IN SEARCH OF NEXT
The quest for NHL talent takes a scout to some strange places
BY SHAUN ASSAEL
Kladno feels like a fairy tale town with the wrong ending. Twenty thousand people who worked at the metal factory lost their jobs when the Czech Republic was liberated from Soviet rule in 1989, and many of them haven't found new work yet. The plaster facades of the villas along its side streets are peeling, and boxy apartments on the avenues belch dust from coal furnaces, caking the city in sulfur. Its sports complex was once the jewel in the country's sports school system-the place Jaromir Jagr was discovered-but now the tin buildings are battling weeds. On a November night, 50 people sit in a rink built for 500 and watch teenagers play junior hockey. In the crowd are four men who traveled 20 miles northwest from Prague. One is a former NHL player now scouting for the Buffalo Sabres. Another is from the NHL's Central Scouting Bureau office in Helsinki. The third is connected to an agent in New Jersey. Then there is the man the local coach has never seen before, and when this man approaches, asking for a team roster, the coach barely lifts his clear blue eyes. "There is none here," he says, waving him off. Alexei Dementiev, a Russian scout for the NHL's Nashville Predators, considers the answer, then reaches into his pocket of possibilities. "Perhaps the office is open," he starts. "Ah, no? Then maybe you have a fax for later ... Hmm." The coach's desk is below the rink, in a small room with low ceilings and exposed wires. There is a team picture on the wall from last year. He plants a meaty finger on the face of one boy, blotting it out. "He should be playing here," the coach grumbles. "Now, no one knows where he is. He just put his equipment in the trunk and was gone." The coach grumbles some more, revealing that he suspects his star was recruited by a Canadian Junior team-the kind that offers Czech prospects $35 a week, a chance to learn about life in the West and their best shot at the NHL. Even before Wayne Gretzky passed the NHL baton to Kladno's most famous son, Czech coaches knew that North America wanted their kids. In the '90s, the NHL expanded from 21 to 28 teams (30 next season), and to fill the rosters, it's looking past Canada to Europe. Sure, Europeans have been in the NHL for decades. But not in the numbers they are now. Thanks to the megastardom of Jagr and Dominik Hasek, Czechs are in vogue, but Europeans overall have gone from comprising 19.8% of NHL rosters six years ago to 27.7% today. Four of the top six scorers in the league last season were European. Snare one of them, and your scouting career is on its way. Ken Holland started as the Detroit Red Wings' scout in Medicine Hat, Alberta. Two Stanley Cups and 17 years later, he's the club's general manager. The sheer number of scouts in Europe makes players almost blasē about who is watching them in the stands. "When I started 18 years ago, there were six scouts in Europe," says Goran Stubb of the NHL's Helsinki office, opened in 1983 by the league to help clubs navigate often-obscure European hockey outposts. "Now there are over 100. It's very difficult to find a scoop now. I can't imagine that there is another Jagr who only one team has seen." Stubb sends each NHL team video interviews of the top 100 18-year-old prospects during the win ter, but most clubs have already scouted the kids a dozen times by then. Nashville has a $1 million scouting budget-average in the NHL-to cover everything from the salaries of its 11 scouts (three in Central Europe, eight in North America) to flying potential picks to Tennessee. The flight from Europe is rarely direct, how ever. For every Jagr, who entered the league at 18, there's a Frantisek Kaberle, a Czech who got to Los Angeles last season at 25 after playing four years in Sweden. And for every Kaberle, there are hundreds who never get the call-up. The International Hockey League, which serves as a minor league for the NHL, estimates that 40 (or 14%) of its players are European. It's a banner year if a half-dozen of them jump to the NHL. Most wind up going back to their teams in Europe with broken dreams but reasonably healthy bank accounts. The average salary in the top European leagues is $50,000-roughly the same as that of an IHL player. Top-tier players in Europe can make $250,000. In his Prague home, the 31-year-old Dementiev has an IBM ThinkPad loaded with the schedules of 91 leagues worldwide, and rosters (of varying accuracy) for most of them. Dementiev saw 267 games in 50 cities around Central and Eastern Europe last year. If he's not going to games in places like Kladno, then he's at tournaments like the one for 16-year-olds he'll soon be attending in the Slovakian city of Skalica. That same week, the Predators will have scouts at similar tournaments in Finland, Sweden and Austria. Whether you're walking through the stained-black snow of industrial Russia, or the rich white powder of scenic Switzerland, chances are that you'll find the footprints of a scout these days.
