Future Greats and Heartbreaks: Behind the Book with Gare Joyce of ESPN The Magazine

Future Greats and Heartbreaks: A Year Undercover in the Secret World of NHL Scouts
By Gare Joyce
Published by Doubleday Canada
Hardcover, 336 pages
Release Date: November 20, 2007

Gare Joyce is gradually becoming Canada’s answer to George Plimpton. No, the prolific Toronto-based hockey scribe hasn’t strapped on equipment and competed against pro athletes to garner first-hand material for his books–yet, anyway. But with each new title he releases, Joyce goes to greater lengths to transcend sports clichés and capture the human essence of his subjects.

Sidney Crosby: Taking the Game by Storm, published in 2005 and just re-issued in an updated paperback edition, did a remarkable job of illuminating the road to glory for the young NHL superstar who’s even more guarded in his public pronouncements than Wayne Gretzky was at the same age.

Last year saw the release of When the Lights Went Out: How One Brawl Ended Hockey’s Cold War and Changed the Game, investigating the notorious “Piestany Punchup” between Canada and the Soviet Union at the 1987 World Juniors. In my review for IHWC.net, the official site of the IIHF World Championship, I wrote: “[Joyce] goes beyond the tale of the tape to document Canada’s improvement in team discipline at future World Junior tournaments, the difficulty of getting to grips with how the ‘87 Russians feel today about Piestany, and the impact this one game had on individual lives for decades to come, among other topics.”

This year, Future Greats and Heartbreaks is the superbly realized product of covering some 80 junior games in 2006 and 2007, from regular-season OHL action and the Memorial Cup to the Ivan Hlinka U-18 Memorial Tournament and the World Juniors. Joyce didn’t settle for sitting in the press box, banging out recaps, and recording mundane post-game quotes. With unprecedented access granted by the Columbus Blue Jackets, he researched how scouts do their work leading up to the annual NHL Entry Draft, and interviewed the colorful characters populating the hockey world in unguarded moments.

Readers learn what made Columbus first-rounder Derick Brassard break curfew once with the Drummondville Voltigeurs in 2005-06, why Swift Current role player Brady Leavold doesn’t entirely admire former Broncos star Ian White, and which famous hip-hop star Russian goalie Semen Varlamov startlingly resembles.

When it comes to top-notch books about scouting, baseball had Mark Winegardner’s Prophet of the Sandlots. Now hockey is fortunate to have Future Greats and Heartbreaks.

For bonus background information, visit Joyce’s blog. To win one of two autographed copies of Future Greats and Heartbreaks, enter Joe Pelletier’s contest at GreatestHockeyLegends.com before December 1.

HockeyAdventure.com recently recruited Joyce to answer 10 questions about his new book.

1. While working on Future Greats and Heartbreaks, did your life-long fascination with scouting ever make you wish you could give up the writing gig altogether and devote yourself to tracking the fortunes of junior players?

No. I have a sense of what I am and what I’m not. I have a huge respect for scouts, for players, for coaches and GMs. They know the game in ways that I never will. As I mention in the book, as a boy, my best friend’s father was the coach of the Toronto Metro Police hockey team. At the very least he’d have been a Tier II player in his day, maybe a major junior. He saw Bobby Orr at 17 or 18 and predicted knee troubles. He saw a nuance and understood its implications–and that’s what separates the scouts, good or bad, from fans. They just see another game.

2. What prompted you to pick junior scouting instead of pro scouting as your subject?

That’s a great question. A personal preference figures into it, to be sure. I like the draft more than the trading deadline–that’s really what you’re comparing when you talk about the two levels of scouting. What’s more, with junior scouting, you’re guaranteed to have scouting as research toward an end. You could follow a pro scouting staff up to the trading deadline, and, if there was no deal, you’d have a fat lot of nothing.

3. The only NHL club that gave you the behind-the-scenes access you requested, the Columbus Blue Jackets, is also the only NHL club that has never earned a playoff berth in its history. Coincidence?

