Monday, December 3, 2007

Future Greats reviewed in the Edmonton Journal

Some kind words from Journal columnist John Mackinnon

Participatory journalism has a long, distinguished tradition in sports, from Paul Gallico, who boxed Jack Dempsey, to Ernest Hemingway, who gave bullfighting a whirl, to George Plimpton, who tried to do it all -- playing quarterback for the Detroit Lions, tending goal for the Boston Bruins, pitching against the major leaguers, and duking it out with Archie Moore.
Toronto-based writer Gare Joyce, a hockey guy and, more specifically, a junior hockey guy, spent a year sitting with the scouts and has written a dandy book about the experience.
Now, Joyce didn't set out to move among the scouts, that dedicated, knowledgeable, taciturn tribe that can be found sprinkled around the grandstand in the corner of draughty hockey barns all around the globe.
Joyce's book, Future Greats and Heartbreaks, A Year Undercover in the Secret World of NHL Scouts, began as a story for ESPN The Magazine. It took on a life of its own.
"My other children were planned and this one was accidental," Joyce said, who previously has written books on Sidney Crosby, the 1987 Canada-Russia brawl at the world junior hockey championship and baseball in the Dominican Republic.
It's a happy accident for rink rats who can't get enough dope on hockey prospects. They're the lifeblood of the sport, after all.
The idea was to spend a day or two with the scouting staff of any team that would permit a journalist to hang out with them at the NHL scouting combine that occurs shortly before the annual entry draft.
That team turned out to be the Columbus Blue Jackets, then led by general manager Doug MacLean, who never met a microphone, notepad or TV camera he didn't like.
"As it turned out, I spent the next three weeks, all through the combine -- eight days of meetings and interviews -- went down to Columbus when they brought players in for testing.
"Then at the draft, I was there for five more days of meetings and the final compilation of their lists and some last-minute interviews."
Joyce had a good relationship with Don Boyd, Columbus's director of player personnel, who included Joyce in the proceedings, asking for his input, encouraging him to pose questions to the hockey teenagers during interviews, the whole nine yards.
"It was participatory, immersion journalism," Joyce said. "I started to 'play' a scout, and then I sort of forgot that I wasn't a scout."
He became, in effect, a Blue Jackets bird dog in the season leading up to the 2007 entry draft. The result is an often fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the voluminous research, cross-country car travel, endless nights watching hockey games, drinking bad coffee, and eating junk food that lies behind the decision-making crapshoot that is the NHL entry draft, ultimately.
Joyce writes insightfully, for example, about Akim Aliu, the Windsor Spitfires player who refused to submit to a scurvy hazing ritual and was cross-checked in the face at practice by teammate Steve Downie as a result.
Aliu's father is Nigerian, but his mother is Ukrainian. Aliu spent his young childhood in Kyiv, where he spoke Russian and acquired a taste for perogies, but he never put on skates until after he moved to Canada and was 12 years old.
ne can only wonder, as Joyce does, about the cultural confusion the young Aliu has dealt with. It certainly helps explain why Aliu stands out in the conformist world of Canadian hockey. It goes beyond skin colour.
After a two-hour interview with Joyce over lunch, Aliu, eager to please and spiff up an image that, rightly or wrongly, took some hits in junior, insists on picking up the cheque, a rare spasm of generosity for the average NHL player, let alone a junior star.
"I don't know how a team could get to know him in just 20 minutes at the combine," Joyce concludes about Aliu.
Especially in the convention-bound world of hockey scouts, most of whom follow tried-and-true research methods that are focused almost exclusively on watching games.
Despite undeniable talent, Aliu was chosen 56th overall in the draft, a late second-round pick by Chicago.
Twice-traded in the OHL, Aliu is playing this season for the London Knights, where one of the assistant coaches is Dave Gagner, Sam's dad, someone who has been around Aliu's hockey career for years and is sympathetic to the young player. Aliu can clearly use the support.
A sub-plot of Joyce's book is the precarious hold MacLean, the Columbus GM, had on his job. Two months before the draft, MacLean demoted Boyd, which Joyce interprets as a "last-ditch attempt to head off criticism of his own record."
"I really wondered about why Doug MacLean let me in," Joyce said about the access he was accorded. "Maybe this is actually a political move on his part, and he let me in not to inform the public, but maybe to inform his owner, so that he appears to be doing a good job and appears to be shrewd.
"So that, really, (for MacLean), it was a public relations exercise for an audience of one."
It didn't work, if that's the case. MacLean was fired and replaced by former Edmonton Oilers assistant GM Scott Howson. Boyd is Howson's director of player personnel.
The audience Joyce gets for his book will be rewarded with a lively, detailed look at a compelling part of the hockey world that few ever truly penetrate.

Globe Story: I'm supposedly "too close" to the scouts

A week ago a friend of mine at the Globe and Mail asked if I'd be interested in writing something for the Saturday paper about the Leafs' scouting department. In asking me to do the sttory, it's likely he presumed that the scouting department of the team was either as dysfunctional as the rest of the MLSE's hockey division or the root cause of the mess. That is, after all, the presumption of the media in general and a lot of Leafs fans. And my friend had in hand a long screed of Toronto’s draft failures, going back 20 years. Well, I can only write what I report ... which is to say, I can't make up the facts I gather in the field. When I asked scouts in other organizations about the Leafs' scouting performance they weren't exactly flattering but neither were they nearly as critical as Toronto media and fans:

Given the media maelstrom around the Toronto Maple Leafs these days, it's heretical to accuse any division of management of competence.

And the conventional wisdom is that the Leafs' struggles are the product of awful drafts, which are the byproduct of poor amateur scouting. Critics conclude that Toronto's scouting department is either understaffed, underqualified or asleep at the wheel.

Yet those who work as scouts for other NHL teams don't buy it. They don't quite give the Leafs scouts a ringing endorsement or praise them for being in the scouting fraternity's elite. They do, however, place the Toronto's scouts in the middle of the league's pack.

"The Leafs scouts are no worse than average, maybe a bit better, a lot better than the worst clubs," a veteran scout for a Western Conference club said. "The idea that they're not out there or missing things — I'm at 200 games in a season and I see [Toronto scouts] at most of them."

