Thursday, 22 May 2014

Review: "Future Greats and Heartbreaks" by Gare Joyce

"Future Greats and Heartbreaks: A Year Undercover in the Secret World of NHL Scouts" by Gare Joyce is a terrific read for an NHL fan, especially those interested in the NHL Draft, and revisiting them years after they occur.

And that is a big reason for the pleasure I had reading this book, that it was written in 2006 and 2007, and centres on the NHL drafts of these seasons.  When I first picked it up, I thought that it might be dated, stale, but in fact it's the complete opposite.  Had I read it when it was published, it still would have been entertaining and informative, but doing so a half-dozen years afterward gives the reader the benefit of hindsight, a filter through which to digest what was reported at the time.

The author is a journalist who covered hockey for the Globe and Mail, and professes to have always been fascinated by the world of scouting, the fraternity of hockey men who don't get the spotlight but on who the fortunes of an NHL franchise are founded.  He decides that he wants to follow NHL scouts throughout a whole season, from one draft to another, and puts out feelers to various NHL teams that he'd like to have access to their boardrooms as they draw up their 'list' of draftable prospects and generally do their work.

He is mostly rebuffed by every team he approaches.  They are obviously leery of divulging trade secrets, some inside information, and breaching confidentiality with respect to certain issues, certain players.  He does luck out eventually though, and is given the green light by the Columbus Blue Jackets and their General Manager Doug McLean.

Mr. McLean is described as not shying away from the limelight, as gregarious rather than secretive, and it's observed that he sees as part of his duties as GM that he should sell the game, so he spends a lot of time doing interviews with the media.  Years later, with hockey fans familiar with his work as an analyst on Sportsnet, we can see that the author hit this one out of the park.

So very quickly we're inside the Blue Jackets' war room as they discuss their list for the 2006 draft, at the draft combine appraising cattle, in the interview room as they meet with potential draft picks.  And it's fascinating.  The players who are being considered, the names that are floated, are huge stars now, or well-known busts, or players who never really made it on the radar, and it's engrossing.

One quick hit: Erik John son is accepted as being the best player, the unquestioned #1 choice overall.  Jordan Staal is almost universally seen as the #2 prospect.  Jonathan Toews is the consensus #3.  There is a lot of discussion about the remaining prospects, but aside from a perfunctory discussion, how Jordan Staal at 18 is already physically stronger than his 20 year old brother Eric is currently, how young Mr. Toews could surprise you even though he's not a 'gamebreaker', the Top 3 are set.  They're no-brainers.  No one seriously considers anyone but Erik John son as the #1 overall pick.  They think St. Louis is leaning towards John son, but if the Jackets were picking first, they wouldn't think twice.

Another: We're told that the previous year, the Columbus team, holder of the sixth pick overall, "got a draft-day present" when Montréal decided to select Carey Price at #5, opening the way for the Blue Jackets to select Gilbert Brulé, who they "snap up", in their haste to not miss out on such a promising player.  The Canadiens' decision is even more of a headscratcher we're told, since they are described as being "set for years in nets" with the emergence of goalie José Théodore.

It's all endlessly entertaining.  The interviews give insight into how some prospects are already becoming the players we now know, how others still have a lot of development to do so.

Of special interest is all the questions regarding Phil Kessel prior to the 2006 draft, about his talent, but also his mental makeup, the way he interacts with his teammates, his conditioning.  Prior to reading, I knew the bare bones of his story, his reticence with the media, his struggle with cancer, but lots of the whispers and allusions we hear now about Mr. Kessel are more openly discussed in this book.  There are lots of questions about his dedication to his career, his professionalism, about how good a teammate he is and will be.

Reading along, I understood why the Bruins might have been inclined to sell so soon after picking him, and why the trade to the Leafs happened.  Boston historically has not hesitated to trade away talented players who didn't fit in with their team philosphy, with other examples like Joe Thornton and Tyler Séguin.  Of all the players left on the board, Phil Kessel might have been too talented to pass up when the Bruins' turn to pick came, but after a couple of seasons they must have realized that he would never be a Bruin, so, like in 'The Germans' episode of the Simpsons, you had one side desperate to buy, one side desperate to sell.  But the way the poker hand played out eventually, advantage Bruins.

There is so much more of interest, especially to Canadiens fans, how David Fischer is not even on the Jackets' list of draftable players, how highly they think of Claude Giroux, how Ben Maxwell is often mentioned, but Milan Lucic barely if at all.

