Thursday, April 03, 2008

Thursday Review: The Psychic Hotline

Subject: Joyce, Gare. Future Greats and Heartbreaks: A Year Undercover in the Secret World of NHL Scouts. Doubleday Canada, 2007

Representative Soundbite: “The general manager knows the difference between No. 1 and No. 2, between being The One and The Other. He was the latter, a good player chosen second overall in the wake of a Hall of Famer, Buffalo’s Gilbert Perreault. For his part, Kane seems to know the difference, too. He looks old beyond his years, just a little too self-assured to be even remotely boyish. He looks like the child star who asks for and gets meetings with producers. I half expect Kane to go backstage with Tallon and seal the deal with a couple of Montecristos. Kane knows exactly who he is, what got him here, and what’s out there for him. He comes from upstate New York, but Jason Bonsignore he’s not.”

It is my greatest hockey honor to have once been mistaken for a scout. It was late autumn and I was at a Frontenacs-Generals game in Kingston. The Memorial Centre was one of those old, homey rinks. The smallness of the space and the communal suffering amongst Fronts fans resulting from years of watching a bad team in an uncomfortable building combined to create a cozy, familiar atmosphere. It was the kind of place where the same fans showed up again and again in the same seats. Even I, coming in from out of town for the game and buying a random, single ticket at the window, somehow got put in the same place every time I went. It was the kind of place where people chat with strangers (not, for the record, the case with every junior hockey rink in Canada).

I was mistaken for a scout because I had a notebook. It was early yet in my hockey travels, and I was still very zealous about my due diligence in researching the teams I was to see. Before I made any trip, I looked up salient facts about the home team- who’d been drafted by what NHL clubs, who were the team leaders in points and penalty minutes last season, where they ranked in their division. And, of course I took notes, but only occasionally on players, and more because of who was interesting than who was good. I was more interested in the full experience- from the choice of music to the comments of fans around me to the menus at the concession stands. So I’m jotting away, probably about plight of the poor visiting backup goalie, who had to sit on a tiny folding chair so delicate that he looked like a trained elephant trying to ride a tricycle at a circus that was sure to get shut down by PETA, when this old guy behind me leans over, taps my shoulder, and says, “Hey, are you a scout?”

Ludicrous question. At the time, I didn’t know anything about hockey scouts, but I was pretty sure that most of them were not tiny women in their mid-twenties. Maybe he figured that I was some sort of prodigy, the Sidney Crosby of hockey scouting, possessed of such powerful vision that I’d risen to the top of a profession dominated by good old boys- operative words being ‘old’ and ‘boys’- with my infallible intuition. Or maybe, as it turned out upon further discussion, he just couldn’t think of a reason why anyone who wasn’t a scout would be writing in a notebook at a major junior game.

But nevertheless, I was enormously flattered. Any hockey fan would be. Fans have an awe of scouts that stems from two things: firstly, scouts are the guys who get to go to hockey games for a living; and secondly, scouts see the future.

Hockey is an extremely difficult game to predict. It doesn’t matter how old and venerable and expert you are, ninety percent of everything you think will happen in hockey is WRONG. ABSOLUTELY WRONG. That team that’s a sure thing to make the playoffs? They’re going to collapse and miss. That rookie who’s going to be a franchise player? Only for his future ECHL team. And that certain win against the bottom-feeders with the 8-17-4 record? Zero points and a lot of embarrassment for the supposedly superior club. It’s a big part of what makes hockey fascinating, and the biggest part of what makes it frustrating- no matter how much knowledge you gain, it’s somehow never enough to be predictive.

The allure of scouts is their superior vision. Most of us in the stands see only what’s in front of us, and often only a small percentage of that, but we imagine that they see both deeper and farther, into recesses of the game imperceptible to the ordinary viewer. Their entire profession is built on vision, the assertion they make and the rest of us believe which claims that they can see things in a game and a player which very few can- those revealing, essential details that push aside some of the mystery and uncertainty of the game and make the future dimly, faintly visible in the present. They are hockey’s clairvoyants.

Of course, like any who claim the gift of prophesy, our attitudes towards scouts are caught in the tension between belief and skepticism. We cannot see as they see, so we are sometimes inclined to question whether they can actually know what they claim to know. At draft time, when their work is most clearly held up to public scrutiny, we often question their judgments. After all, a lot of people in the hockey world watch a lot of games and we’re all human beings with the same senses. Is our trust in them a rational deference to expertise, or merely customary?

In Future Greats and Heartbreaks, Gare Joyce spends a year (draft 2006 to draft 2007) ‘inside’ the Columbus Blue Jackets’ scouting department. I put ‘inside’ in quotation marks not only because the team’s management upheavals disrupt his access before the year is over, but also because the book makes one understand exactly how difficult it is to speak of getting ‘inside’ the scouting world. One thinks that, if anyone could do it and translate the experience for the outside reader, Joyce would be a good candidate. A sports journalist who has written several previous books and clearly has long-standing relationships with many coaches, managers, and players in the professional hockey business, Joyce is also a self-confessed draft junkie. He enjoys pouring over the minutiae of junior hockey players and tracking their development, analyzing previous drafts across multiple sports; he has both personal knowledge and access to all the right people. The man knows whereof he speaks.

Except, of course, he doesn’t. The book begins with a frank description of Joyce’s desire to be a scout, and the bulk of it is a chronicle of his attempts to try to be so, but he never fully succeeds. He doesn’t have the vision, or as he puts it, he isn’t a ‘hockey man’ in the true sense. It’s difficult for him to know who to concentrate on, to pick up the distinguishing characteristics of particular players in the swirl of a game, and he’s never quite sure he can trust his perceptions. The other scouts he talks to share their impressions with him, but while he describes their views and something of their culture and lifestyle, he cannot get inside their heads. Anyone reading this book looking for deep insights as to how hockey scouts come by their second sight, how they can look at an 18 year old and form an impression of the player he’ll be in five or ten years, is going to be disappointed. Joyce can’t tell you that. He doesn’t really know himself.