"[The Leafs scouts] compare pretty favourably with most clubs," said a scouting director, who recently put together an evaluation of NHL draft records going back to 2000. "They've had a couple of bad misses in there but so does everybody. The draft and the scouts aren't what's hurting the team. The problem is that the Leafs' management has traded away high picks — the scouts haven't had much to work with."

That was the consensus in a survey of NHL scouts. The pundits and the talking heads, those who will call for general manager John Ferguson's job or even actively lobby for it, might claim this vote of confidence for the team's amateur scouts is simply a matter of their friends reflexively defending their own. This, however, isn't the case — none contacted for this story had any history with the organization or staff members.

A quick glance at the Leafs' recent picks might lead one to believe that they've been slow to pick up a couple of trends in scouting, namely the USHL and Provincial A (or Junior A) as sources of talent. In the 2007 draft, more players were drafted from the USHL than from Russia and the number of highly drafted players from Canadian junior leagues outside the CHL are also on the rise.

Until 2007, they'd largely been absent from Toronto's drafts.

Scouts in other organizations say this doesn't mean the Leafs have been overlooking these leagues. "They might not have drafted players from there, but I know the Leafs were watching them," an Eastern Conference scout said. "You can't know where Toronto had them on the final list … they might have missed out on a USHL player by a pick or two."

The media's sweeping criticisms of Toronto's scouting staff blithely ignore a complicating issue: turnover. The club's regime changes over the past decade prompted shifts in the staff. There are a few constants — most notably, assistant general manager Mike Penny — but like most other teams in the business, scouts come and go.

The critics will blast Toronto for the selection of Nikolai Antropov in 1998 and in the next breath praise the Ottawa Senators for coming up with defenceman Andrej Meszaros with their first-rounder, 23rd overall, in 2004. Fact is, Anders Hedberg — first a Leaf scouting director, later the man in Ottawa — made both picks.

Barry Trapp, the former head scout for Hockey Canada, was installed as the Leafs' amateur-scouting director before the 2002 draft. John Ferguson Jr. let Trapp go before the 2006 draft and promoted veteran scout Dave Morrison to the post.

Former Maple Leafs general manager Cliff Fletcher is remembered for saying "draft, shmaft," and "first-rounders are a dime a dozen" when he supposedly turned down offers of a first-round pick for Wendel Clark. But in another moment near the end of his tenure in Toronto — thinking more clearly, you'd have to presume — Fletcher suggested that the most valuable player in hockey was "a player on his entry-level contract who plays on your first two lines." The rationale: A major contributor who is subject to the rookie salary cap allows a general manager to spend more freely elsewhere on the roster.

What was true in the spendthrift past is all the more true these days in the hard-and-fast payroll cap. No surprise that the past two Stanley Cup winners featured players in this role: Carolina, with Eric Staal, Andrew Ladd and Cam Ward; Anaheim with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Former Globe and Mail hockey columnist Gare Joyce is the author of a new book, Future Greats and Heartbreaks: A Year Undercover In The Secret World of NHL Scouts.

A couple of comments rolled in, not much traffic really.

Jeff Taylor from Canada writes: From his books, it's obvious that Joyce knows the scouting field and junior hockey world. But I wonder if he's grown too close to those he writes about. He could do to be a little more skeptical of his sources. The accompanying article shows that Toronto has drafted poorly for a long time. Why didn't Joyce challenge his sources with those facts instead of accepting their supposed wisdom at face value? Maybe Joyce has gotten too cozy with the scouting community.

Rob Kirsic from Brampton, writes: Just because Leaf scouts show up to 200 games in a season, doesn't necessarily mean that they know how to scout properly - at the most basic level, they're just another fan at a game. The Leafs scouting and drafting has been atrocious and part is JFJs fault, part of past management's - in the 80s Ballard controlled everything and didn't allow the GMs to draft good people, the other part to blame is the director of scouting now Mike Penny - that guy is a waste of time and space and should have been fired as soon as Barry Trapp was hired on. But because he was a Quinn guy he stays on...the internal politics at MLSE also is to blame for the screwed up nature of the Leafs. And Jeff - I agree, I think the author has gotten a bit too comfortable with the fraternity to be able to seperate (sic) his bias and focus on the problem of the Leafs.

All pretty interesting. First of all, I didn’t say that the Leafs were an average scouting organization or that they had done a decent job with their recent drafts. No, that was the judgment of the Leafs scouts’ peers. To tell you the truth, though I’ve followed the league and drafts with a professional interest for more than a decade, though I’ve been to thousands of NHL and junior games over the years, I don’t feel qualified to render a judgment about a NHL team’s scouting department. Obviously Mr Taylor and Mr Kirsic are more qualified than me. Seemingly, they’re more qualified than the scouts from organizations who, in their careers, have played in the NHL, coached in the league or occupied the general manager’s office. I’m not particularly close to the Leafs’ scouting staff. I’d say that I have one friend on the staff but Shawn Simpson is a pro scout and a fairly recent arrival to boot--and as such he doesn’t have much input into the Leafs’ scouting record. One fellah on the Leafs’ staff I’ve had words with—Mike Penny—but I wouldn’t let that colour my opinions. (Fact is, I think we patched it up a bit when last our paths crossed.) I honestly don’t know how much clearer I could have made it—I mean, one scout I quoted wasn’t just making an off-hand ranking … I mention that he had just concluded a study of league-wide scouting trends and teams’ performances over a seven-year period going back to 2000 (the Leafs’ Brad Boyes draft, which looks pretty good right now).