Put a gregarious Russian personality into the body of Conan O'Brien, and you'll get Dementiev. He has a backslapping ease, a quick smile and an endearing tendency to give Russia credit for the most remarkable things. ("Do you know Steven Tyler of Aerosmith was born in Russia? I saw it on MTV!") He has bribed his way through Budapest, been rolled for his jacket on the night train from Moscow to Riga, fought off pickpockets while passing from Prague to Ostrava and knows the flight number of the only plane out of Kazakhstan once a week. Ask him about Izhevsk, near Siberia: "The coldest I've been," he says of a region where the temperature, on average, doesn't get above 0(F) in winter. "The seniors got to play inside, but the juniors played on an open rink. My arms were like this." He holds them like a scarecrow's. Dementiev spent most of his 31 years in Moscow, having moved to Prague only last May to get away from Russia's roller coaster economy. Like the players he prospects, he was once a young talent sent to a state-run sports school. At 16, he was the third-string goalie for Moscow's Soviet Wings, one of 14 teams in the Soviet Elite League. His fortunes changed when he broke a leg; without the protection of hockey, he was drafted by the military and placed on its Red Army farm team. A doctor there said his injury would take two years to heal, and he was transferred again, this time to a base in Tver. There, a friendly captain let him rehab while doing light duty teaching marksmanship. He says, "I was in great shape when I was released, but I hadn't skated in two years." Back in his university, no other Elite team wanted him, so he accepted a goalie job with a Division I club, a step down in competition. He became disillusioned and quit after a season, taking a job with McDonald's-the graduate school of capitalism for Muscovites. There he became friends with the Canadian consul, and when the Ottawa Senators inquired about poten tial scouts, the consul mentioned Dementiev. In 1992, his first year with Ottawa, he scouted Alexei Yashin, who last season finished third in the NHL's MVP balloting. The two remain close friends. But Russia is a more fractured territory now. All the best players aren't on the Red Army team anymore. In fact, Red Army isn't even the best of Moscow's five teams any longer. Players are gravi tating to cities like Yaroslavl, which has just one hockey club but deeper pockets. Good luck getting there. Russian towns abruptly change highway numbers, making maps irrele vant. Games get rescheduled without warning. Teams run out of money and fold. Players go on impromptu strikes. But, as Dementiev notes, "There is still the one guy who's just come down from the hills or wherever the hell he was living." So, scouts go where they have to go. "I was talking to a scout from Canada who said he'd just come back from the middle of nowhere," Dementiev says. "I asked him if he'd ever been to Ust-Kamenogrsk, in Kazakhstan. Places like that are why Russians drink vodka. It's double-no, triple-nowhere." Craig Channell, Nashville's chief amateur scout, says that with salaries skyrocketing and expan sion exhausting the North American talent pool, clubs can't afford not to have full-time scouts in Central and Eastern Europe. "In the past, all the Communist-bloc Europeans knew was the Olympics," he says. "But once they knew what the Stanley Cup meant to North America, the Europeans wanted it too. Now they're learning how to win the North American way." With Dementiev's scouting help, Channell and the Predators drafted three Russians, two Czechs and, most improbably, a Swiss player last year. They were widely heralded for getting value deep in the draft. But the lateness of the picks indi cates more than just ingenuity. It indicates that Channell and other scouts still aren't convinced that Europeans who play on rinks 15 feet wider than in North America can play the kind of defense that wins Stanley Cups. Europe's Division I is journeyman hockey. If you're there at 20, odds are you'll also be there at 30. But on a night when Channell is visiting Dementiev in Prague, the Russian scans his ThinkPad, sees that there's a game 20 miles southwest in Beroun and sets off for the city of slate-colored apartment buildings and smokestacks in the mountains. Zimni Stadion is beside railroad tracks and sheds. It's dark and there are no seats, just slabs of concrete steps and railings to lean on. Before game time, the concession stand is doing a brisk business in 10-crown (30-cent) medicine cups of vodka. When Beroun takes the ice, a fan with a big bass drum beats it in time to R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion." Dementiev takes out a pencil and notebook that fits in his shirt pocket and begins matching jersey numbers with the names in the program. By the third period, it's clear why he always uses pencil: It's so frigid up high in unheated rinks that ink freezes. Asked if he's going to talk to any of the players, he grabs his own sweater, holding it by the scruff, and says, "No, no. That's like saying to a coach, 'Nice sweater, what else do you have in your house?'" He looks particularly lecherous as he