It raises the suspicion that this second sight doesn’t actually exist. Joyce points out that in recent years the profession has come under some pointed criticism, of a sort most commonly associated with the book Moneyball. It’s possible that scouts don’t see better than any reasonably informed observer, and that their expertise is really just a collection of personal preferences, the entrenched biases of hockey culture, and dumb luck. Any meaningful details about a player’s worth and development over time will be revealed when his stats are put through the proper algorithms, beyond that it’s all guesswork. There are an increasing number of people who would contend that the future of hockey is in numerology, not clairvoyance. Joyce’s sympathies obviously lie with the scouts, but he can’t really defend them from this critique in any sustained way, other than to fall back on the position that if more teams make their draft decisions by number-crunching and video clips, a whole lot of nice guys will be out of work.

Indeed, Joyce comes up with his own criticism of conventional scouting practice, although it’s the polar opposite of a Moneyball-inspired counterpoint. Joyce doesn’t think that scouting is based on too much subjective, qualitative information, but rather that it’s based on not enough. He is appalled at how little time scouts spend talking to players, how little background research they do. A twenty-minute interview and casual observation of a player during physical testing is often the sum total of the personal contact between scouts and potential draftees, and for Joyce this is a gaping, oozing, possibly infected hole in their knowledge. Early on he refers to a scouts’ favorite philosophical problem: “If you had three categories- talent, hockey sense and character- and only six chips to place in those slots, how would you distribute them?” Different scouts have different views, but Joyce isn’t a scout, he’s a journalist, and if the book is to be believed he’d put all six of his chips in ‘character’ and figure the other things will work themselves out in the end.

Who knows what that means for the author’s future as an amateur bird dog, but it’s a blessing for the reader, because Joyce is on much firmer ground when he talks about players’ character than when he describes their skills. His game recaps, which comprise large chunks of the book, are well-written but largely forgettable, done in roughly the same style as the post-game summary you might read in a newspaper the day after a game, except in this case they’re summaries of junior games from nearly two years ago. But his interviews are excellent. It’s as though he sets out to rectify the scout’s neglect of players’ personalities by recovering that lost piece of the puzzle, and as such the book is most moving and memorable as a profile of the elite members of the 2007 draft class. He talks to kids that most of us know only as names on lists and fleshes them out, going well beyond the kind of bottled what’s-your-favorite-food interview that usually gets tossed to fans. After reading this book, I have more respect for Angelo Esposito than I ever thought possible, while at the same time being very happy for both him and the Canadiens that he didn’t end up playing for his hometown team.

I suspect the later life of the book will depend on the careers of these players. If Esposito, Akim Aliu, Patrick Kane, Kyle Turris, Jakub Voracek, etc. go on to have long and prominent careers, than this book is only going to get better with age; if they don’t, it might become rapidly obscure. I’d recommend reading it in the next 3-5 years, when these kids- and the dozen of others discussed in detail or in passing- are all likely to be in the news as they either mature into NHLers or fail to do so. It’ll be a thrill to see whether their individual personalities, so absent in their standard public descriptions and so prominent in this book, will prove to be relevant to the development of their hockey careers.

The only disappointment in the book, for me (other than the occasional repetitiousness of the game recaps) was the lack of any substantial discussion of the process of lower round drafting or the players who are taken then. For the most part, Joyce focuses on the ‘Top Tens’, the players so good that scouting them is more about evaluating how good they are in the present than predicting what they’ll do in the future. I understand his reasoning: these players are both more interesting for the average fan and easier for a non-scout to talk about, since their talent is never in doubt. But in some ways it’s also the least unique part of scouting. If scouting was all about these guys, than I very well could have been a scout at that game in Kingston last November, because even I could have told you that #91 on the visiting team was NHL-capable. Granted, if you’re a team trying to choose between the three ‘Top Ten’ guys still available when your selection rolls around, it’s a difficult choice, but it’s a choice that most of the time won’t have a really wrong answer. I’d like to have learned a little less about the agony of choosing between Phil Kessel and Derek Brassard in the first round and a little more about how they- the Blue Jackets as a team or even any individual scout- choose from the thousands of marginal, maybe/maybe not players they could take with that seventh round pick. Selecting a great prospect with the 7th overall choice? That’s vision. But selecting one with the 211ththat’s clairvoyance.


Julian said...

"and if the book is to be believed he’d put all six of his chips in ‘character’ and figure the other things will work themselves out in the end."

Well, i don't know if that's really true, he doesn't ever talk about how much weight that subject should be given... I'd say his point is that scouts and management don't know enough about the players to have and idea how many chips should go in the character slot, or at least they don't know how much each player has, how well balanced he is.

Jaybird said...

Kingston has a beautiful new arena right downtown. Great city I will miss the Mem Centre though.

E said...

julian- it's true, joyce never comes out and says that he believes character is more important than the other qualities, but i meant more that within the text itself he focuses on character much, much more than the others. as far as what he writes about, he has put virtually all his chips in that slot. that could be a result of the focus on almost entirely elite players, though- he's limited his sample to those for whom skill and hockey sense are not in doubt, so character becomes the overarching way of differentiating them.

jaybird- i loved the memorial centre, by far my favorite place to watch a junior game (and not only because it was just a day trip from montreal). honestly, i'm not sure i'll go back to see the new building. i think it'd just make me sad.