Those making the comments attached to the Globe story and the knockers of the Leafs’ scouts see things in a vacuum. You want to know about bad drafting: ask an Edmonton fan. One year not so long ago the Oilers took a Slovak player who wasn’t eligible … making matters worse, other teams lobbied to let Edmonton keep his rights (because they figured he was such a poor player the Oilers were worse off saddled with them rather than receiving any sort of compensation pick). In Edmonton it’s Jason Bonsignore and Steve Kelly, Michel Reisen, Michael Heinrich, Jani Rita and Jesse Niinimaki—the ’27 Yankees of draft flops. That’s just the first-rounders. (One of the former Islanders first-rounders they traded for in the Ryan Smyth deal, Ryan O’Marra, is already in the ECHL.) In Montreal the Canadiens’ first-round follies include Terry Ryan, Eric Chouinard (painfully, instead of his Remparts team-mate Simon Gagne), Jason Ward (at least bilingual), Brad Brown and Matt Higgins. (In Future Greats, I write about other teams being off 2006 first-rounder David Fischer.) In Calgary, no scout has dined out on Brent Krahn, Rico Fata and Daniel Tkaczuk as first-rounders or Eric Nystrom at No. 10 in 2002 (over Keith Ballard, Alexander Semin, Steve Eminger or Chris Higgins, who went in the next four picks). Then there was the obese Russian goaltender Medvedev, comic relief in the second round. Ottawa has done a pretty solid job with its drafts—some of it has been with the advantage of position on the grid but certainly not all. Funny thing is, they’ve had a lot of turn-over in the scouting personnel over the years and still find players—though first rounders Mathieu Chouinard and Jakup Klepis (wisely traded) aren’t among them.

I write all this to make the point that any scouting staff will have Hall of Shame picks. Yeah, the Leafs draft poorly. Like everybody else.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Welcome to the repository of FG & HB


i’d like to thank you for searching out my little blog in service of my little book. T was not quite as little as my editor hoped. At one point late in the game it was out at 140,000 words and thus I saw more slashing in editing than I did in a season’s worth of games. I suppose those who read the book probably think there wasn’t enough slashing (and those who bought it and couldn’t read it are even firmer in that conviction). No matter. This is the place where I’ll try to make sense of it. More than that, this is the place where I can pick up at the point where Future Greats and Heartbreaks left off. As a teenager I tried to read Finnegan’s Wake, James Joyce’s impenetrable novel. Defeated by page 3, I bought A Skeleton Key to Finnegan’s Wake. Not much help—I didn’t purchase a key so much as a key chain. I hope I can do a better job here. I’ll tell you why I wrote this book. I’ll offer you a few anecdotes that didn’t make the book (and a couple that didn’t make it into When the Lights Went Out, my previous tome). And, most importantly, I’ll keep track of the progress of many of those I wrote about. The book ends, but their stories go on.
Nota bene: To find out the latest on one of the executives, scouts, coaches or players, please reference “The Cast of Characters” below. Names are listed alphabetically and in their respective categories. . I.


When I’m asked about the season I spent running with the scouts, the question of the number of games I sat in on inevitably comes up. Scouts take in more than 200 over the course of a season. I didn’t get close to the mark. I couldn’t quite dedicate myself full-time to the game over the course of the year … or at least full-time at the rink on top of writing 40 to 60 hours a week. I was, after all, trying to turn around a book in pretty short order (from November to July 1) on top of my usual workload for ESPN The Magazine and among other outfits. There is only so much juice you can squeeze from the lemon and so much time to spread around. (An example: Right before Christmas, I was as far from major junior as I could be, looking out on James Bay from suburban Moose Factory, up there doing a story on the Cheechoo family.) So I apologize. I only made it out to 80 games. At least as far as I can tell from memory. I’m sure I grabbed another game here or there and it has slipped my mind or dropped to the bottom of one of my boxes of notes, but here, if you can stand the abbreviations, is the list of games I took in last season.

1. USA 3 FIN 2 (Aug 8)
2. CZE 1 RUS 7
3. SWE 1 CAN 4 (Aug 9)
4. SVK 1 SUI 2
5. SUI 3 SWE 5 (Aug 10)
6. SVK 1 CAN 4
7. CZE 3 SUI 1 (Aug 12)
8. CAN 3 USA 0
9. OWEN S 4 @ ST M 3 (Oct 5)
10. PBO 3 @ ST M 6 (Oct 8)
11. SAR 1 @ BRA 3 (Oct 15)
12. BRA 2 @ MISS 4 (Oct 27)
13. SBY 4 @ MISS 3 (Oct 29)
14. KIT 4 @ MISS 3
15. KIN 4 @ ST M 5 (Nov 2)
16. MISS 4 @ ST M 6 (Nov 5)
17. OTT 1 @ MISS 6 (Nov 19)
18. SAR 7 @ OSH 3 (Nov 26)
19. SC @ MJ
20. BND @ SC
21. REG @ SC
24. BEL 4 @ TOR 2 (Dec 7)
25. GUE 3 @ TOR 5 (Dec 10)
26. PLY 5 @ BRA 1 (Dec 17)
27. SUI 4 BEL 1 (Dec 27) Mora
28. CAN 6 US 4 (Dec 27)
29. RUS 6 SUI 0 (Dec 28) Leksand
30. GER 1 CAN 3 (Dec 29) Leksand
31. CZE 2 BEL 1 (Dec 30) Leksand
32. USA 6 SVK 1 (Dec 30) Leksand
33. Can 3 SVK 0 (Dec 31) Leksand
34. USA 3 SWE 2 OT (Dec 31) Leksand
35. FIN 3 USA 6 (Jan 2) Mora
36. USA 1 CAN 2 S-O (Jan 3) Leksand
37. RUS 4 SWE 2 (Jan 3) Leksand
38. SWE 1 USA 2 (Jan 5) Leksand
39. RUS 2 CAN 4 (Jan 5) Leksand
40. Djuragarden / Frolunda (Jan 7)
43. BRN @ PA
44. BRN @ PA
45. PLY 6 @ ST M 3 (Jan 28)
46. BRA @ ST M
47. OTT 4 @ ST M 8 (Feb 3)
48. SSM 8 @ BRA 2 (Feb 11)
49. SAG 4 @ MISS 5 (Feb 11)
50. BEL 0 @ OSH 3
51. LON 4 @ KIT 3 SO (Feb 20)
52. OTT 5 @ MISS 2 (Feb 23)
54. SUD @ BEL
55. SUD @ ST M
56. @ RIM
57. @ X
58. MON @ HAL
59. HAL @ MON
60. CZ 0 SWE 3 Apr 17)
61. FIN 0 SVK 1 (Apr 17)
62. RUS 4 SUI 3 (Apr 19)
63. US 7 SVK 2 (Apr 19)
64. RUS 5 SWE 4 (Apr 20)
65. US 4 CAN 3
66. SWE 8 CAN 3 (Apr 22)
67. RUS US
68. SUD @ MISS
69. SUD @ MISS
70. SUD @ MISS
71. SUD @ BEL
72. PLY @ SUD
73. PLY @ SUD
74. PLY @ SUD
75. MED HAT vs PLY
76. PLY vs LEW
77. MH vs VAN
78. PLY vs LEW
79. VAN vs PLY
80. MEM CUP final VAN MH


The Cast of Characters


Doug Maclean In August MacLean came forward as the name in a group looking to buy out the Tampa Bay Lightning from Bill Davidson. Within two months of being let go by Columbus he was supposedly in the running for the general manager's post with the Phoenix Coyotes. Less than two months after that he's looking to buy a team not so long removed from the Stanley Cup. Surprised? So were the Lightning players.


