The road to the NHL, part 4 – Guides for the road

While the focus of the draft is – as it should be – on the players, they are not on an island. Behind every junior player, there is a coach putting him through his paces as he learns some of the finer points his craft. Above and beyond the role of teacher, the coach is also the one who chooses how to deploy his players, and as we saw yesterday, in the case of Josh Sterk, that can have a tremendous influence on the player’s chances of catching the eyes of an NHL scout. Guelph Storm majority owner and head coach – and until recently an on ice contributor for the Nashville Predators and other teams – Scott Walker, talked about his role in developing players for a life beyond the OHL in the midst of his team’s recent postseason run.

Moving beyond the bench, before a player comes under the tutelage of a coach and his assistants, there is a General Manager making decisions on the makeup of the roster. Longtime OHL GM Jeff Twohey, until very recently the man in charge of the Oshawa Generals took a break from this year’s OHL entry draft to discuss his approach to team building at the OHL level. His keen eye and sharp hockey mind have since departed the CHL for a role with the Phoenix Coyotes.

Finally, as we learned on Monday, even before a skilled player has the chance to perform in the OHL or other similar leagues, there is almost always a player agent representing and supporting him. Paul Lawson, of CCSI Sports, is one such agent. A former NCAA player and minor pro, Lawson has since earned his law degree and has a growing stable of players under his care. He helped to unveil the role of player representatives at the amateur level.

Longtime NHLer Scott Walker now stands behind the bench of the Guelph Storm

Image courtesy of Terry Wilson/OHL Images

Not only is recently retired NHLer Scott Walker the head coach of the Guelph Storm, he is also the majority owner of the organization. Although he wears some of the biggest hats of the franchise, his responsibilities rarely extend to player selection or acquisition.

“One thing you have to understand is that you have to know what everybody’s roll is. You have scouts and general managers for that reason for drafting especially because we don’t see the kids as much we have to make sure people feel comfortable that they are putting who they want on their roster but they also need direction on what kind of player. So it’s not necessarily that you’re drafting these kids but you want to set criteria. Hopefully this kid has good character, does he skate good, certain things. You have to let people do their jobs. Now on player acquisitions is a different thing. The ones we made this year were big acquisition so obviously being the coach but most importantly current ownership chose to be really heavily involved and I think that was huge this year because it is a good for now and good for down the road businesswise. All those things have to be taken into account when you start getting into the current trades we did this year. Generally it’s chit chat with the general manager, this is what’s available, this is the deal we can do, yay or nay. This is basically on the deal, do you think it’s a good deal, let’s do it or not… I would say the involvement whether you’re the coach or owner there’s always talk and that’s the way it should be, the coach should know his room and all his players.”

In evaluating players, for Walker it is not so much about whether the young man has some pro attributes – he can leave that to his scouts – but it is more important that the player have the drive to make it as a professional.

“We don’t want them if they don’t want to be a pro. We understand that not everyone is going to be but that’s what they play Major Junior for – to become a pro and to drive yourself and to be high achieving. We look for high achieving people. Yes, we want good students, good people that talk to kids and arena staff and treat people the same. It’s hard to say that we look for can he skate in the NHL. We want everybody to want to play in the NHL because it makes them better. If they’ve given up the dream it makes them hard to motivate and hard to keep people excited about playing. We’ve had an example: Zack Mitchell plays five years in the OHL and then six weeks before the end of his fifth year he signs a deal with Minnesota.”

While the biggest burden on NHL preparation rests on the players’ shoulders, he does admit to the role being at least somewhat shared by the junior club.

“I don’t know if we prepare them every day. Preparation is how these guys manage themselves, how we do in off days what we do in off days how do we do in practice days. Every day preparation. After games, before games all those things, we treat them as close to pro as we can but understanding that they’re kids. We expect them to be at school, we expect him to be a billets. We want them to be driving them like to do warm-up right. Could you stop right? Did you cool down right? Things that they’re going to need to make it to the next level and things that they’re going to be doing at the next level that aren’t a shock. Little things like the tempo of practice…What to expect it’s different when they come from minor programs that can’t be traded. Most of them are the best players so they’re not used to not playing if they get benched or face that they miss a game. These are the things that we’ve done to some of the best players but it doesn’t mean that we don’t like them or that they’re bad players or bad people. It’s just that they’re struggling they sit out…but they have to be ready for that at the NHL and AHL level. Those things happen, disappointments happen. It’s how they handle the disappointments.”

Former Oshawa Generals GM, Jeff Twohey

Image courtesy of Terry Wilson/OHL Images

No look at the development of future NHL prospects can be complete without a peek at the men who are entrusted with guiding those formative years. Recent Oshawa Generals General Manager and current assistant director of amateur scouting of the Phoenix Coyotes Jeff Twohey has made a long career out of such a role.