I’d say “possibly.” The fact is, Doug MacLean wasn’t just managing his team; he was, like every GM to some extent, managing his owner. He wanted to show off his contribution to the organization to his owner more than to his fans. But if Doug succeeds in securing an ownership position in Tampa, he might well open the doors there to an enterprising reporter. He, more than any NHL executive, understands that getting a team–not just the players on the ice, but also the staff behind the scenes–out in the media is good for business.

4. For the Blue Jackets, you filed some journalistic reports on players, focusing on their backgrounds, personalities, and off-ice demeanors. You offered to do this, in part, because you were surprised the club didn’t gather more of this type of information in addition to regular scouting reports and statistics. Do you think what you did could influence teams to do more in-depth research on prospects?

I have no illusions: no! And some teams do more extensive background checks than others. More surprising to me is the fact that some teams are scaling back their scouting operations overall and hoping to rely on videotape and Central Scouting Reports. That seems to be ass-backwards thinking. Saving pennies, risking millions.

5. So you don’t think scouting based on video and computer analysis could eventually replace (or at least minimize) the role of the traditional NHL scouting staff?

Not a prayer. I guess it would be like experts trying to authenticate Old Masters based on photography patched in over the Internet. Scouting is intuitive and done live…anything short of that is educated guessing.

6. As your title implies, ten years from now someone reading Future Greats and Heartbreaks will know which of the players you describe turned out to be stars and which were busts. In your estimation, will Akim Aliu be a star, or will he be Fedor Fedorov? And how about Angelo Esposito?

Pick my poison: I actually thought Fedor Fedorov was a good pick where he was taken. I think that Akim Aliu will play, but the open question is whether he will be more than a physical forward who fights occasionally. If you set the bar low, you can project him in that role. Beyond that, I really don’t know. I wish I’d seen him take a few shifts on D, which he did in minor midget. Angelo Esposito will play–the first-round pick virtually guarantees it–but I think he’ll have to physically mature and work on his conditioning in a big way. Pittsburgh is a great team for him. I see him, at the top end, as a pass-first second-liner in the NHL, one who can’t help you much defensively.

7. Is USA Hockey on the right track with its National Team Development Program?

What I think matters not. NHL people like it to an extent, but still regard Canadian junior as the best place for a top NHL prospect. Even an American GM like Brian Burke will tell you that.

8. You allude to “rumbles” around the WHL’s Red Deer Rebels that coach Brent Sutter wouldn’t let his son Brandon use creatine, a legal muscle-building supplement frequently used by athletes but reputed to have side effects. You also mention that in pre-draft prospects interviews, the players are “all asked what they have to work on to be NHLers, and the one answer that they all give–that they all must give–is that they have to get stronger.” How widespread do you believe the use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs is in junior hockey?

Well, like you say, creatine is not a drug. nor is it illegal. I actually used creatine back in the day and it’s pretty awful but effective stuff. Creatine is probably out there like coffee creamer in the scouts’ rooms. Steroids, I have no doubt about too. I’m closer to Dick Pound than Don Cherry on that one. It’s out there in high school sports…it’s hard to imagine that it wouldn’t spill out of gyms into rinks.

9. Which of the junior players you interviewed has the brightest prospects of becoming a hockey commentator after his playing days are done?

Hysterical question! Blake Geoffrion actually was recently announced to take over the time slot when Conan replaces Leno. At the end of his interview, he told the Columbus Blue Jackets scouts to “try the veal.” Other great interviews, let’s see. Jakub Voracek will be great when his English develops, just a wonderful kid. I have all kinds of time for Bobby Ryan. Brendan Bell will be the Jim Ralph of the new millennium–a fate I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.

10. What’s your next project?

Outside of my usual workload at ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com, I’m looking at a hockey biography or two, something shorter, though. I’m also looking at doing a couple of sports books well outside of hockey. I’m not being evasive. I’m just sort of burned out by three books in three years–my Sidney Crosby book, my tome on the brawl in Piestany, and Future Greats and Heartbreaks. Poor effin’ me.

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