Craig Button Gone from Toronto. He's doing the round of media work and even had a piece in ESPN The Magazine.

Daniel Dore Let go by Boston on Moving Day. As of late August he hadn't landed another hockey job.

Ray Payne Let go by Washington on moving day.

Sheldon Ferguson A curious one. He left the Carolina Hurricanes after a long tenure (and one Stanley Cup ring) to take the general manager's job with Saginaw in the O. He worked for Saginaw barely two weeks before resigning.


Ken Hitchcock Before the start of the season a couple of scouts (not in the Blue Jackets’ fold) told me that they didn’t envy Hitch because he had so little talent to work with in Columbus, that the team was a long way from being competitive. “Skills-challenged” was the way one described it. The early signs—two shutout wins at home to start the season—were reason for some optimism,

Barry Brennan (Blue Jackets’ strength coach) An interesting story in the Columbus Dispatch from reporter Michael Arace in the second week of the season. Arace writes about the Jackets’ fitness regimen, specifically Ken Hitchcock pushing roster players to score better numbers on their Wingate (explosive power/fatigue) testing. Though not stated here, it re-inforces one of the storylines from Future Greats & Heartbreaks, namely the Blue Jackets’ drafting of Jakub Voracek.
Starting with coach Ken Hitchcock last spring and continuing with general manager Scott Howson in the summer, a message was sent to Blue Jackets fans, and it went something like this: We will be fit. We will be a hard team to play.
There have been a lot of messages through the years, such as: I wouldn't trade my roster for the Detroit Red Wings. What about this fitness message? Are the Blue Jackets not so soft anymore?
By and large, hockey players are among the fittest of athletes. To skate a one-minute shift at full speed, with obstacles, is not only dangerous but also among the most exhausting of exercises. It's like Rollerblading across I-270.
Still, some teams are in better shape than others. When Hitchcock was hired last November, one of the first things he did was check the Wingate fitness test scores from the previous training camp. He didn't like what he saw.
"When you have 55 guys in camp and NHL guys 47th and 51st in the Wingate, you just know it's all going to blow up in February," Hitchcock said. "When you chart it, the NHL guys should be at the top and the juniors at the bottom. It wasn't like that. It wasn't right."
The Blue Jackets went 12-16-2 after Feb. 1. All time, they are 65-93-19 after Feb. 1. Only once, in 2005-06, have they played above .500 after Feb. 1. If they don't blow up, they do a slow burn.
In exit meetings last spring, Hitchcock made it clear to each player that offseason conditioning was a priority.
"This whole process was well under way before I got here," said Howson, who was hired in June. "What I do know is that there were some messages sent very strongly, very clearly, especially to some players who needed to hear it."
Hitchcock said, "I didn't do anything. I left it to Barry and went off for the summer."
Barry Brennan is the Jackets' strength and conditioning coach. He laid out offseason regimens for each player. The regimens were detailed. All a player had to do was check the date, read the requirement -- and do it.
"We needed to think a little bit outside the box and really apply ourselves," Brennan said. "To play the style Hitch wants us to play, and to sustain it, we needed to be bigger and stronger. Hitch told the players that we need to be the fittest team in the league. It made things easier for me. I had a little more of a hammer."
Brennan mixed in more Olympic-style weightlifting for many players, including Rick Nash and Adam Foote, in an effort to increase their explosiveness. Nash and Foote worked out in Toronto with one of Brennan's good friends and colleagues, Dave Ablack. A few other players -- Dan Fritsche, Jody Shelley and Jared Boll, among others -- stayed in Columbus and put themselves under Brennan's thumb.
Those who weren't under direct or indirect view had personal trainers, and those trainers were peppered with weekly telephone calls from Brennan, who charted progress.
"You've got to buy in," Nash said. "I think Hitch has guys believing in it. Better shape, better results on the ice."
The Wingate test is a 30-second ride, all out, on a specialized stationary bicycle. It measures peak power in watts. It also measures the ability to maintain power in the form of a fatigue index. The Wingate is followed up immediately with tests that show how well a body gets rid of lactic acid at different intervals. A third test checks heart-rate recovery.
Each player went through the battery on the first day of training camp. How were the results?
"I've been looking over the numbers for the past two years, and I was shocked when I saw how much the numbers improved," Brennan said.
Specifics aren't being divulged -- even the players are unaware of their Wingate scores.
"But you look around, and you can tell," Fritsche said. "Especially as a hockey player, you can tell how good a shape a guy is in. You start going through workouts, you're watching everyone else, and you just know."
To be hard to play against is to consistently take space away from an opponent. Taking away space means finishing checks. To do this regularly requires excellent fitness.
Hitchcock, then, had to feel good when Ducks forward Brad May approached him after the Jackets' 4-0 victory on opening night and said, "Man, your guys play hard." That is the whole point.
"We've seen a change," Hitchcock said. "We've seen guys getting serious about being NHL players rather than just being in the NHL. There is a difference. We've made inroads, but we're not there yet."

