100 games a season: Gare Joyce's puck blog

Just like being in the scouts' & press' lounge, without the bad coffee and day-old Timbits

Location: Toronto

I've written for ESPN The Magazine and espn.com the last five years. My work has made the "notable" list of the Best American Sports Writing seven times and won four Canadian National Magazine Awards. My most recent book is Future Greats and Heartbreaks: A Year Undercover in the Secret World of NHL Scouts. I've written three other sports books: When the Lights Went Out: How One Brawl Ended Hockey's Cold War and Changed the Game; Sidney Crosby: Taking the Game by Storm; and The Only Ticket Off the Island: Baseball in the Dominican Republic.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Pink-slipped scouts and their Whack-job owners

A few things fly under the NHL media radar. Things that are significant in the operation of the franchises but aren't as sexy as a trade rumour. Things that don't even show up under "Transactions" in the agate copy. So here's a bit of news that was either un- or under-reported this last few weeks.

Hours (or maybe an hour) before the world under-20 final between Canada and Russia most members of the LA Kings scouting staff (including those on-site in Sweden) were pink-slipped, effective immediately. Personnel changes in scouting departments aren't up there with solar eclipses--they happen pretty routinely and last off-season there was more movement than usual. But in-season--and particularly in-the-middle-of-the-season--personnel changes are out of the box. Granted, Dean Lombardi took over the GM's job prior to the season and every new GM likes to bring in his own crew for scouting. But changes are made usually in the first week in July. (Scouts sign contracts that go draft to draft, July 1 to June 30 the year following and few have terms longer than 52 weeks.) This move one came out of the blue. I was having breakfast with one of their scouts a couple of days before and there were no intimations that he was dancing on the edge of Lombardi's razor. It's not like the Anze Kopitar isn't working out. Far from it.

I keep wondering if the league is going to see an overhaul in the scouting operations of teams. One of the bigger and thoroughly under-reported stories of the season went down last summer. Even harder to figure than the Kings' purge. To the amazement of every scout in the biz the Buffalo Sabres gutted their scouting department last July. Out went Jim Benning, their head amateur guy. Out went Don Luce, who had drawn a paycheque from the Sabres for 30 plus years, just about the most loyal employee they had. Others were let go as well. Remarkable stuff because the Sabres' draft record has been arguably the best in the NHL and their amateur scouting has been a crucial--if not the crucial factor--in the team's climb to the league's top echelon. Remarkable because this team made it to within a game of the Stanley Cup final and provided the most entertaining brand of the game extant. No need to worry about the principals Benning landed in Boston and could have found work almost anywhere, such is his respect around the loop. Luce for his part landed with Philly. But what does it say about the management principals if these pros were axed--and, moreover, essentially not replaced.

Thje story gained almost no notice, not even in Buffalo. (It went down just as Briere's arb ruling was being handed down.)

Backstory: Tom Golisano, the supposed white knight who bailed the Sabres out of bankruptcy and pulled the franchise out of the shadow of an owner last seen doing the perp walk, ordered massive cuts in the scouting budget. Tough for Darcy Regier to pull off seeing as the Sabres' scouting department had been chipped away at for several years and, compared to other organizations, was already being run on a shoestring. Golisano decided that he'd like to save the cost of the Sabres' scouting department, 1-mil to 1.5-mil (the going price for a pretty mediocre journeyman these days, a decent fraction of a playoff gate). This from a guy who blew eight figures of his own wad financing two NY gubernatorial bids that didn't net a vote--he was working with a lousy candidate though, that being his own self.

The word from on high: Do everything you were doing before (finding good players, making shrewd picks) but now with no money. So the Sabres--who had already cut travel to the nubbins--are going to ride on a skeleton staff, scouting from video, NHL Central Scouting dope and the power of prayer. Can't imagine that Darcy Regier likes the idea (but there was probably no hope of taking a stand against Golisano). Telling line from one scout who talked to the other day: "We better hope that Buffalo [screws] up and fast or we're all gonna be out of jobs."

Late, incoming footnote: A few hours after I posted this, the Sabres announced a hike in ticket prices for next season, citing increased operating costs.


I recently wrote a piece for espn.com about a famous old baseball scout who was pink-slipped late in life. I've had some nice feedback about it and it was probably the most soul-testing piece I ever had to report and write.