When the great football coach Woody Hayes wrote his autobiography he truthfully titled it: You Win With People. Hayes did not exaggerate. No matter how skilled the coach, dedicated the players, or how skillful the game plan, sheer talent often decides the matter. The team with the best players almost always wins. At the professional level, the search for talent is paramount. First of all, no one wants to waste a high draft pick. Anyone who has watched a professional draft can predict the first few players taken, and every team gets some of those. But the best teams are those whose personnel can identify the less obvious greats and get them deep in the draft. Henrik Zetterberg of the Detroit Red Wings was not a high pick, yet he was able to lead the Red Wings to capture the 2008 Stanley Cup. For this reason all professional teams hire scouts. Scouts are people who live in the trenches, watching game after game at low-glamor venues looking for those nuggets of gold. Gare Joyce's book Future Greats and Heartbreaks: A Year Undercover in the World of NHL Scouts takes his readers behind the scenes to show how talent really is found and developed inside the National Hockey League.
The book was born out of the NHL lockout of 2004-5. Gare Joyce had been correspondent for the Globe & Mail and wanted to keep busy during the strike and decided he wanted to dig into the trenches of hockey, and see if he could join into the world of scouting and report from it. Withe the help of former Columbus Blue Jackets General Manager Doug MacLean he was granted unprecedented access to the Blue Jackets scouts, to the point where he actually got a seat at the table in the Columbus 'war room' during the 2006 draft, and later at the table itself when Columbus selected center Derrick Brassard. In the first third of the book he walks his readers through that draft, line by line, showing the difference between how a team ranks players in comparison to the larger Central Scouting services.
In the second part he hits the road. The Jackets granted him scout credentials he reported to director of scouting Don Boyd. Scouting is not a glamorous job. Scouts are all on one-year contracts, and last year's star can be next year's unemployed. Scouts drive long hours and sleep in cheap motels to watch games, at least one a day. Mostly he scouts the Canadian Junior Leagues where young men -- or maybe boys -- live, eat and sleep hockey, living in guest houses hoping for that breakthrough that will lead them to the NHL. Right away Joyce admits these men knows things he does not, but he uses his reporting skills to try and illuminate character issues conventional methods might miss. And he talks about the players; Patrick Kane, Eric Staal, Sidney Crosby and Jakub Voracek are some of the stars and future stars who catch his eye. It's a grind and it comes across as a grind, but every day and every game is a fresh story.
In this he goes through the firing of Doug MacLean and the demotion of Don Boyd, showing what a management shake up looks like from the inside of an organization. Then back to Columbus for the 2007 draft. Joyce wasn't at the table, but he was near it. The 2007 season proved a bookend for the story, closing the cycle of the long competition to identify and rank the talent better than the competition.
The book is consistently readable, and though about hockey, could easily apply to almost any other sport, particularly baseball. Scouting is what it is, about men who know and love their game watching the games with scant crowds looking for the next Bobby Orr. It would make a fine addition to the bookshelf of any sports fan.