What’s interesting here is the fact that, as noted in the book, the Blue Jackets’ drafted the kid at the combine who had the highest Wingate number, Jakub Voracek of the Halifax Mooseheads. In fact, Voracek’s Wingate was well beyond that of most of the name prospects. Obviously, Wingate isn’t the only predictor of success and there’s a danger of reading too much into this idea of the Wingate work being the foundation of a decent start by the CBJ. The dots you might connect are laid out in the scenes at the basement of the 2007 combine: That the Wingate is a criterion of most interest to CBJ under their new management but, as boldfaced hero, it was Hitchcock taking the lead on it.
Funny, I’ve had a lot of talks over the years with Ken Hitchcock and one sticks in my head. This goes back to 1998, when the Stars were on the verge of very big things. From a story that I wrote in the Globe back before the ’98 playoffs began.
"If you look at other teams' rosters, you'll see more skill or speed," coach Ken Hitchcock said. "We're a team that really rolls four lines and relies on going to the right places and picking up our checks. We practice less than any team in the league -- it's more important that our players have the energy to go to the right places than be reminded over and over again where those right places are. If we're tired or press to score or get out of position, we can look like an old, slow team."
That's a piece of professional poor-mouthing. There's more skill and speed than Hitchcock will admit. What is true, however, is the willingness of the Stars' star players to approach defensive responsibilities as a point of pride.
Energy. I should have picked up on it. And the Wingate is the technological dry-land measure of energy. Maybe some would call it “explosion” or “jump” but it’s just a difference in terminology. Hitchcock coaches energy as much as players—so it stands to reason that Columbus would draft energy too.

Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews
Both signed with the Chicago Blackhawks over the summer and made the team coming out of training camp. Supposed to be linemates though Toews missed the first week with injury. Kane was the first star and scored the winner in a shoot-out victory over Detroit in his second NHL game. Looks like his smarts will serve him pretty well. The latest on Kane. The latest on Toews.

Derick Brassard One of the last cuts, maybe the last cut, at the Columbus camp, sent to Syracuse of the AHL. A season mostly lost to injury after the Jackets drafted him. He’s making the most of this season, though. Going into November he was leading the A in scoring, with 16 points (four goals, 12 assists) in his first 12 professional games. From Lindsay Kramer in the Post Standard/Herald Journal, Oct 19.
As if 116 points in 58 games for his junior team that season didn't speak volumes, center Derick Brassard figured he needed more help getting his point across heading into the 2006 NHL draft.
Brassard, from suburban Ottawa, spoke limited English. So he hunkered down in front of SportsCenter, watched hockey players handle interviews in that language and tried to pick up what he could. By the time the draft rolled around in June, he was fluent enough to conduct job interviews with 27 NHL teams in English.
"They were happy, a French guy tried to speak in English," Brassard said. "The first time was hard, you're nervous. After that, it's the same questions. You repeat."
Between his play and his desire to learn, Brassard said what Columbus wanted to hear. It took him with the No. 6 overall pick. Now, he stands as experiment No. 1 in the Blue Jackets' revamped development plan.
Columbus, new general manager Scott Howson insists, will not rush its top prospects based simply on potential and reputation. Brassard has responded in his most fluent language, with seven points in four games with Syracuse. He looks like an irresistible offensive force to both opponents and the Blue Jackets.
"He needs to understand he needs to be the best player down here to have a career in the NHL," said Jim Clark, assistant general manager of Columbus. "I think he's heard that. But I think what makes any top player is the belief they are the best."
That Brassard has, and with good reason. He is, at the very least, a 5-ticket ride as far as entertainment value in the AHL this season, and his speed is NHL caliber right now. With three goals and four assists, he shares the AHL rookie points lead. He slows down only at his choosing, like when faking a defender or taking in the big picture.
"I'm strong (enough) to play here. But I think I'll be way better at 25," said Brassard, who just turned 20. "That's why to come here is good. I don't just look at my points (in judging himself). It's all the little details, faceoffs, defensive zone, to not get scored on. It's not all about points."
With his puck skills and shell-game-master's hands, Brassard is a player for today's style of hockey. After a practice this week, he back-kicked a puck from the heel of his skate to his stick, and then bounced the puck on his stick. Later, he skated behind the net, flipped the puck off the netting, caught the rebound with his stick, batted it in the air while he skated around to the crease and popped it in.
And where might a young hockey player pick up that piece of choreography?
"I watched YouTube," Brassard said. "They put lots of video on, nice goals. You can take some moves from the other guys. You just have to be confident to do that stuff in a game."
And be rust-free as well, which is one of a few reasons why the Blue Jackets promise to resist rushing Brassard. He suffered a separated shoulder with his junior team last preseason, an injury that required surgery and cost him all but 14 regular-season games.
"It was tough. I like to be on the ice every time," Brassard said. "But that stuff (injuries) happens in hockey. I bounced back after."
Emphatically so, scoring 25 points in those 14 games and then 24 more in 12 playoff games. Brassard came to camp this season with every expectation of making Columbus, based on his already elite abilities and the Blue Jackets' history of turning the NHL into on-the-job training for its prospects.
But in a sense, Brassard was a victim of his own skills. Fellow rookies Jared Boll and Kris Russell made Columbus, but Brassard did not. The difference among the three is that Boll is a third-liner who can be used six minutes a night, and Russell fills an immediate need for a playmaking defenseman.
Brassard is much different, an obvious top-six forward who won't be unwrapped until he is clearly ready for regular NHL shifts.
"We hear that he's playing well and we're glad that he's playing a lot," said Chris MacFarland, assistant to Columbus GM Scott Howson. "Yes, he's an offensive player. But we also want him to learn about being an important player down there in all situations."
Brassard is gearing up, literally, for a long adjustment period. He's in the market for a BMW 335, a bauble that starts in the $40,000 range. Told that such a vehicle might not be the one he wants for a Syracuse winter, he said no worries. His roommate, Alexandre Picard, rolls in an Escalade and can give him rides.
Brassard is often among the last players off after practice, ripping one-timers, skating around like a bumblebee, practicing his little tricks and always grinning. Humming around and around by himself on the empty rink, he looks every inch like a player who is about to go a long way.
"This week was good. I'm starting to play well. When I'm excited to play, I have good games," Brassard said. "I just want to make my place. I have to play hard for the team, play hard to be a better player."

Back in the last week of October Scott Howson made a trip out to Syracuse to watch Brassard. The GM insisted that a call-up to the big club wasn’t on the front burner – with the Jackets going pretty well, with Mike Peca in the line-up and no injuries, I guess, he could afford the patience. Howson told the Columbus Dispatch:

"We had a good conversation," Howson said. "I told him to keep focusing on what he's trying to accomplish in Syracuse, and not to worry about Columbus. He said that he had a little trouble with that the first week of the season, but not now. That's his team now, and he wants to do well … I'm not there with him every day, so I can only judge by what our coaches and scouts are telling me. But the reports are that he's showing up at the rink long before practice, that he's watching video ... and those are all good signs."

