The Art of Scouting: No Science and Precious Little Art Here

Jim Nill, Assistant General Manager, Detroit Red Wings, agrees that predicting how a player will develop, and if he will at all, is one of the toughest parts of amateur scouting.  The varying development cycles of prospects, not only physically but mentally and emotionally, too, all make amateur scouting a head spinner.

The Art of Scouting, Shane Malloy: John Wiley & Sons (2011), p. 17.

Many of my difficulties with Shane Malloy’s The Art of Scouting are in evidence in the passage from the book quoted above.  These criticisms relate to matters of both style and substance.  Malloy’s effort is stricken by so many technical issues, for example, that one might seriously question whether anyone at Wiley & Sons was tasked with editing the manuscript.  Proper names are – maddeningly and inexplicably – italicized throughout the book.   I know of no other work of literature in the English language that observes this convention.  Don’t even get me started on the haphazard manner in which punctuation is deployed; commas in the above-noted passage, typical of the work on the whole, appear to have been applied with the degree of care and precision that one generally associates with the use of a potato gun.  Content-wise, did I really just read a (tortured) sentence that struggled to relate to me a piece of un-information, namely that one of the hardest parts of amateur scouting is predicting whether an amateur player will be any good in the future?

The Art of ScoutingWhatever, right?  Nobody reads a hockey book for the writing.  It’s ultimately about the hockey content, isn’t it?  For the record, I disagree.  I can think of at least three hockey books off the top of my head that I consider to be enjoyable primarily on account of the writers’ craft.   The writing need not play a starring role, perhaps, but without skilfull storytelling and clarity of expression the reader’s immersion in any subject material is inhibited.   The importance of a certain amount of technical merit is underscored by its absence, when (as in this book) that is the case.  Frequently awkward and almost juvenile, Malloy’s  text is from an aesthetic perspective frankly something to be endured rather than enjoyed.

Obviously, though, the marquee feature of a book about scouting, especially one that is subtitled “How the Hockey Experts Really Watch the Game and Decide Who Makes It”, is the promise that a light will be shone on the obscure habits and arcane methods of the (mostly anonymous) bird dogs in scouting circles.  In this regard, it must be said that – as perhaps the passage quoted above might suggest – Malloy’s book fails almost as spectacularly and almost as completely.

The concept of the book is, in my opinion, a strong one;  it is in the execution of that concept that this book falters.  Malloy is, according to the jacket on the book, a columnist and broadcaster who has been covering hockey prospects “for the past decade.”  He is apparently a co-host of Hockey Prospect Radio on Sirius Satellite Radio, though I have never heard of either the show or the author.  I gather that he has been involved in scouting for some time.  His concept was to take what he had learned about hockey scouting and complement it with the wisdom of others;  as a member of the scouting fraternity, Malloy was able to interview his peers and hoped to get them to talk about what exactly it is that they do for a living.  I was very excited by the notes on the book jacket  (a work of “tremendous substance” according to Doug Wilson; an inside look at what scouts do, per Bob McKenzie); I thought that I might enhance my ability to watch hockey critically by reading about what exactly it is that the scouts look for when evaluating talent.

There’s a Joke in Here Somewhere About Bobby Orr and Letting the Cat Out of the Bag

Spouse and I have had four straight days of nearly uninterrupted bliss:  with Friday and Monday away from work, we have been enjoying an uncharacteristic surfeit of leisure time.  Spouse was bold and adventurous;  on Saturday, she headed off to do some volunteer work with some horses and disabled children.

As for myself, in order to attempt to ensure that you do not think ill of me, I will tell you that I had plans.  Big plans.  I was going to do some writing for a new project that I’ve become involved with (more details on that yet to come).  I was going to make a quick little phony “Planet Earth” style documentary about Henry, Juniorvania’s top cat and number one clown.  I was going to get back to work repairing that old computer upstairs.  I was going to fool about with the new MacBook, GarageBand and my little music studio upstairs.  I was going to finally get that podcast that Doug and I did together edited and ready for whatever release it’s going to have.

