At the risk of losing my standing in the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association, there’s something going on at the World Junior Championship that makes very little sense. We’ve known for some time that when – perhaps we should be saying ‘if’ at this point - the puck drops for the tournament Dec. 26, there will be no fans in the Rogers Place bubble. There will also be no NHL scouts allowed. However, somewhere in the range of 30 media members taking in the action.
First, let me clarify that this number of media does not include the crew at TSN, which will be televising the event. They will all be a part of the bubble as well, as they should be. The media members of whom I speak are those from independent organizations who will not be in the bubble, but will be allowed to watch games live from a media tribune in the arena.
Again, with all due respect to the hard-working people who cover this event every year at the time of year set aside for families, this makes no sense. If the reporters covering the event don’t have one-on-one access with the players and coaches, which they will not in this case, having them view the games in person does not give them any advantages in doing their jobs. Those who are covering the games will watch them in person, then conduct their player and coach interviews via Zoom, the same way any of those who choose to cover it from home will do. There is literally no advantage for a reporter to be in the stands. That’s not the case for scouts.
While it would be preferable to have media members watch the games, they should not be doing that at the expense of NHL scouts, who need to see the game action unfold in front of them far more than reporters do. If the International Ice Hockey Federation and Hockey Canada have room for upwards of 30 reporters at each game, they could certainly use that space instead to accommodate 32 NHL scouts, one from each team.
Is it ideal? No. During a normal WJC in North America, there would probably be about 250 scouts in the stands. But given that scouting is so important, coupled with the fact that scouts have had few precious opportunities to see young players play this season, having one scout per team at each game is far better than having none.
The COVID-19 pandemic has hit everyone in the hockey industry hard and scouts – who are the lifeblood of NHL organizations whose contributions are generally underappreciated – are no exception. This is the time of year when they would be crisscrossing the world getting early reads on the best talent available for the draft, as well as keeping tabs on the prospects they’ve already drafted. Instead, many of them have been stuck at home like the rest of us, with no games to attend. The Western and Ontario Leagues have not played a game and there have been limited viewings in the Quebec League. College hockey has limited its numbers and only one European-based scout per team is allowed to watch games in Europe. Even the Alberta and Manitoba Jr. League’s have shut down. It’s going to be almost impossible to get consensus with such limited viewings.
Just as importantly, scouts have also been robbed of the opportunity to meet with the players individually, when a good amount of the scouting is actually done. That’s when they get a feel for the player’s personality and character. And while they still would not be able to meet with players at the WJC, at least seeing them perform and being able to hone in on a select number of players would provide them with some help.
In November, there was a cadre of scouts that was preparing to head to Europe to view an Under-18 tournament in Finland and an Under-20 tournament in Sweden, which would have allowed them viewings of all the top young prospects either in tournament play or in the men’s leagues. But both tournaments were cancelled and the European Union closed its border. As it is, a lot of scouts in Europe are showing up to games only to find the game has been postponed or they’re not allowed in the building.
And of course, there’s another factor to consider. “Money is at a premium right now, even for teams that are well financed, and you don’t want to be wasting dollars with no income for the past eight months,” one scout said. “We’re going to games we know we can get into that have value, and other games, we’re just going to have to wait until the second half and be patient.”
The World Juniors would have given at least a limited number of scouts the opportunity to get a viewing of the players. Given that Canada has had to take a two-week pause in its camp, there are some doubts they IIHF and Hockey Canada will even be able to successfully pull this thing off. If they do, scouts need to be there.