Alexei Cherepanov One day they’ll publish hardcover books with hyperlinks built in. Unfortunately they didn’t come up with this in time for Future Greats and Heartbreaks. No matter, on this blog I can fill in the gap. Courtesy of YouTube you can see Cherepanov’s minor miracle of the goal that won the under-18 final against the U.S. last spring. I struggled for words to describe it and it requires two or three viewings to figure out what he did (actually, what he did so casually and so naturally). He shoots the puck between the skates of the American blueliner giving him chase and over the shoulder of the goaltender short side. It’s not just a goal-scorer’s goal, but one that maybe a handful of NHLers would even think about, never mind pull off. You heard a lot about Cherepanov’s work ethic in the days leading up to the draft and, true, he seems to pick his spots—but if you look at the run-up to that goal, he doesn’t seem to be exactly busting it. Another goal that I mention in the book is one that comes against the Swedes in the semi, Cherepanov poaching on the forecheck (really sorta lulling them to sleep) before another clinical finish. As I say in the book, the same play presented itself in the first , period and he messed up, a complete whiff. No such luck for the Swedes this time. At about the 1:22 mark of this highlights package you can see the seeing-eye/no-look last-second goal that sent the Swedes packing … again, another which leaves you wondering exactly how he scored it. (BTW Like Kane, Cherepanov seems to have a full repertoire of celebrations.) I don’t buy Pierre Maguire’s outrage over Cherepanov not getting selected until the Rangers nabbed him. To me it just seem like he cribbed Stephen A Smith’s act from the NBA a couple of years back when SAS went off on the Raptors for taking Charlie Villanueva, ultimately a defensible pick, and for teams passing up on Tar Heels for foreign players. It’s a draft, what’s the freakin’ problem? A fan might be angry but a commentator? The kid’s feelings might be bruised—although his agent probably would have prepared him for such an eventuality—but why was Maguire so shocked by this? After the stock of Russian players took a tumble the year before—there were good reasons why, despite Ovechkin and Malkin, teams were less hot to draft top Russian juniors. If the teams were denying AC a chance to play, if they were conspiring against him, whatever, okay, that would be unfair and something to get hot about. That’s not the case though. The scouts and execs who passed up on Cherepanov saw a lot more of him than Maguire did and, fact is, it’s their money—okay, their owners’—they have to spend on him. If it’s just a hockey decision, a pool let’s say, he wouldn’t have been there after the top seven—but the ability to sign him—that is, ownership’s commitment to do what it takes to sign him—has to weigh in GMs’ minds. It’s not like the old days when you could take your time signing Euros—now it’s two years for all or else you’ve burned a pick. A GM or scouting director who doesn’t get a signing out of a Top Ten pick wouldn’t be drummed out of the business—he’d be laughed out. No one up high in this draft—certainly in the lottery—could afford that risk. And I have to believe the Rangers already had a deal in place or at least an understanding with the Rangers through AC’s agent Jay Grossman, who used to be Brian Leetch’s rep. Grossman said that AC’s Omsk team is cool with him going after the end of this season—we’ll take a wait-and-see approach on that. Wouldn’t be the first time a Grossman client would be held hostage (see Chistov and Svitov). Extras: Though AC was knocked out of the so-called Super Series on a check by Brandon Sutter, he looked pretty impressive fighting through a check to score his first goal of the 2007-08 Russian league season.) Other stuff: Cherepanov’s interview at the draft Part 1 … and the second half.

Kris Russell The little defenceman who won the WHL’s MVP and carried the Medicine Hat Tigers to the Mem Cup final made the Columbus Blue Jackets coming out of training camp. In Future Greats and Heartbreaks I describe Hitchcock meeting with the Blue Jackets scouts after the Plymouth-Medicine Hat game at the Memorial Cup and the coach was enthusing about Tom Sestito but had little to say about Russell—well, I must have arrived late because he was hugely impressed with Russell from the start of the Blue Jackets’ training camp.

"(Russell) is just a good player. I don't care (about his) height and weight, they just don't come around very often like that … The thing that everybody is worried about is how does he handle the traffic and the size. But because he has such excellent positioning, he handles it without a problem … His stick positioning is something that takes you years to teach. Age is irrelevant when you play with that kind of composure. Age goes right out the window." (From the Columbus Dispatch)

The Columbus Dispatch had carved the Blue Jackets for their drafts but columnist Michael Arace wrote a love letter to Russell early on—the headline was something to the effect of the Blue Jackets “uncovering” Russell.

From that column:

Kris Russell, the Blue Jackets' prized 20-year-old defenseman, has what they call "hockey sense." What is this rare quality? It's difficult to give a complete answer, but for those who possess the quality, the game seems logical.

"It's amazing watching him," Rick Nash said as he watched Russell from the press box in Nationwide Arena on Sunday night, when the Jackets played an exhibition against the Buffalo Sabres.

"He looks like he has played in the league 10 years," Nash said. "He's so good position-wise. He's so good with his stick. He's so calm, so easy."

Hockey sense is partly nature.

"Some players, you tell them something once and it's done -- and that's Kris Russell," coach Ken Hitchcock said. "He's just a sponge, an absolute sponge."


The Blue Jackets drafted Russell in the third round, 67th overall, in 2005, before the NHL got serious about cracking down on obstruction. Then, coming out of the lockout, the rules changed, and Russell went from hot prospect to potential star. More room for smaller defensemen -- especially those with copious skills. And Russell, at 5 feet 10 and 167 pounds, was being compared to Scott Niedermayer. Seriously.

"Size is not relevant if you have proper technique," Hitchcock said. "Kris is textbook.”

Russell said, "Do I wish I were bigger? If I was, I might lose speed. You've got to use what you've got. It's a lot like bullfighting. You've got to take momentum away, and that's when you can jump them. No matter how big you are, if you're in the right position, a guy still has to go through you."