says this. By and large, scouts expect certain stereotyped traits of players that match their nationalities. Swedes are smart and cool, disciplined to the point of being dull. Their neighbors the Finns play well as a team but aren't particularly good individually. The Russians are just the opposite: soloists who are constrained by team play. The Czechs are the most skilled puck-handlers, but as is evident tonight, aren't known for defense. A period and a half goes by without a single whistle, and when one does come, it's for tripping. A Beroun player falls to the ice and starts writhing out of all proportion to the fall he's taken. Channell yells in English, "Stop with the Academy Awards." Then he mutters, "These guys aren't even ready for the East Coast League." In the event a player was ready for North America, Channell's headaches would just be beginning. The Predators may be only a year old, but the club already has the draft rights to 11 players in Europe. Those rights are meaningless, however, if the prospect never sets foot in North America. Ex-Communist Europeans are more prone to culture shock than Swedes or Finns. Dementiev pushed to have a Latvian defenseman named Karlis Skratins drafted in the ninth round of the 1998 Entry draft. But when Skratins came to camp, he hung his head low, pouting, not talking. "That's just the Latvians," Dementiev says with a wave of the hand. "If you came from a place that desolate, you'd be like that too." The Czechs aren't much better-Jagr may be the most reluctant superstar this side of The Artist. Hasek, who has played most of his NHL career in Buffalo, talks about wanting to see his children raised as Czechs, not Americans. It's worse with teenagers. A 19-year-old Czech prospect making $40,000 with an Elite League club near Prague-a city as beautiful as Paris-can get homesick fast in Milwaukee if the door to the NHL doesn't swing right open. Just ask Petr Sykora. In 1998, the Predators acquired Sykora, a lanky center who's dating Hasek's sister, in a trade with the Red Wings. (He is not related to the New Jersey center of the same name.) But he was miserable playing for the Predators' IHL farm club, the Admirals, last season, when he was still 19. "The biggest barrier is the language," says Admirals head coach Al Sims. "These kids have trouble watching TV. They can't find the food they like because it's a nightmare going to a supermarket, let alone the post office or the bank. There are a lot of walls these kids hit." That's literally true, since they're also going from a 52-game season to an 82-game season, and getting their heads slammed into Plexiglas that many more times in the process. Five games into this season, Sykora's game had deteriorated enough that he asked to go home, arguing that he'd have a better shot at the NHL if he could return to familiar ground, pick up his game and make a splash on the Czech national team. Sims is dubious. He believes Sykora is the total package: soft hands, speed, great vision, size, the ability to create a shot. And because Nashville owns his rights, Sims has the power to refuse to let Sykora leave. But what would be the point? The teen is miserable, and so is his play. In October, the club let him return to Pardubice, a medium-sized Czech city with wide boulevards that are crowded on a Friday night. The admission ticket alone explains the difference between Elite League hockey in Pardubice, where Hasek was raised and played, and Division I hockey in Beroun. It's colorfully printed and costs the equivalent of $30. The rink is also a step up-literally. There are no seats, just wood benches on concrete steps that rise in vertigo-inducing tiers above the ice. In the mezzanine, vendors sell dried fruit, pies and bratwurst with a crust of bread on the side. Sykora's team scores twice early on Znojemsti Orli, causing the home crowd to sing, "Nah na na nah ... Goodbye." But for all the pretty possessions, Channell chafes at the wide-open play. With 10 minutes left in the third period, the score is 4-2 when rival Excalibur strikes again. Pardubice hangs on long enough for the clock to tick down to seven seconds. But in a rare move for European hockey, the visiting coach pulls his goalie. Pardubice's players pass the puck danger ously around their own net, attempting to eat up the clock. But they lose the puck, and Excalibur takes advantage of the extra skater and tips it in. The game ends in a 4-4 tie. "Terrible, terrible," Dementiev mutters as he and Channell file out with the dumbstruck crowd. "No one knew their positions. They kept the puck when they should have pushed it away." The pair waits outside the locker room for Sykora, who had no goals and just one assist for Pardubice. Sykora isn't expecting them. Still, he emerges in a Predators polo shirt. Channell extends his hand. Sykora takes it tentatively. "Everything okay?" Channell asks the player. "Comfort able?" "Yes," Sykora says. "Good. That's what's important. Do you think you still want to come back?" "One day," Sykora says vaguely. "Because, you know the door is always open." Sykora slips into the night. "He's still young," Channell says. "We're not giving up on him yet."
