The road warriors of sports: NHL scouts have always been appreciated, but never publicly. Until now

‘I love trying to see it before everybody sees it. And to me it’s actually never been a job. It’s a lifestyle, a love of the game, a love of the challenge’

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With another entry draft in the books and their gruelling season at its unofficial end, travel-weary National Hockey League scouts would hang around the host city an extra day, happily switching their focus to finding golf balls, rather than diamonds, in the rough.

If their fraternity was once akin to a family, and that’s what some old timers say, then the post-draft Sunday tournament was its annual reunion and weird uncle Harold would of course be tipping them back with his kin.

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“It was a piss-up; it was funny,” recalled Kevin Prendergast, who was a scout for 35 years, including 20 with the Edmonton Oilers. “Nobody was a scout that day. Nobody was on any team. Nobody was trying to win the Stanley Cup that day; nobody had to lose it. Everybody was on the same page.

“It was all about laughing and having a good time. It was a bloody riot. Everybody was unwinding. It’s been eight and a half months of being on the road for 20 to 25 days a month and now you’re all in the same room and you’re all playing golf together, having a beer and a great time.”

Organized by the late Edmonton Oiler chief scout Barry Fraser and then Toronto’s Mike Penny, and generously sponsored by Anheuser-Busch, the Texas-scramble tournament was held in Ontario for the first few editions, then moved around to the draft’s host city each June. It offered beer-fuelled, stress-free camaraderie to an ultra-competitive group, and time to pay tribute to the titans of their business.

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The Edmonton Oilers gather after winning the 1988 Stanley Cup championship at the Northlands Coliseum in Edmonton on May 26, 1988. Director of Player Personnel/Chief Scout Barry Fraser is pictured among the players and coaching staff.

“We were probably the largest travelling golf show outside of the PGA for a couple of years,” laughed Penny, who said each tournament attracted more than 100 scouts. “The object of it was to get everyone together, and because there was really little or no recognition for anybody in the scouting business, we’d pick a guy that had been around for awhile, get him a nice silver tray to say we appreciate your dedication to the game of hockey, and so on.”

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Recipients of that honour included Jack McCartan and the late Lorne Davis and Clare Rothermel.

“Not very often do you get all of the scouts in one location,” said Penny. “This was our fraternity, so let’s give them some recognition and let’s have a fun day. We pulled it off for a lot of years.”

The event ran for most of two decades before coming to a halt in the mid-2000s. It essentially fell victim to the times; another old-school tradition lost to the industry’s modern marching orders. Most NHL organizations were in too big a hurry or too consumed with the bottom line to foot the bill for members of a scouting staff to stay an unnecessary extra day on the road. Plus, the event format changed, and what used to be a marathon of nine, 11 or 12 rounds that ran well into Saturday night is now a two-day, seven-round affair that starts with the first 32 picks on Friday evening and wraps up Saturday afternoon, allowing team personnel to catch a flight out that night.

“It’s just the times, and the way the draft is orchestrated now,” said Penny. “A lot of teams don’t bring their pro scouts to the draft anymore. The logistics of it don’t make a lot of sense.”

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Lorne Davis
Lorne Davis SunMedia

They will make even less sense in 2025, when the NHL moves to a centralized draft and most team personnel stay in their respective cities, so there is no chance of a tournament revival.

Old school scouts, however, are nonetheless determined to gather the fraternity on an annual basis and continue shining a spotlight on pioneers of their profession.

The Western Canada Professional Hockey Scouts Foundation was formed for that reason and will fete its inaugural Wall of Honour inductees on July 29 in Okotoks, Alta. Forty-five men will be honoured for their dedication and accomplishments, 19 posthumously, including Davis and Rothermel.

“I’m turning 80 here in another week, so getting excited is not easy,” inductee Wayne Meier said with a chuckle in early February. “This thing, it just seemed special. It seemed like wow, they’re going to try to make it a little bit of a Hall of Fame. I think scouts have always been appreciated, but never really publicly. I’ve had some exceptional bosses throughout the years, and I never, ever felt under-appreciated. But you never got any notoriety or anything, and you know, especially in the early days, you did a lot of real hard travel and a lot of work.”