Russell is in his third Blue Jackets camp, trying to make the big club right out of juniors. He's dealing with bigger, faster players coming at him at a speed he has rarely encountered. Most defensemen need years of seasoning before their decision-making processes, and their confidence, are up to NHL standards. Russell is an exception. He has a cool head. And he has been the Jackets' best defenseman, bar none, to this point in training camp. They can't cut him. He won't be in Syracuse. Watch.

I’m sure he would have taken that coming out of last season. After all, as mentioned in Future Greats, he said he wouldn’t hesitate to go back to Medicine Hat if the situation warranted it. Early on, it was clear that wasn’t going to be the case. Russell played over 25 minutes in an exhibition against Chicago without a giveaway (according to the scoresheet, anyway). He picked up a point on the powerplay in his first NHL game, a 4-0 home win over Anaheim, the defending Stanley Cup champions. The latest.

Tom Sestito Didn’t make the Blue Jackets’ roster at the start of the 2007-08 season, sent down to Syracuse, which is close to home as Lindsay Kramer wrote in the Post Standard/Herald Journal. He’s the first local kid to play for the team.
The shadow of a razzle-dazzler remains hidden away inside the 6-foot-4, 225-pound body of Crunch rookie power forward Tom Sestito.
Half his life ago, Sestito, 20, played youth hockey in Rome. He was small for his size then, a skill player who scored 100 goals one season. The puck that he buried to hit the century mark is still his prized piece of memorabilia, stored at his mother's home in Kirkville.
"We didn't play good teams. You'd have five-, six-goal nights," Sestito said earlier this week. "That was my favorite (souvenir). I'd always brag to my brother (Tim) about that."
Sestito has come a long ways physically and geographically since his days as an undersized finisher, but in a sense he hasn't gone that far at all. Raised in Rome and brought up through the Syracuse Stars hockey system, he's the first Central New York native to ever play for the Crunch.
He used to practice in the War Memorial, and sit up in the stands and root for former Crunch enforcer Jody Shelley to throw his weight around. After his first Crunch practice, he noted how odd it was to get a different perspective, one from the ice looking up into the stands.
"It's all been coming so fast. I haven't taken it all in yet," he said. "I'd never been in the locker room. I went everywhere (exploring). They have a nice ping-pong table. I'll show the boys my game."
Sestito, Columbus' third-round pick in the 2006 draft, has started showing the Blue Jackets a more important game, the one he plays around the crease. He scored 42 goals for Plymouth of the OHL last season, 31 more than he potted his previous two years there combined.
It looked like a breakout year for Sestito, and it was. But before he could grow into his game, he had to come to grips with growing into his body. His effort last season belies a long, painful process.
Playing for the Stars as a young teen, Sestito was so small that he called his line a "smurf line." At about age 15, he started to sprout up. Down the line that would have its advantages, but at first he was a gawky, awkward skater. It took Sestito a couple of years to feel comfortable in his skates.
"It takes away from your speed," Sestito said. "But you can always get that back."
Meanwhile, Sestito found that his new bulk changed the dynamics of his relationship with Tim, now a forward for Springfield of the AHL, who is three years his elder.
"We were always fighting. I don't know why," Tom said. "He was always punching me, and stuff. He was always bigger than me growing up. But ever since I got bigger than him, he stopped punching me."
Jamie Huff, who coached Tom with the Syracuse Stars, warned him that opponents wouldn't be as considerate. He told Sestito that his size would put a bulls-eye on his chest, that brawlers would want to test the new kid. Huff was worried until Sestito, then 15, held his own against a 20-year-old who jumped him.
"I learned how to handle myself. It just kind of fell in my lap," Sestito said.
"That was him setting the stage for the rest of his career, so far," Huff said. "Ever since that day, he's grown into his body. In my opinion, he always wanted to differentiate himself from his brother. His brother was a skill player. Tom decided he was going to be a gritty guy."
The physical challenges turned from a trickle to a flow. Sestito compiled 176 PIM for Plymouth two seasons ago, and 135 last year. This preseason, he twice fought Sabres veteran heavyweight Andrew Peters.
"I dropped my gloves, got in a few, then held on for the ride," Sestito said. "After, it was a pretty scary thought. At the time I didn't know what I was doing. It probably kept me in Columbus a couple more days."
All the grappling is just window dressing now. Sestito melded the physical with a finishing touch on his offensive game last season, getting especially comfortable on the power play.
"They (goals) just kept on coming. It started to be where I didn't have to worry about it," Sestito said. "For a big guy, I have some good hands."
He also has a built-in fan club in Syracuse, with a handful of friends and family around the area. Athletic homecomings often come with extra baggage, such as obligations and expectations, but Sestito greets them with a shrug of his wide shoulders.
"It's great to see my family and friends. But I have to succeed," he said. "Everyone asks, "When are you going to the Show?' I'm young, I'm in no rush. All my friends, a lot of them don't play hockey, but they love going (to games). They play in the backyard. They don't know how physically and mentally hard it is."
One person who fully grasps that is Tim, 23, a 6-foot, 195-pound forward who produced 26 points in 66 games for Stockton of the ECHL last season. For all of the delicious possibilities of Tom's rookie year, at least one remains beyond his grasp. The Crunch and Springfield won't meet this regular season, limiting the Sestito family reunion to the stands.
"We used to battle pretty hard. Everything we did was a competition," Tim said. "I think my mom would have a heart attack at that (Syracuse-Springfield) game. I wouldn't want to put her through that."
Tom, after all, has gotten pretty good at this mucking stuff, putting in peril Tim or any other opponent careless enough to get in his way. That special puck tucked away in Kirkville represents another era, another role. It's one he wouldn't swap back for, even if he could.
"No, I like my job. It's fun," he said. "Those guys (finishers) have a lot of pressure. They have to put the puck in the net."
I’ll admit, I was a little surprised that Boll was kept up with the big club while Sestito was sent down to the AHL. I shouldn’t have been. Sestito is still an emerging player and he can use the ice time. I figure Boll is pretty close to the player he’s going to be and that fourth-line ice time won’t hinder his development like it would Sestito. I’ll bet, though, that Hitchcock will find a way to get Sestito up to the big club for a taste at some point of the season. That said, through the first month of the season, Tom Sestito was sitting on four points, all assists, the same statistical line as his older brother Tim, who’s playing for Sprinfield in the A. Extras: TS driving Pat Kane into the boards in the O … could make for some bad blood down the line, like Aliu going after Sestito in a couple of years.