He was interviewed during a break in the most recent OHL Priority Draft, which made it natural to talk about the types of players he looks for to fill an OHL roster.

“We value guys that have pro potential. That’s always been my history. I was in Peterborough for a long time and we were always looking for guys that we think will translate to pros, for sure.”

Beyond simply recognizing talent, as any scout should, Twohey also recognized the role an amateur team must play in preparing its players for success at higher levels.

“It’s ongoing development. We’ve got a skating coach here, a skills coach. Our coaching staff as a group are very good. I mean their knowledge of the game and how that translates to the next level – so big. There is skill development and there’s also a lot of hockey sense and systems information that’s passed on to those kids. Plus, and not to mention conditioning. The ability to learn. We work with ETS, Mark Fitzgerald*, his group and the knowledge that they gain just regarding fitness, nutrition that’s all offered here and that’s certainly a good part of maximizing your potential.”

Finally, he was well aware that not all of his charges would be found worthy of the professional hockey ranks. As such, he held his organization accountable to his players even if those doors would not be open to his players.

“There’s demands on academics. I mean, they have to be in school, they have to graduate from high school. The bulk of our kids are taking post-secondary courses if they’ve graduated… and we encourage the kids too. I tell them, “when you’re done high school, you’re foolish not to take courses.” It’ll make you a better player because it exercises your brain and the way we play, we play a strong system. You have to be able to think. So that helps you either for being a pro or for moving on if you can maintain or go after your academics.”

CCSI Player Agent, Paul Lawson

Courtesy of Paul Lawson

Paul Lawson cuts a striking figure in the stands, standing a solid 6-5” and looking like he would not back down from a puck in the corners against even the biggest and baddest the CHL has to offer. Himself a former high level hockey player, Lawson played for the Yale University Bulldogs for four seasons before embarking on a three year minor pro career with stops in the now defunct IHL and UHL.

More than just a big body, Paul put his education to good use, going on to earn a law degree in Ontario and he is now a player agent with CCSI Sports, based out of Hamilton. He was very forthright and open in a recent discussion about the player development machine.

On finding young players – Typically the bulk of scouting that gets done is at the Bantam or minor midget level. I’d say maybe 20% major Bantam and 80% minor midget. 90% is exposed to those two categories and 10% to other categories of hockey. Whether they be Junior or university as far as our agency goes. 90% of our time is spent on minor midget or Bantam hockey…The OHL draft occurs at the end of the minor midget season. So when we basically have a scouting theory that would be most of the kids have reached a level of physical maturity between minor Bantam and minor midget (RW – 14-15 years of age) to the point where they have reached close to their full height or they begin to fill out basically more as an adult where they get to the point where you can sort of tell what kind of player they might become when they completely fill in…Absolutely we do (find them at) the tournaments…the tournaments seem to be heavily geared to scouting the way they are set up. They do a very good job at most of them allowing you to watch 20 to 30 games a day or at least parts of 20 to 30 games a day which allows you to track a pretty good number of players… I suppose there’s lots of ways to do research and try to find out where players might exist and what players are supposed to be good heading into that year but you go back to the early comment about why that year is such a big year. Certainly it’s an imperfect process in that there is a lots of players whose real ability or physical development is a little late catching up to the kids who’ve grown up early. I’m sure you could go back years of OHL drafts and recognize that they are only 40 or 50% accurate at determining where the next crop of NHL players are really going to come from. It’s pretty clear when you look at NHL lineups obviously that they got guys from all over. They got undrafted players, European players, college players, and some of those guys maybe didn’t find their best game until they were 21 and 22 and some of them still end up as pretty good NHL players. Truth be told, it’s an inexact process.