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In July, an as-yet-unnamed scout will receive the Foundation’s inaugural Ace Award, named for former scout Garnet (Ace) Bailey, who died aboard United Airlines Flight 175 during the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. Last September, another five long-time scouts were honoured by the Foundation with its recognition and dedication to service award: Ron Delorme, Glen Dirk, Garth Malarchuk, Don Paarup and Penny.

“I think it’s way overdue,” said inductee Bruce Haralson, a long-time scout for Pittsburgh, Hartford and Detroit. “This is something the National Hockey League should have done years ago. So many great scouts have passed on and they got very little recognition, if any. I think it was just kind of nice to see somebody take the initiative to do it.”

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Retired scout Bruce Haralson and wife Lise pose with some NHL hardware in 1997, after Detroit won the Stanley Cup. Courtesy Bruce Haralson cal

The Hockey Hall of Longevity would indeed be chock-a-block with scouts who stayed in the game and between the ditches for two, three or four decades. But the Hockey Hall of Fame? Not so much. There are former scouts like Ken Holland and Jim Devellano among the honoured members, but their paths to the Hall were paved by their exploits as GMs, not bird dogs.

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Today, the typical NHL scouting staff is comprised of 20 to 22 people, mostly men, with a variety of job titles, including director of pro scouting, director of amateur scouting, director of European scouting, chief scout, goaltender scout, professional scout, amateur scout, European scout, college scout and video scout. Pro scouts evaluate players already under contract, while amateur scouts are responsible for assessing draft-eligible juniors, college players and Europeans.

In 2019, the Seattle Kraken hired Cammi Granato, the first woman to join an NHL scouting staff. In the fall of 2022, the NHL trumpeted the fact that more than 100 women were working in hockey operations, scouting and development, player health and safety, and analyst jobs for its member teams. That included 10 scouts.

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Cammi Granato Photo by Bettina Hansen / Seattle Times /PNG

The NHL head office also deploys about 30 scouts to scour the globe for its Central Scouting department, a service it has provided to teams since 1975. Wall of Honour inductee Ted Hampson, who retired a few years ago at age 85 after a 40-year scouting career, remembers his time there fondly.

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“Well, central scouting tried to touch all bases, no matter how trivial it might seem. Fellows like Jim Gregory, who ran Central Scouting for (more than a dozen years), kind of inspired a feeling of forwarding the game and helping young people. He was such a great leader that you wanted to do a job for hockey, and you wanted to do a job for him, because he recognized when something significant was noted in that game, so he would keep that alive and keep coming back to it.”

Prendergast sandwiched seven years of service with Central Scouting between two decades in Edmonton and five years with the Canadian national team program. He finished up a 35-year career in Buffalo, and has a well-rounded sense of what it takes to do the job.

“In today’s game, you’ve got to understand the makeup of the kids, because they’re so entitled,” said Prendergast, another Wall of Honour inductee. “And you need somebody who has a real good understanding of the game. But I don’t think there is any one thing you’re looking for in a scout. Does he fit in with the group of guys that we have? Do you trust what he’s telling you? When he’s writing his reports, do you trust what he’s saying? Trust is probably the biggest thing you’re looking for.

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“Every organization probably has their own thing, but you want a diversity in your scouting staff,” he continued. “You want guys who are offensive-minded, guys who are defensive-minded, guys who look at character. That’s why you have the group together; you combine everything.