Jakub Voracek The Jackets’ first rounder was the worse for wear when he returned to the Mooseheads after his first pro training camp – a banged-up shoulder and a broken nose. The usual drill calls for players to struggle in the first days back in junior after they’ve been to a pro camp … not always true but more often than not. Voracek has been the exception. He has been playing with Logan MacMillan, the Ducks’ first-rounder last June, and through his first eight games Voracek managed to rack up 26 points—good for fourth place in the Q, five pts out of the league lead, all the more impressive because the league leaders had played about 20 games. Voracek can’t even see Angelo Esposito in his rear-view mirror at this point. Voracek is saying all the right things—his motivation being not a point total but rather the Memorial Cup. Seems like a reasonable aspiration, though Halifax fell out of the CHL’s rankings of the top ten teams in early November. Could he be a comparable to Radulov a couple of years back? It seems
reasonable. Given the breakthrough that the Jackets are enjoying in the first month of the NHL season (whether they keep it up or not), he could provide a nice injection of skill to a team that has bought into Ken Hitchcock’s system.

An Out-take (about scouts) from When the Lights Went Out

This didn't make the cut for my book about the brawl between Canada and the USSR at the 1987 World Junior tournament. It's a story that has become part of scouting lore. This is just the rough draft, so forgive the over-stylized stuff.

Imagine what the scouts get up to on a day with no hockey far from home. “There is one thing,” says Inge Hammarstrom, a scout for the Philadelphia Flyers. “Something with Marshall. But I’m not sure that you can know about it.”

Ask other scouts about Marshall Johnston. Marshall Johnston had put in years for Father David Bauer and Canada’s national team back in the 60s. He had dressed in more European arenas than some of the younger scouts visit in their entire career. It had been a long way from Saskatchewan of his youth to Europe in his prime, but over the course of years Johnston developed a sense of comfort there. He went to Piestany as the chief amateur scout for the New Jersey Devils. Going to Piestany to work the 1987 world juniors was no hardship for him. It was familiar territory for him. He knew the drill. Decent accommodations in the spa, excellent when compared to other towns behind the Iron Curtain. Company of friends in he scouting ranks to spend time with over the holidays. “It didn’t really jump out,” Johnston says. “I thought it was gonna be good hockey and a good time.”

Understand what Johnston means when he says “a good time.” The scouting fraternity looked at Marshall Johnston as one of its wise men. He was regarded as one of the best at background checks, plumbing the history and character of players whose skill moves them up the prospect rankings. Scouting’s detective work. He was not only liked but well-liked, as Willy Loman intended. This might have struck you as odd, because Johnston was be gruff at times and seemingly uneasy in the presence of strangers. An expert on people but seemingly not so comfortable around them Yet among his friends he was as predictable as train departures: loyal, truthful if not particularly exciting or excitable. That was part of his appeal to his fellow scouts—those who were a little too exciting or excitable frequently needed a sober ride home or someone to calmly bail them out of a beef with a soldier who didn’t speak English.

Follow Johnston down to the dining room on New Year’s Eve. “A bunch of us went to dinner at our hotel,” Johnston says. “It was a special holiday buffet. They laid out this huge spread for us. Not much salad or vegetables mind you. Lots of meat and potatoes. And there was this pig, laid out on the table, with its head intact. It had an apple in its mouth. I know a lot of guys had trouble looking at it, I guess. But I was hungry. It wasn’t anything to make me lose my appetite. So I just dug in.

“A couple of guys gave it to me about how much I ate—how many trips I made back for more pork, but like I say it was a buffet and I was gonna get my money’s worth. I had a couple of drinks but nothing more than that. It was New Year’s but I have my routine. So sometime after midnight I turn in and leave some of the other guys at the party who are getting pretty lit. I go to my room, lock the door, get into bed and fall asleep. I’m a deep sleeper.

“In the morning I woke up. I looked at the pillow beside me. There was the pig’s head with the apple still in it.”

Look at Johnston’s expression. No change. Still in its default deadpan mode. Not shock. Not a smile cracking the plaster. His friends who were in the prank hoped that the pig’s head would be not just an homage to The Godfather but enough to, well, flap the otherwise unflappable Johnston. It failed. They might as well have left a wrapped chocolate on the pillow. “To tell the truth, I didn’t have much of a reaction at all. I didn’t scream or anything, if that’s what you mean. I got up and took the head off the pillow and put it in the trash. Then I had to figure out how they did it. After all my room was locked and bolted. And my room was up on the fifth floor. It wasn’t like they could climb in a window.

“My room did have a balcony though. And there was a bit more than five feet, maybe six or seven feet between balconies. It wasn’t much of a jump, I guess, but if you missed you’d fall to your death. You’d be as dead as the pig you were holding. Right away I figured out who did the jump—it had to be this part-time scout, a Czech guy, that Barry Fraser hired to work for the Oilers. He might have been the only one young enough and sober enough to do it. So that means Barry Fraser had to know about it—the part-timer would do something like that to keep his job but he’d never do it if he thought it would piss off his boss. I wanted to find out who the other guys were, so there was only one way.

Appreciate that a scout keeps scouting, just a matter of character. The scouts had lifted that scene from The Godfather, the head of the racehorse Khartoum in bed next to Moe Green. The next morning Johnston borrowed a strategy straight from an episode of Columbo. “I went down to breakfast and I didn’t say a thing. I didn’t react in any way. I wasn’t really rattled or mad anyway, but I decided that this was the best way to get back at them. Y’know, if I don’t say anything the guys who did it might have thought that they got the wrong room by mistake. But really the longer I went pretending nothing had happened, just acting dumb, the more I knew exactly who was in on it. They might be able to pretend that they weren’t guilty but they couldn’t hide the fact that they were waiting for me to react.”

Pump the scouts.
Many were there but none will ever claim to be the mastermind behind the prank. Or the one that followed a couple of years later, when another pig’s head surfaced when Marshall Johnston woke up from a deep sleep in another hotel room at another world junior tournament. This time he walked into his bathroom and lifted the toilet seat only to find a pig’s head staring up at him. “I thought about finding another apple and taking it down to breakfast and taking a big bite out of it. Couldn’t find one.”