On competition between scouts – Overall it’s a very competitive industry but everybody’s very professional. Most of the people you’re dealing with are hockey people. I’m sure there are private battles that are waged over the top prospects out there but generally speaking I think it’s all fairly secretive in what efforts one agency or a team might be making. The teams don’t get quite as competitive because they have drafts go through. The agents can recruit anyone, anytime or certainly attempt to and there’s a lot of agents out there who are a little bit on the less scrupulous side or trying to persuade players to leave agencies although I don’t really think that happens as often as people think it does. (Once a player signs with an agency, other agencies generally stay away.) That is generally the rule. Although once players do start to make it or he might become a huge superstar you might get some outside solicitations. Once all the hard work is done and the player is looking like a sure bet there are people who are not afraid of taking a stab to lure that player away and hope to make some easy money off him. In fact there are some agencies out there that may be well known to doing that. I heard stories of one particularly well known agency that has a strong presence in Toronto. I’ve heard stories of one of his agents boasting how he doesn’t have to scope players anymore, he just poaches them from other agencies after they’re looking like a pretty safe bet to make it, at least to get a good contract…I guess if you’re playing sports your whole life sometimes you just go back down to basics like when you’re sitting in the ballpark with a bunch of people and you could tell one of the guys is just a better ballplayer than everybody else…I certainly can’t speak for other agencies but I can speak for ours as an absolute rule we certainly never contact the players themselves. I suppose that’s how that bridges that gap mentally. The contact is usually with the coach first but if you do contact the coach to reach out for a referral you’re looking to get his to the parents not the players themselves… I don’t think there’s a lot of agents out there that are all that interested with having a conversation with a 14 or 15-year-old without first having involved the parents. Two reasons: one- It’s a little bit awkward and inappropriate and the 14 or 15-year-old is not going to understand what you’re talking about. Secondly, there’s really not much you can accomplish talking to the kid himself. Parental consent is always required and at that stage most of the parents are really involved. There’s really no sense in trying to go around them. To be honest we never really would’ve thought of it that way. You really are dealing with the parents and of course you want to make sure you have a relationship with the player as well but at age 14 or 15 most of the big conversations involve the mother or father of the player and sometimes even brothers and sisters.

On handling players who are unhappy with their hockey situations – One thing I’ve picked up in my five years of doing this is that it leads into my other jobs – which is the same job that a lot of other agents have or had at one time – being a lawyer, you find yourself advocating for your players. That’s an unsung part of what a good agent does for his players. Sometimes it is just lobbying teams, reminding teams of when your players played well or why they deserve more time on the power-play or to give them a shot killing penalties because you think he’s pretty good at it or was where he played previously. Maybe they’re not giving him enough ice time or seeing his potential. There are times where, at least essentially, you or the player reach the conclusion that the player might be better off playing somewhere else. It’s certainly not something that’s ever taken lightly and requires quite a bit of due diligence and a long thought process…especially because it’s a team game. Even the player agent relationship is a team relationship. No one always is sly around looking for the greener grass. In the event you feel the relationship that the player and the team has is either broken beyond repair or won’t be moving forward in the matter that’s going to allow that player a chance at a professional career which is essentially most junior players’ goal, whether consciously admitting that or not, yeah you would certainly discuss the possibility with the player which may lead to the player requesting a trade. You’ll notice if you watch the OHL close enough and follow all of the trades some of the trades that are made are deadline time. Teams can make a push to make a championship season and will trade a younger prospect for an older proven score or a steady defenseman or a great goaltender sacrificing the future for the present you might say but other times there’s trades that seem out of nowhere where two players of similar abilities are being traded for each other. Often those are times where fresh start is required.

On advising a player between the CHL and NCAA eligibility – As you’re gathering players, preparing for the OHL draft at age 15 turning 16 that year, whether before or after the draft in April, they don’t really even know yet how the college process works. I can’t pretend that we know how it’s going to work for them at that age either because now they have three or four more years of hockey to play before they really sign on to get a scholarship. But if we are able to bridge that gap early enough where it looks like it’s starting to happen were college teams are starting to step up and commit to players at a younger age. It certainly is the trend. Once in a while you’ll even hear, last season Harvard committed to player from Ottawa before the OHL draft. It wasn’t necessarily a player that was going to get drafted, it was an undersized but very talented player if I remember correctly. It surprised me a little bit that they publicly committed at that time but we are seeing them do that. I suppose they realize if they’re going to bring in a little bit of star power that they need to step up the offer…You probably noticed that OHL contracts have changed recently in the recent years. They’ve had to make a contract a little bit more attractive because parents are becoming increasingly conscious that a good degree from a pretty good school for example Providence, or Ohio State is worth a couple hundred thousand dollars. Not that you’re always getting a guaranteed four years.

On preparing a client for the NHL draft – We are in that position with one of our players now that had a very good rookie season in the Ontario hockey league. And this was an undrafted OHL player that showed up as a 17-year-old, turned 18 this January and had essentially come out of nowhere and had a bit of an impact in the league. Fantastic rugged player who did prove that he was able to play in that league despite that he wasn’t drafted in that draft year for a variety of reasons most of which were injury and health problems and he missed half the games and just got overlooked. In his case certainly we would spend all year discussing things with him talking to his coaches watching them play quite a few times just trying to help him fine-tune his game and improved as a hockey player and certainly try to help them improve. That would help them be the best player he could be. Sometimes the NHL is about role. They don’t necessarily want every player to come in and be a great goal scorer, you’ve got to sort of find what sort of makes you as a great hockey player is how you can be best at the role that suits you best. How can the player, be the best for the role expected of him. As you may know, there’s a combine for the OHL level as well. Part of that is the experience of having been there which we do typically attend both combines if we’ve got players in them. It’s a little more common to have players at the OHL combine. To begin to tell players what kind of testing they’re going to go through so they can show up and be at their best that day. Most like the guys at the NFL combine or anything else. You can rest assured that most of those guys are training for the 40 yard dash and the benchpress max test. We certainly try to prepare them for the testing that they’re going to go through.

