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A peek inside the Seattle Thunderbirds scouting room

Delta Hockey Academy won the first ever U.S. Challenge Cup this weekend and were heavily scouted by WHL scouts. (Brian Liesse/WHL)

KENT – On day two of the U.S. Challenge Cup played at the accesso ShoWare Center this past weekend, Seattle Thunderbirds general manager Bil La Forge met with his scouts to discuss prospects for May’s WHL Bantam Draft.

“The goal isn’t to be good, it’s to be exceptional,” La Forge tells the group of assembled scouts.

It was a busy weekend for La Forge and the Thunderbirds. With 12 top Bantam programs playing on the ice, it was a chance to scout prospects from the comfort of his home arena. Seattle had a portion of it’s scouting team on hand as well – as did every other team in the WHL — and they were enjoying the comforts of the ShoWare Center.

Bantam scouts aren’t normally camped out in luxury suites with boxes of subs brought in to eat.

Rather, they spend most of the winter scouting hundreds of games in small community rinks spread throughout Canada, watching the action from cold, cement benches. If they’re lucky, there’s coffee available and maybe a hot dog.

One such rink got so cold this winter that ice formed on the inside of the front doors, freezing them shut.

Watching the games this weekend was not a passive activity for the Thunderbirds scouts. Armed with spreadsheets for each team they watch the action and mark grades down for every player, rating a number of skills and attributes.

How well does the player skate? Could he shoot? Did he compete hard?

While the action played out there were some snap judgments made amongst the scouts.

“I like him. He trusts his talent and if he played on a better team, he’d stand out more.”

“Is it just me or does it seem like he skates 1,000 miles per hour but never gets anywhere.”

Some players the Seattle scouts had seen before and this weekend helped solidify opinions, both positive and negative. There were also new standouts whose performances were noted, and future viewings scheduled.

Multiple viewings of prospects are essential. Scouts want to make sure that they didn’t catch a guy on an off weekend and the more viewings you get the more complete report you’ll have.

Reports are generated on prospects and compiled electronically with reports from the previous viewings, all to be discussed later.

While on the clock, there were some good times to be had by the scouts.

Like the Thunderbirds players, there is plenty of healthy, fun chirping between the scouts. Many of Seattle’s scouts go back a way. Some played with each other, have scouted with each other, or even coached against each other. They’re a team and get along enough to poke fun from time to time.

Trying to find the best 14-year-old players and projecting how they’ll develop and grow when they’re 17,18, or 19-years-old is hard enough, but is not the only factor to consider.

Not only are Bantam scouts charged with finding the best players available, but they also have to determine if those players are interested in playing in the WHL. Players have options. Is it going to be the WHL, or do they prefer the NCAA route?

The Thunderbirds have done a good job in recent years of doing the leg work before the draft to get a sense of which players are committed to the league and which may not be. Seven of the players Seattle selected in the 2018 draft have not only signed but have played with the Thunderbirds this season.

After each game this weekend, Director of Player Personnel Cal Filson and Director of Scouting Mark Romas would meet with players, their parents, and their family advisors to gauge interest and recruit.

These recruitment efforts take place over the course of the season and become a factor on draft day. If you’re unsure of a player’s interest in your team or the league, should you risk a draft pick on him?

Prior to Saturday’s game with Portland, La Forge holds a scout’s meeting in a conference room in the Thunderbirds offices.

He begins the meeting by reminding his group of the type of players he’s looking to draft. He stresses speed and skill. In fact, there were three types of speed he wants — speed of hands, head, and feet.

Does the player have the skill to pass, handle the puck and shoot – the hands. Does he see the ice well and make quick and smart decisions – the head. Does the player skate with speed and have quickness – the feet.

Speed is the common denominator in the attributes La Forge describes, in his quest for what he calls ‘jersey flappers’. These players are the ones playing the game with such speed that their jerseys ripple due to the wind created as they rush up ice.

La Forge has acquired draft assets thanks to trading veteran players away over the past year. His goal is to be able to use those picks to create a program that won’t compete for championships one year, but every year. He reminds the group that this only happens if they make the right draft picks.

After La Forge addresses his charges, Filson turns on a monitor and the group reviews prospects playing in Saskatchewan. The province’s top players are broken down by position and the scouts go over each one to discuss their thoughts.

They are not always in agreement.

La Forge is fine with disagreement and wants all of his scouts to have an opinion. He doesn’t want scouts sitting quietly in meetings and not sharing their thoughts. At the end of the day, it’s his job to listen to all the input and sign off on draft picks.

After the Saskatchewan review is finished, Filson pulls up the team’s overall draft rankings.

A discussion is had about who may or may not be available when the team projects they will pick. Players are moved up the ranks and lowered. This is one of many rankings to take place between now and the Bantam Draft.

The meeting finishes with a similar discussion about the top U.S. players in preparation for the first-ever U.S. Draft taking place in March.

At the conclusion of the weekend, La Forge’s scouts disperse back into the field, filling their schedules with the next tournament in the next town. More reports will be compiled, more meetings will take place and it will all culminate in Calgary later this spring.

The process is taken seriously, and the number of hours put into scouting is impressive. These scouts end up seeing upwards of 500 games each year. With that kind of effort and dedication, it feels as if the success of future seasons relies on drafting well.

It feels that way because it’s the hard truth of WHL hockey.