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.


Bruce said...

Gare -

I just finished reading Future Greats and Heartbreaks, which I found to be a very interesting and informative look into the world of hockey scouting. I live in Columbus and have loyally followed the Blue Jackets since they arrived, including attending preseason practices and the 2007 draft in Nationwide Arena, so your behind the scenes insight into their scouting processes was really interesting. Your representation of Doug McLean is spot on, however I dont know that he gets enough credit for building this team up from the beginning. If he had a failure, it was that he set very high expectations and then always had an excuse when things didnt work out. I can only say that Scott Howson has established a more realistic set of expectations, with a long term focus. I am encouraged by what I see.

Overall, I think our scouting team has done a pretty good job; Rusty Klesla, Rick Nash, Pascal LeClaire and Nikolai Zherdev are all finally performing as top-10 picks should. Kris Russell and Jared Boll are both having solid inaugural seasons with the Jackets as well. There have been some first round disappointments (Alexandre Picard, Gilbert Brule), but what team hasnt had those, and it is still early. If there is a flaw in our drafts it has been that we havent gotten much out of the subsequent rounds.

I am very excited by the talent from the 2006 and 2007 drafts that are coming up through the ranks: Derrick Brassard, Steve Mason, Tom Sestito, Jakub Voracek, Stephan Legein.

It should be pointed out that Nikolai Zherdev, often referred to as an "enigma" by you and others prior to this year, has totally changed his game under Ken Hitchcock. The knock was that he didnt play defense, and didnt "show up" many nights. Not so this year. In most games this year, he is the hardest working player on the ice, and is drawing extensive playing time on the first line, power plays and penalty kills. He has already scored more goals than last year's full season (13 vs. 10), and his +/- is at 0 vs. -19. His puck handling and passing skills are unbelievable.

A couple of corrections for you:

1. The former coach of the Blue Jackets is Gerard Gallant, not Gerald Gallant.

2. The Columbus Dispatch owns 10 percent of the Blue Jackets. You stated that John McConnell owns 10 percent of The Dispatch. I think this is important to note since the Dispatch writers were criticizing a "sister" company within the Dispatch family of companies.

Anyway, excellent book. I look forward to additional updates from you on the players and team personnel mentioned in your book.

Matthew said...

I am reading your book of future greats and heartbreaks and I am enjoy it. Great look at the insight. I also have a blog. Check it out some time. Kept writing, I first read your stuff about Sidney Crosby. Great work.

Matthew said...

I did a review of your book on my blog. Check it out.

Someone said...


I just finished your book last night - first sports book I've ever written (I am a casual hockey fan, growing up in Kamloops watching the Blazers, and now follow the Canucks in Vancouver).

Most of what your wrote about was news to me, and was fascinating.

Thanks again for a great book.


CWK said...


I just finished Future Greats and Heartbreaks. Heard about it through James Mirtle's blog, and ended up buying it through an E-Bay auction as Amazon and other US retailers were not selling it. I'm glad I did. This book was fantastic. I'm looking forward to your next book.

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