On advising a player through his first pro contract – They’re pretty standard. There isn’t a lot of wiggle room. I can say that the first NHL contract that Culley Curran, our business partner, negotiated for Andrew Shaw of the Chicago Blackhawks. He was already playing in the American League. He had been drafted but not offered an NHL contract. So he attended the rookie camp, was able to come along and he began to impress them in the first half of the season in the American League so much so that Chicago turned around and discussed the prospect of offering him a contract over the season which is almost halfway through the season. They came through with that offer. Since it was the first time…there’s a maximum salary then you sort of take that and that’s for the first-round players and then for the second round players they get 70 or 90% of that and then in Andrew Shaw’s case, being a fifth-round pick, his contract was comparable to around fourth-round picks because by that point he was having a pretty good half of a professional season but there wasn’t a heck a lot of the wiggle room. And teams can only go up so high to be in scale with around the area you are drafted. You hear similar stories about players being persuaded by other agencies that are putting them into the right shelf on the grocery store and then not bringing in the endorsement dollars that the player could really command if he only really left agency A to good agency B. Most of the time that ends up being more myth than reality but it’s part of the game.

On representing players who are not drafted by the NHL – It’s certainly not a be-all end-all if the player is not drafted. Essentially good draft year is 18 and all the best young prospects tend to get drafted at their 18-year-old year and I think there’s a lot of gray 19-year-olds that have a 75% likelihood to be drafted. And by the time you’re 20 you might still be pretty good but there might be a little bit of a bias against being drafted at that age although it does happen. That was the case with Andrew Shaw where both Culley and myself marketed him very carefully and certainly he played very well and deserved a lot of the attention that he got with a good Memorial Cup but he was 20 years old going into that draft and even at that from our perspective at the time he was a very polished hockey player, really played the game well and it was still a little tough to market him. If you look at where his career is now a lot of teams just flat out said they weren’t interested but we didn’t give up and we essentially marketed and sold all 30 teams to the point where Chicago took a chance on them in the fifth-round. And I think it’s fair to say at this point that they were pretty glad that they did. Most of the other teams don’t like to be reminded that we did push the player on them. Unfortunately Chicago had the foresight to listen and I believe they also had a good scouting staff… They had some pretty good notes on Andrew shot from a number of different scouts and they got it in their heads to circle the wagons and put their heads together to have a comparison talking they realize that three of their nine scouts did have some pretty promising reports on that player and they can realized: wait a minute maybe we can put him back on our draft list…Ryan Horvat is a player we think very highly of, is a very dependable two-way player and a really strong character guy. Phenomenal individual off the ice and a strong community member and that stuff. Those kind of things go a long way. In his case he’s not going to get drafted in his last year in the league…You market him the same way sometimes it’s not a huge deterrent if you are 21 years old and the OHL and you are playing a while and you have strength and skill you certainly could get a contract for a player like that. It’s just a measure of keeping him on the radar screen within the contacts you have within the industry. I know he went Anaheim’s camp last year and had a good camp down there. You look to place him in the similar Anaheim camp again this year to see if he can get some kind of a contract out of them. It’s a very optimistic that he can end up with a contract somewhere but you can never really say for sure. There’s still a little bit more hockey to be played for him in the playoffs…My personal opinion is it’s not a good idea to go from Junior hockey to Europe although some players do do occasionally do it. Without citizenship and stuff like that I don’t think you get played too well without having proven yourself in one of the pro leagues even if it is one of the lower-level minors. With the increasing attractiveness of the OHL education packages I think a lot of the kids are finding that life does go on pretty well for them if they do go on and play for a good university in Canada and they could have a pretty good hockey career in Canada. Often times they still do get a shot if they do want to pursue a shot in the lower minors after that

On whether he would change anything in the player development system – I think if the OHL draft was held a year later which I think that most people agree that having it a year later allows you to evaluate talent with slightly more mature and physically prepared individuals…I really can’t speak to the reasons for them doing that, why they made it a year earlier I don’t really know I guess it’s always good to evaluate talent as soon as you can, but I think at the time it was a little more comfortable to be drafting players at 16 and 17 then players that were 15 turning 16.

 

 

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