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Don Hay sits next to head scout Kevin Prendergast at the WinSport Canada Athletic and Ice Complex in Calgary on Dec. 14, 2011. Photo by Lyle Aspinall /Lyle Aspinall/Calgary Sun/QMI Ag

“I’ll give you an example. (In Edmonton), we had Kent Nilsson and Frankie Musil. Kent Nilsson was always looking for the offensively-gifted guy, the guy with great hands, who could score. Frankie Musil was always high on the gritty guy who did all the little things right and was solid in his own end. And guys like Lornie Davis and Eddie Chadwick, who had been around for a hundred years, they had that old school theory; they were just looking at the best players, the guys who were the best on the ice all the time. So, you know all your scouts’ strong points and weak points when you get into your (pre-draft) meetings, which were fabulous to get into, because the arguments start breaking out and it’s up to the head guy to make the decision.”

That person could be chief scout, director of amateur scouting or director of player personnel. Whatever the title, it carries ultimate responsibility for the team’s draft list, which is finalized during those meetings and guaranteed to leave some members of the scouting staff unhappy, if their preferred player isn’t prioritized.

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“Some guys get pissed off at you,” said Prendergast. “That’s the nature of the beast. I was lucky enough to get to work with Barry (Fraser) and see how he handled things. He was a dictator when it came to that. He’d let you get your two cents in, but at the end of the day, this is who we’re taking.”

That’s because he had to stand behind every pick, good or bad. Fraser had a long list of winners, including Kevin Lowe, Paul Coffey, Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson, Grant Fuhr and Jari Kurri. But some of his first-rounders, Michael Henrich, Scott Allison, Jason Soules and Peter Soberlak, never played an NHL game.

“Any time the kid turns into a great player, it’s the GM’s pick,” chuckled Prendergast. “When he’s a dog, it’s the head scout’s pick. That’s the classic line in hockey, and it’s so true. And half the time the GM has seen him play once over the course of the year.”

A scout, on the other hand, may have seen the kid play a handful of times during the season; enough to file informed reports on his skill set. Back in the day, those reports were hand-written works of art.

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“I went full-time with Pittsburgh in ’84,” said Haralson, “and at that time, when you did scouting reports, you did everything in triplicate. At least we did. You’d have a copy for the scout to keep, a copy for my general manager to keep, and a copy for the director of scouting. I used to walk around with a briefcase. It weighed a ton by the end of the year because I was carrying all these reports. And then all of a sudden, you’ve got iPads and computers and it just made things so much simpler.”

Those reports were the life-blood of a scouting department, and GMs wanted them on their desk the next morning. Back in the day, they arrived by fax from a hotel’s business office or front desk. Now it’s email or proprietary software.

“Different scouting directors will ask for different things,” said Wall of Honour inductee Archie Henderson, who retired in 2022 after a 30-year career with Washington, Ottawa, Detroit and Edmonton, which he finished as the Oilers’ director of pro scouting. “For amateur, it would be skating, hockey sense, physicality, puck handling, a whole range of categories. On the pro side, we were all looking for the actual notes on the player. What’s happened with that player? Is that player injured? Is that player asking for a trade? It was the detective work that we were always interested in.”

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Henderson was a gregarious presence at NHL media meals and in press boxes, always on the hunt for a nugget of information that might help his team make a decision on a trade target.

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Calgary Flames alumnus Archie Henderson dons his jersey before playing in the Nathan O’Brien Charity Hockey Game at the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary on Feb. 5, 2015. Photo by Lyle Aspinall /Lyle Aspinall/Calgary Sun/QMI Ag

“Say the game is at seven; you want to be at the rink no later than five,” he said. “You want to get prepared, but you also want to have your press meal, because you want to kibitz with any other scouts you’ve seen, and sponge for information. Ken Holland, who I rate as one of the top 10, all-time general managers in the NHL, that guy will B.S. with you and within an hour he knows everything about your first born. He gets you to do that. Same with David Poile. It’s very, very important to gather information.

“So then you go to the press box and you want to be there before warm-up. You get your lines, you watch the game, you grab a coffee in between periods, you kibitz a little bit more. You don’t give information, but you try and gather information. It might be for a game a week from then. It might be an injury that happened to the Buffalo Sabres the week before. You try to figure out and piece together who’s going to be in the lineups moving forward, who’s struggling where, and what team is looking for what.