There's the way Tom Sestito zooms up their list when, despite having been scouted assiduously during the season and given an 'objective' grade, one scout speaks up during a free-for-all and says how much he likes him, because he 'plays the right way', he's big, tough, he's a banger, he's old-school.  As a result, although he was originally given a fourth or fifth-round grade, he's bumped up to the second round on their list.  Whether that says a lot about the inexact science that is scouting, how subjective it is, or more about what kind of an organization Columbus was under Doug McLean, I can't say.

Mr. Joyce is at the draft itself and is witness to some of the misdirection and games that are played.  He describes how overjoyed the Blue Jackets are, after some manoeuvring, to get Tom Sestito in the third round, 85th overall, how he 'fell' to them, and what a 'steal' he is.  After all, he's a second rounder, they got him in the late third...

After the draft, Gare Joyce now goes around the world 'scouting' prospects for the 2007 draft, in the CHL, and at the Under-18's and the World Junior Championships.  He's not actually going to work as a scout for the team, but will touch base with them over the year, at big tournaments, to keep his finger on the pulse.  During the year, he develops a plan to do a 'background check' on a list of players that Columbus may be interested on, using some of his journalistic skills: calling family members, teachers, coaches, etc.  It's not clear how much the team was interested in this, or to what degree they were placating him.

The focus of the narrative is on a few players, one being Angelo Esposito.  We see how he starts the year as the putative #1 overall choice, but already there are rumblings about ill-defined issues like character, effort, leadership.  It's all very tenuous, and Mr. Joyce makes a point of describing how the draftees know what's being said about them, how much pressure they're under their draft year, to perform, and to perform at the right time, when the right scouts are in attendance.

Another player who gets a lot of coverage is Akim Aliu, who spent some time with the Bulldogs in October 2013 on a Professional Try-Out contract, before being released.  In that short time, we learned a few things about this young man, and the book fleshes out a lot of his back story.  So much of what we read in the book, where his career seems to be heading at the time, is borne out in hindsight, and it's hard not to feel badly about the outcome.  Not that his career is definitely over, but after getting a chance from the ex-Chicago brain trust of Marc Bergevin and Rick Dudley, and not being able to turn that opportunity into something, his prospects now seem dim.

Of course, Ryan McDonagh is one of the stars of the 2006-07 draft class, his name comes up numerous times, along with Max Pacioretty.  If P.K. Subban was mentioned, it was only once or twice.  I kept waiting for the long segment on him, but I guess he fell through the cracks of Gare Joyce's scouting odyssey.

Patrick Kane, James Van Riemsdyk, Kyle Turris, etc, etc, they're all there, in all their glory.  They shine, they befuddle, they're too small, they're too slow, they're all tremendous prospects, and the next page they're tremendously flawed.

One player who gets a lot of love from the author is Olivier Fortier, who was eventually drafted in the third round by the Habs.  I had stopped actively following the Canadiens for a long stretch during this time period, and when I got back into it at the start of the 2009 season, I checked out the team and the farm system.  His was a name that I'd see on the roster, with underwhelming stats in the AHL.  After a couple of poor seasons, and his contract expiring, I advocated online that we should cut the cord, that he'd probably not pan out, and was surprised at how many defenders he had.  Now that I've read "Future Greats and Heartbreaks", I understand why so many fans were in his camp, and I am sorry that he never managed to break through, due to injuries among other factors.

As the season winds down, we head into the draft process itself, with again interviews and the combine and other such events, but unfortunately by then, with the Blue Jackets finishing out another disappointing season, there's a shakeup in the management team, and Doug McLean is ousted.  Gare Joyce's permission to be 'in the room' is rescinded by the new régime, and it's unfortunate that we don't get to see how the process shakes out once again, with a whole year of scouting and backroom intrigue to chew on.

Nevertheless, that's not enough to detract significantly from the book, it's still a page turner.  The author is in attendance at the draft, but not at the Columbus table.  He's seated close enough to the Columbus crew that he can chat with them, and he gives us another good report of what transpires.  Again, the hindsight doesn't spoil the fun, it adds to it.

So I have no qualms whatsoever in recommending this book to fans of the Canadiens or hockey fans, especially those who like to follow the draft and pick over the past.  It's a great book on a subject many fans would love to learn more about, but which we are often shut out of.  A great read, your only complaint might be that it's over too quickly.

No comments:

Post a Comment