In the U.S., they don't have fans like those who turn out for European club hockey. In Europe, they fly embassy-style flags with the crests of their teams and spend entire games singing fight songs. It's the kind of pent-up energy you'd expect from a Siberian town where there isn't much else to cheer for, or a place like Beroun, where two bucks buys a ticket and three medicine cups of vodka. But not a secluded little ski town in the Swiss Alps that caters to the ultra-rich. Davos is a resort for the jet set. The main entertainment building is its ice rink-a remarkable structure built entirely of pine from the mountains. Gigantic wood beams rise in a canopy over the ice, crisscrossed by stained slats of pine. There's not a nail in the place. Everything is bolted by screws. It's what you'd imagine would result if IKEA built arenas. Channell and Dementiev have flown here from Prague to check on another of their draft picks, a soft-faced defenseman named Timo Helbling. At 18, he has small muscles and a few blond Scooby Doo whiskers on his chin. There has never been a Swiss player who made it to the NHL (defenseman Mark Hardy, who played from 1979 to 1994, was born there but grew up in Canada). But after accumulating a league-high 15 picks in last season's draft, the Predators figured they could gamble one on the kid. Davos has been very, very good to Helbling. He's enrolled in a state sports school that pays for his room and makes him attend only two hours of classes a day. The rest of the time, he's playing hockey or hanging out. One reason the Swiss don't produce more players is that the best athletes get funneled to downhill skiing. As a result, the country must import players. Channell asks Helbling about the league's leading scorer and learns that he's an American with whom Channell had played in minor league hockey 10 years earlier. "He was soft then," Channell says. "If a guy like that is lighting things up, you know what you're dealing with." It doesn't seem to matter to the fans that Davos is in the cellar of a 10-team division. The evening before, they bought out an entire section at a rink in Zurich, two hours away, where Davos played the first-place Lions. Supporters spent the whole game flying the club's flag, singing and shouting down the home fans, even after Davos blew a 2-0 lead and lost. Now, after church on Sunday, they're back at it, this time at home against ninth-place Fribourg. Davos strikes early and often. It's up 3-0 near the end of the second period, and goes on to win 4-1. Afterward, Channell and Dementiev wait by the locker room to take Helbling to dinner and then give him a ride to Zurich, where he's due to catch a plane with the rest of the Swiss National team for a tournament in Lincoln, Neb. As Helbling strips off his shirt, they study his build. He has almost no upper-body mass-the result of a Swiss conditioning program that stresses aerobics. Channell looks around at the others. "I just don't see any hockey players here," he says. "A player's skin should be tight around his face. Everyone here is ... " He puffs out his cheeks. Channell decides that Helbling needs a two-week tutorial in eating and exercising at the Predators' camp. The larger question is whether Helbling will decide that he likes the taste of life in the U.S. when he gets there. Channell gets one indication over dinner. The father of another Davos player gets himself invited to the table. The man glances at Helbling, raises a glass of wine and says, "A toast. To the first Swiss player in the NHL." That kind of sentiment could set off barroom brawls all over Saskatchewan. Canada is concerned enough about the influx of players that its Amateur Hockey Association bars the use of Europeans in any level below the top-ranked Major Junior league. "We were hunting players over there," says Frank Bonello of the NHL's Central Scouting Bureau office in Toronto, "and I think it hurt hockey. It took away chances for kids here, and it took away the best players from there." The rule might have been a humanitarian move. It might also have been a protectionist one. But the message is clear-the trickle of European players is now a flood. "There are seven more NHL teams since I started scouting 10 years ago," Channell says. "That's seven more first-round picks. We have to find players in developing talent pools. Which pool is the next Jagr going to come from? That's the million-dollar question." Fortunately, Channell happens to have a million-dollar budget to work with, and a plane ticket with Stockholm written on it. After he lands, he rifles through his Filofax to figure out where to go next. It's a city 90 minutes north. If it's Tuesday, it must be Norrkpoing.