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“Now, most scouts don’t give out the information, but what happens is the secondary scout always does. So, it’ll be a friend of a friend that maybe picked up some information in the car and says, ‘oh, did you hear this?’ So, you’re gathering information, but you’re also evaluating the players as you’re watching them in the games. Because I’ve always told my guys something my first boss Jack Button taught me; do not scout with your ears, scout with your eyes. The reason, some of that information you gathered is B.S., and you’ve got to be able to read through that.”

Similarly, an amateur scout has to evaluate thousands of players at hundreds of games to find the diamond. That’s the part Vaughn Karpan always loved most. The Wall of Honour inductee is assistant GM with the Vegas Golden Knights.

“I love trying to see it before everybody sees it. And to me it’s actually never been a job. It’s a lifestyle, a love of the game, a love of the challenge. It’s chasing the chance to win it all. And, you know, in my own case this year, I finally got it. I got my name on the (Stanley) Cup and I got to take the Cup home. I took it on the ice with all the kids that play minor hockey in The Pas. It’s kind of why you do it.”

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Vaughn Karpan of the Vegas Golden Knights took the Stanley Cup back to The Pas last summer. cal

Meier, who has three Stanley Cup rings to show for his 30-plus years as a scout with Detroit, Florida, Anaheim and Pittsburgh, retired five years ago at age 75.

“When all this started, I couldn’t believe that there was a career in scouting,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about it. Bill Hunter kind of started me on the trail.”

Meier’s storied career began in the 1970s with the Maple Leaf Athletic Club in Edmonton, then the Oil Kings and Portland Winterhawks.

“I really think I was the first Western Hockey League head scout,” he said. “Everyone else was basically bird dogs, helping out the teams, but (Brian Shaw) hired me as a full-time guy and I worked out of Portland. But I’d leave (for Canada) in October and come back in May. And I never worked a day in my life. I watched hockey games. I’m at the age that you are looking back all the time, and it was a good journey.”

But it wasn’t always an easy trip. Winter driving in western Canada can be hazardous, and scouts were always en route to another game.

“If there was a blizzard, a storm, we went,” said Meier. “We were not told to go, but we were never told to stay home, and I never even considered it. We had a game I had to go to and we went. So we drove through blizzards and fog and freezing rain and everything else. We just went to the games.”

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The late Elmer Benning famously put a million kilometres on a 1995 Toyota Camry. Karpan went through five sets of tires and 500,000 km on a Nissan Pathfinder.

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Scout Ryan Jankowski, scout Trevor Timmons, Tim Bozon, drafted 64th overall by the Montreal Canadiens, scout Elmer Benning and scout Alvin Backus are pictured in this file photo from the 2012 NHL Entry Draft in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Photo by Dave Sandford /Dave Sandford / Getty Images

“My son used to tease me, he’d say, geez, dad, everybody else has nicer cars,” said Karpan. “Why don’t we have one? I said, well, do you want your dad to drive a nice car, or do you want a good education?”

The money wasn’t great back in the day, but NHL scouts probably average $100,000 annually now and directors draw perhaps $125,000. There are also bonuses when your team wins the Stanley Cup, should you be so lucky. But there is no pension or union protection, and an awful lot of nights spent in Marriotts rather than at home.

“My first year, Jack Button sent me on a 40-day road trip,” recalled Henderson. “I was on the road so long, I bought a plant for my hotel room.”

At the end of his 30-year career, Henderson did the math. He was 65 and estimated he had been at 6,000 games and spent 19 calendar years away from home.

“I was away from my wife and my family, my kids, my parents for 19 years of my life. And how many people can sit back and say they would be willing to give up that many nights?

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“I got into it after being a coach and manager of minor league teams and quite actually enjoyed that part of it, that world within the world of hockey. And if I didn’t enjoy it, I probably would’ve got out of it years ago. But you were able to stay in the game of hockey and be around hockey people and you contributed in a more silent way, and I had no problem with that.

