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.