So it’s not like I didn’t have any ambition.  Then I sat down in my favourite reading chair and started reading Stephen Brunt’s excellent book Searching for Bobby Orr.  Brunt’s 2006 examination of the rise to prominence of Parry Sound’s most famous citizen is a fascinating and engaging read.  The book is not a typical biography.  Orr himself  is frustratingly absent from the book in any kind of current or intimate sense;  Brunt explains in the acknowledgements that the retired superstar declined to become directly involved with the book (citing the desire to potentially write his own story instead).   Rather than providing the reader with direct access to the hockey hero, it instead primarily features the public and historical Orr, the bits of Bobby Orr we already know because he lived large portions of his life in the public eye:  the rise to prominence with the Bruins, the Cup winning goal immortalized in that photograph, his public frustration at not being able to participate in the ’72 Super Series, his final triumphant turn on the ice in the ’76 Canada Cup and – finally, tragically – his split from one-time super agent Alan Eagleson.  Denied intimate access to the man himself and his thoughts about the events of this most famous hockey life, Brunt manages to weave a compelling narrative by re-interpreting and contextualizing the events we already know about, spicing his own re-telling of the well-known tale by dropping in some lesser known details and the perspective of others who were involved in the making of Bobby Orr;  from Bruins bird dog Wren Blair,  the man who located the future Bruins prodigy as a young teenager;  from the occasional team-mate or opponent; from his own perspective.

Henry in a Sack
Henry is in the Bag

A book about Bobby Orr that contains precious little Bobby Orr may seem a little paradoxical, but my sense is that this is the closest thing to a true image of Bobby Orr that Brunt could construct.  No doubt Orr is a different person with those within his inner circle, but the point is that his inner circle is insular and distant.  Orr shades awfully close towards “recluse” for a man whose life was so fundamentally dependent upon his celebrity and his ability to entertain the public.  Because Bobby Orr exists in this book only in his public persona and only insofar as one’s character can emerge from the historical record of postgame interviews and the occasional (surprisingly rare) magazine feature, and because that version of Bobby Orr is supplemented only a very little bit by what amounts to a suggestion that there is a side to Bobby Orr that we don’t know (one that involves lots of women and something other than the “aw shucks” Bobby Orr when alcohol was involved), the picture of Orr that emerges is of a distant, guarded and mysterious man.  This is probably as “true” or accurate a depiction of Bobby Orr as may be objectively assembled, in a sense:  Orr very defiitely struggled to keep a large portion of himself hidden from public view.

More interestingly, though, the book is as much an essay about the ways in which the public’s relationship with its athletic heroes have changed.  In the wake of Tiger Woods’ parade of mistresses and bizarre automobile accident, the topic is timely, if not especially novel.  To his credit, however, Brunt manages for the most part to avoid facile analysis and the mere repetition by rote of obvious tropes.  It is here that Brunt’s book really shines;  his examination of the emergence of the NHLPA, the ways in which the players contributed to (and were partly responsible for) their exploitation by the NHL owners, along with a more general consideration of the role in our lives played by athletes and sporting entertainment are all worthy enough of a read on their own.  In the end, the stuff about Bobby Orr ends up being the gravy, rather than the meat of the meal.  This is almost as much a book about Alan Eagleson, Phil Esposito, and the Adams family (owners of the Bruins) as it is about Bobby Orr.

I thoroughly enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone with a passing interest in professional hockey.

Terrific fact I picked up from reading this book:  in the fall of 1966, when Bobby Orr prepared to join the Bruins as an eighteen year old rookie, there were only ten rookies in the entire NHL (this was the final year of the “original”* six team NHL).  That’s how tough it was to break in to the league back then; only ten new jobs opened up league-wide.

One other book I read over the past few days was Photographing Your Family by Joel Sartore with John Healey.  Published by National Geographic, this book is kind of a how-to pep talk for aspiring hobbyist photographers.  It gives the budding photography enthusiast some strategies for making better pictures, and some basic information about equipment, terminology and techniques.

I used some of the stuff I learned to take the picture to the right of this post.  Over the past few days, Henry has taken to obsessing over this red cloth shopping bag that has been on the carpet.  He jumps inside it and attacks the bottom of the bag, then curls up inside it and – I’m not kidding – basically demands to be carried around the house, up and down the stairs.  He seems to even like it when I swing him around in a circle, enough to make me dizzy.  He climbed into the bag yesterday afternoon and I grabbed the camera and put some of the principles I have been learning about to work.  I’m quite pleased with the results.