“The fact of the matter is, at the NHL level, there are 32 head coaching jobs, 32 general manager jobs, 32 presidents jobs, 32 assistant GM jobs. The point I’m making is there are only so many jobs, and if you’re able to stay in it in some sort of way, like scouting, then you grasp at that.”

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A 1954 file photo of Lorne Davis. cal

And you never know when opportunity will knock. Lorne Davis played 95 games in the NHL and won a Stanley Cup in 1953 with the Montreal Canadiens. By 1967, he was scouting for the St. Louis Blues and by 1980, he was with the New York Rangers, who gave him time off to co-coach the Canadian Olympic team in Lake Placid. The Games ended on Feb. 24, and the Oilers immediately approached him to scout for them in Finland. The Finns, who had beaten Canada and finished fourth in the Olympic tourney, had some impressive draft-eligible prospects.

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“So dad went over to scout for Edmonton and the New York Rangers,” said his son Brad. “He didn’t know who he was working for. And if you look at that draft, the Edmonton Oilers got Jari Kurri and the New York Rangers drafted Reijo Ruotsalainen. And dad, as far as I know, was the only one who was over in that country for both teams.”

Lorne joined the Oilers full-time later in 1980 and was still part of the staff when he died in 2007. He was the prototypical scout; knowledgeable, helpful, humorous, humble and dedicated to a life on the road. Brad followed him into the business.

“I started in ‘97 and I remember going into the old scouts room in Peterborough and walking through the door and hearing people laughing and everybody kind of gathered around one focal point. It took me about 10 seconds to recognize the voice; it was my dad telling stories.

“Mom raised us, and dad was fun to be around,” said Brad. “Dad would get home from the draft, mom would be at the sink doing dishes. Dad would walk in the door and say ‘let’s go, we’re going camping.’ The dishes would just stay in the sink and off we’d go because it was whatever dad wanted to do, it revolved around that.”

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Scott Bradley did the same thing with Boston, following his late father Bart into the business. Both Bradleys are Wall of Honour inductees.

“I grew up with him not being around a lot, but also being involved a lot,” said Scott. “He was working for the Bruins and he was president of minor hockey. And he’s always been an idol of mine. I thought he was the smartest hockey guy to ever live. If we watched a Hockey Night in Canada game, he would describe how he sees the game, and I would just listen. He would talk about players and it kind of just resonated with me. I look back, I was one of the luckiest kids growing up to have that.

“You know, I’ve had a very good run at it myself, and he was my mentor. He was everything to me. I learned so much off him and I wish he could see what we’ve done since his passing, winning the Cup and the President’s Trophies and the players we put into the Bruins’ system. He’d be proud.”

Team success is the ultimate satisfaction for a humble scout, but there are other rewards.

“I’m close friends with pretty well everybody I think I ever had a hand in drafting,” said Haralson. “I can phone them up at any given time and just chat. Mark Recchi and I keep in contact on Facebook. Because you don’t forget. I think when Mark went into the Hall of Fame, the first thing he did was thank me. So that was kind of humbling.”

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Mark Recchi is honoured for his induction into the Hall of Fame prior to the Legends Classic game at the Air Canada Centre on November 12, 2017 in Toronto, Canada. Photo by Bruce Bennett /Getty Images

Indeed, Recchi thanked Haralson and the Penguins for taking a chance on him, which they did in 1988, using a fourth-round pick to select the right winger out of Kamloops in the WHL. He was already 20, and at five-foot-eight and 180 pounds, under-sized, but Haralson was convinced the kid would play in the NHL.

Over 22 seasons, Recchi played more games (1,652) and scored more points (1,533) than any other player drafted that year, including No. 1 pick Mike Modano, Trevor Linden, Jeremy Roenick, Teemu Selanne and Alexander Mogilny.

He won the Stanley Cup three times with three different teams; Pittsburgh in 1991, Carolina in 2006 and Boston in 2011.

He was Haralson’s diamond.

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