Mark Kelley and his Blackhawks scouts who scour amateur hockey talent across North America may be the most unsung talent judges in all of Chicago pro sports.
Hockey’s amateur ranks are the least publicized of any sports, at least south of the Canadian border.
On-ice hotbeds are in New England, Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota. But through the rest of the country, the youth and high-school levels take a distant back seat to well-established high school and college football and basketball leagues.
Meanwhile, high school baseball has a lower profile than revenue-generating football and basketball. But many college programs are in the limelight while the minor leagues are more popular than ever.
Largely out of the limelight, Kelley and his scouting team of Bruce Franklin, Mike Doneghey, Gord Donnelly and Michel Dumas — those who would bring you the next Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane — share some commonalities with counterparts in the more celebrated amateur sports. That's with one definable difference, according to Kelley, the Hawks’ director of amateur scouting.
“The biggest difference (for) hockey from the other sports is we’re talking about hockey sense,” he said. “When I read about scouting in baseball, basketball or football, you don’t hear a lot about baseball sense. Football is specialized by position – game IQ by position.”
“Hockey sense,” although subjective in the eyes of a scout, means a player has “good instincts” about what to do at all times on ice.
“With a forward, you talk about the puck always being around him,” Kelley said. “With a defenseman, when you’re going back to get the puck, to have an awareness of what’s coming up from behind. So when he picks up the puck, he already knows what he wants to do with it. He has the ability to make sure nothing bad happens, he doesn’t turn it over or he takes the punishment to make the play.”
Hockey sense develops at different times by position. Hockey has a long tradition of teen-age prodigies thrown right into NHL lineups, from Gordie Howe to Bobby Hull to Bobby Orr to Wayne Gretzky right though Kane and Toews. Goalies, however, take longer to develop.
“Kane and Toews, by age of 15 or 16, they became the best players on their teams,” said Kelley. “At 17 they continued to be that. A lot of times when you’re looking at players at 17, they’re not the best players. Kane and Toews kept developing, they’re 25 and they’re still not fully developed.”
Projecting how good a teen goaltender will be is far tougher than forwards or defensemen. Hawks starter Corey Crawford, drafted at 18 by the Hawks out of the Montreal area, said netminders are wholly unfinished products as teen-agers.
“That’s a really tough job to do for a scout to pick somebody at that age,” Crawford said. “It’s hard to tell at that age what a player will turn out to be (in the mid-20s). That’s the time when goalies step into the NHL usually.”
Crawford did not snare the starting goalie’s job until he was 26 in 2010-11, and did not wave away all the skeptics until last spring’s postseason.
“He went through it,” Kelley said of Crawford. “That’s why it’s very hard to project. What you’re really projecting is how you think they’ll develop. Every year a player or goaltender gets older, they get closer to defining what they’re going to be. Everyone’s on a curve.”
After hockey sense, Kelley’s staff prizes skating and puck skills.
“Skating is incredibly important because we’re a fast team, we’re a skating team,” Kelley said. “You have to be able to handle a puck. You need defensemen to make a (slick) pass because (the top scorers) want to get that puck. They get that puck, and they’re off.”
A final important skill not always seen on ice is on the scouts’ checklist: character. In this respect, they converge with other sports. The Atlanta Braves, for instance, often prize character even above raw athletic talent, believing they can develop that talent to complement the strong emotional base.
“You have to have character to be a Blackhawk,” said Kelley. “They won’t make it in the locker room. It’s a very accepting locker room because of the drive and the work ethic. If you come in there with character, you’ll be accepted.
“We’ll talk to players, coaches, trainers, parents, agents (about character). Sometimes you’ll get conflicting things and we’ll have to determine what’s right.”
If the Hawks stay at or near the top of the NHL in the foreseeable future, Kelley’s staff will be even more challenged, picking at the end of each round in the draft. Rocky Wirtz is a firm advocate of scouting and development, so money is not an issue.
“Our scouting budget has significantly expanded,” Kelley said. “I can’t remember putting together a proposal and asking something on the budget side of scouting and having it rejected. If the reasoning was there based upon what we thought the results would bring in, it was enthusiastically accepted by both (Hawks president) John McDonough and Rocky.”