden in December-January, three trips through Quebec in the New Year, a week in the Dub in Feb, under-18s in Finland, OHL playoffs and then Mem Cup in Vancouver, finally on to the draft in Columbus.
The worst bit of travel — and there were several nightmares — was my hotel at the spring u-18s in Tampere, Finland. I was up against a tight budget by that point (my own pocket) and I couldn't get into the scouts' swank hotel, the Scandic (which I can recommend at $300 a night).
I ended up staying around the corner in a dump that cost less than $250 for seven nights and was overpriced at that. It was full of junkies, hookers and Russian criminals (toilet down the hall). One jet-lagged scout at the Scandic didn't come down for breakfast the whole week, so I free-loaded five-star meals.
Those are two pretty big tasks.
What makes it even tougher is that I'm doing it across the course of a season — going in there were no guarantees that there was going to be any kind of tension or crisis. It was dumb luck on my part that I latched on to Columbus just as the organization was in turmoil and the staff was dealing with the worst kind of uncertainty ... literally, Don Boyd and other Blue Jackets scouts were scouting the under-18s, dreading going home for fear that they were going to be pink-slipped. With Doug MacLean out, they assumed they'd be joining him on the street.
Those are the "Heartbreaks" of the title; maybe readers will think that it refers to players who don't make it, but really it refers to the scouts. No one loves the game more than them, but they have to feel that it's love unrequited a lot of time. It's often lonely work and there's little in the way of security. And many times, the scouts are let go before they get to see and take credit for assembling the talent for a team that becomes a contender or wins a Cup. That could have been the case this year in Columbus.
With Future Greats and Heartbreaks, well, I didn't know if Columbus would have the first pick in the draft or the 20th back in September of 2006. I ended up seeing a lot more games and talked to a lot more players than I could write about in any detail — a lot had to end up on the cutting room floor and those are decisions that I had to make after the draft. When Columbus picked Jakub Voracek, his role in the book had to become bigger. If the Blue Jackets had drafted Sam Gagner, then I would have included a few more London games in the text and done more with him at the world juniors.
No, not at all. I prefer working with juniors than pros. I think you get more honest answers if you can work up some empathy and sincerity. Juniors: I'm Walt Disney and they're my Mouseketeers.
I get ribbed at my local bar, TKOs on the Danforth. The owner, a diehard Leafs fan who has all but died hard the last couple of years, says he's thinking about converting it to a Blue Jackets bar. Yeah, right. But at least he accommodates me when I ask him to throw a Columbus game on when the Leafs are playing.
The other day I was up in Gatineau and saw Les Olympiques — Claude Giroux, the kid who wasn't drafted in the OHL, was incredible and looks like he's going to be Simon Gagne redux for Philly. A great, great player. The kid I liked but went undrafted in the draft in June, Vitaly Karamnov, ended up going to the Edmonton Oilers' camp and is playing for Everett in the Dub ... if he's a midround draft pick or better in 2008, well, I'll be able to dine out on it for about five minutes. (Admittedly, it's not up there with John Ferguson, Sr., pushing Ottawa to draft Daniel Alfredsson.)
On the release of Future Great & Heartbreaks I'm restarting my dormant blog with a new handle, Scout's Honour, and a new weave, keeping up with what's happening with players from the 2006 and 2007 draft classes and other stuff that would be of interest to readers of the book, fans of junior hockey, draftniks and friends in and out of the business.
Hopefully Scout's Honour will be something like Future Greats and Heartbreak's epilogue, a postscript that evolves in real time — that way, the reader is as up-to-date as last night's scores on the implications of the 2006 and 2007 draft. I know that Michael Lewis is planning a book looking back on Moneyball in a couple of years (he has some 'splaining to do) ... here at Gareco Enterprises, you get to see it as it happens.
Gare's a good guy, someone who's logged about million more years than little old me in this crazy business and who I've taken to chatting with on email once in a while.
In any event, my "review" may not be the most unbiased one, but I did enjoy the book, and a lot of it reminded me of being a teenager back in Kamloops and watching my friends trying to "make it" in Junior A and doing things like taking Creatine and being uprooted, poked and prodded by clubs. It's a great lesson in what it's like to be a junior hockey player, what that entails and you get a perspective on just how young a lot of these kids are. Many of them have spent the majority of their young lives striving for this entry draft business, and that's really only the beginning of a pro hockey career.
As for the scouting end of things, well, you certainly learn of a lot of guys who are labouring well behind the scenes, putting in ridiculous hours and hoping that one day they find the next Henrik Zetterberg somewhere.
It's a worthwhile read, even for just an insider's look at the Blue Jackets and a better understanding of how the scouting machinery works. The hockey business really is it's own little animal, and a lot of these guys on staff never, ever get any time in the sun.
There honestly aren't enough good hockey books being produced in this country, so here's hoping Gare can keep pumping these things out.
Future Greats and Heartbreaks
A Season Undercover in the Secret World of NHL Scouts
Written by Gare Joyce
Format: Hardcover, 336 pages
Publisher: Doubleday Canada
Pub Date: November 20, 2007