Scouting is key for the Seattle Thunderbirds’ success
Moments after winning the WHL Western Conference championship this past spring, the Seattle Thunderbirds gathered on the ice for an unofficial team photo with the championship trophy. Joining them were the coaches and the front office staff. There was one important part of the team missing, however.
The team’s scouts weren’t there.
Seattle, like every other WHL team, relies on its scouting staff to scour western Canada and the United States to look for the next batch of players to make up the team’s roster. The T-Birds’ scouting team is made up of 12 guys who spend most of their free time in small, cold rinks throughout the west.
Cal Filson is the club’s newest Director of Player Personnel – a position he took over last fall from long time head scout Colin Alexander, who moved on to the NHL – after several years scouting the Regina and Saskatchewan region for the team.
Filson spends his season traveling from tournament to tournament and ends up seeing a lot of hockey.
“I saw about two periods of 500 hockey games,” he said of his first year as the head scout.
A former cell phone salesmen and Junior B player, Filson got into the scouting game because he had a passion for the sport.
“I got into it because I love hockey and I knew there were jobs out there,” he said. “There are hockey jobs and I wanted one. I was singularly focused on getting here and moving forward and when Colin moved on to the Penguins I jumped at the opportunity.”
Leland Mack is one of the team’s scouts who works in the lower mainland of British Columbia, in and around Vancouver. Like all of the T-Birds’ scouts – with the exception of Filson – he has a full-time day job. His is still hockey-related, though, as he is a coach with the Burnaby Winter Club, a program that produced current T-Birds Mathew Barzal and Nick Holowko.
“You’re always scouting,” Mack said. “Whether I’m coaching at the rink, if it’s a practice going on. You’re always watching and collecting information. I’m a little different than most scouts where I’m directly involved.”
In Winnipeg, Mark Romas handles the Manitoba region for the T-Birds. After coaching AAA hockey in Winnipeg, Romas moved over to scout for the Moose Jaw Warriors in 1991. He spent six seasons with the Warriors and then 13 more with the Regina Pats before taking one season off for health reasons. With a clean bill he got back into it by joining the T-Birds and is entering his sixth season with Seattle, which he has cherished.
“I have absolutely loved it,” Romas said of his time with the T-Birds. “It’s an incredible organization with great people to work with. I am so happy that they granted me an opportunity to come work for them. I can’t say enough about them.”
WHL scouts have a tough task when they look at a player. They have to try and predict how a 14-year-old kid will not only develop his skill as a player, but if he will also develop physically enough to be able to handle play in the league.
“It’s really easy to pick out the best guy out there,” Romas said. “You just don’t know if that best guy is willing to put the time in to be the player that you would hope he could be. That’s the hard part.”
When watching players this young, the scouting goes beyond just what they’re doing on the ice.
“The word scouts always use is ‘projecting,’” Mack said. “Sometimes you’re just guessing based on how big his feet are, how big his parents are, is he shaving yet? You try and look at every factor that you can. … If it’s a player that needs to grow, you hope it happens.”
Sometimes those projections pan out and sometimes they don’t, but Filson said over time a scout can learn from the past.
“It comes from patterns,” he said. “You see the same things year after year and you start to recognize what each kid is. You talk to the kid and it’s just repetition. You’re really hoping that what you see you’re going to see a little bit bigger, faster version of that in a few years.”
That is the biggest challenge facing a WHL scout. The NHL scouts that haunt the corners at the ShoWare Center on a nightly basis have a somewhat easier task. They can already see how a player has grown or developed physically and can focus more on his skill and other intangibles.
They also only have 22 teams in the league to cover, while each province in Canada has more than 20 Bantam clubs that the T-Birds have to check out.
Scouts also have to be aware of the scouts from the other teams they’re competing with. While all of the T-Birds’ scouts say that relations with rival scouts are pleasant – some even have longtime friends working for other teams – there is still a certain amount of cloak and dagger going on.
“I don’t say anything about anything,” Filson said with a chuckle. “I don’t get into it, I’m sure it happens but I’m not going to tell other teams, ‘Gee, I sure like this guy.’”
Mack said the scouting rooms try to avoid even talking hockey.
“Everyone knows why everyone is there but they pretend like they’re just sort of randomly there,” he said. “The conversations that go on in the scout rooms are weird; it’s about food.”
Scouting for a WHL club takes a lot of time and commitment. The charge of having to balance a full-time job while still finding the time to catch a couple hundred hockey games is no easy feat. But it’s a feat that each WHL team has to attempt to tackle if they want to end up on top at the end of the year.
The T-Birds recent success can be attributed to a lot of people. General Manager Russ Farwell plays a big role, as does head coach Steve Konowalchuk, but without the players to work with, none of it would be possible.
While physically not in Seattle, the team’s scouts are a crucial part of the club. They all have a dedication and love for the sport of hockey and ultimately helping young players succeed.
“Watching these kids develop and become great players, it’s amazing,” Romas said. “To see them not only develop as players, but as athletes and quality people, it’s a pleasure.”