NHL’s European vacuum cleaner

For 30 years, Göran Stubb has searched the continent for talent

28.06.2013
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Back to Square One. Before his 30th or so NHL draft, IIHF Hall of Famer Göran Stubb enjoys Times Square in the heart of the Big Apple. Photo: Szymon Szemberg / IIHF

NEW YORK – No one knows European ice hockey talent better than Finn Göran Stubb. For three decades he has been making sure that the NHL does not miss out on any potential stars from the old continent. The NHL Draft is his annual showcase.

It’s hot and humid (what else is new?) around Times Square in New York at this time of year where the hockey world will gather to attend the event which, since 1969, has marked the unofficial end of the hockey season.

As most of the people who have a stake in this year’s NHL Draft (Sunday, at the New Jersey Devils arena, Prudential Center, 15.00 EST/21.00 CET) Göran Stubb is staying at the swanky official hotel of the 2013 draft in the heart of the Big Apple.

Stubb, from the capital Helsinki, knows this gig by now. So well, in fact, that you won’t find many hockey officials in North America who are so familiar with the proceedings as Göran. He visited his first NHL draft in 1981, at Montreal’s Queen Elizabeth Hotel.

“In the early ‘80s it became important for the NHL and its clubs to recruit the best talent from Europe, but it was still very much unchartered territory for the league,” he said during an interview at what feels like the center of the universe.

“So, during the 1981 Canada Cup, I met Jim Gregory, who already then was the director of the NHL’s central scouting activities. He asked me if I could help cover Europe for them. In 1983, I founded a company called European Sports Service, and 30 years later we are still doing the same thing, although the job has grown incredibly.”

“And Jim knew how important European talent can be for an NHL club. It was he who found Börje Salming and Inge Hammarström in Sweden when he was the general manager in Toronto, and he signed them for the Leafs in 1973. This was really the start of the European hockey exodus to the NHL.”

“It’s a little bit ironic, but the first European scout I hired for ESS in 1983 was Inge Hammarström. So he was a pioneer in many ways.”

When Stubb started to work for the NHL, he had already been a part of the Finnish and European hockey fabric for more than two decades. He was the chairman of the famous IFK Helsinki hockey club (1961-1975) before he was hired as the CEO of the Finnish Ice Hockey Association in 1976, and he stayed there for seven years before Mr. Gregory and the NHL came calling.

For his contributions to Finnish and international ice hockey, Stubb was inducted to the IIHF Hall of Fame, into the Builders’ category, in 2000. The IIHF Hall of Fame class that year was... not too shabby. It included Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri, Boris Mikhailov, Peter Stastny, and Tomas Jonsson.

Tell us a little about the early years as far as scouting in Europe.

Serious scouting in Europe didn’t really exist in the early ‘80s if you compare with the activity today. I recall that there were only three NHL teams that had scouts working Europe; Lars-Erik Sjöberg with the New York Rangers; Calgary had another Swede by name of Lasse Norrman; and, Finn Matti Väisänen scouted for Edmonton. That’s it. Today there are more than a hundred scouts covering Europe. Some NHL clubs have one; others have as many as five.

Another indication of how the NHL’s international approach has changed as far as scouting: at the 1984 Under-18 European Championship in Bad Tölz, Germany there were a total of six scouts present. At the Under-18 World Championship in Sochi last April the number was 160. So not only did the NHL clubs send their European scouts there, but most teams had also their GMs or Directors of Player Personnel in Sochi.

If the clubs do their own scouting, what is your company’s job?

We have seven part-time scouts watching players in all of the main European hockey countries, and we provide NHL clubs with lists of “players-to-watch”. You can call us a provider of second opinions.

We also provide logistical services to the NHL clubs at major junior events, like accreditations, sometimes transportation and accommodation and also services at the arena where the event takes place, making sure the scouts have access to rosters, lineups and statistics, and also a scout room where they can work.

Through our intranet we also update the clubs about rosters, roster changes, and injuries. So a scout doesn’t travel to Örnsköldsvik in northern Sweden to find out that the kid is not playing due to injury.

And everything that is done throughout the season, starting with the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in August until the IIHF U18 World Championship in April, culminates at the draft where the 30 clubs secure rights to 211 players. Roughly around thirty percent of the drafted players are from Europe.

You proudly call yourself the “vacuum cleaner”. Why?

We seldom miss any players. If there is a junior somewhere with a potential to play in the NHL, whether he is from Rauma, Finland, Trencin, Slovakia or Togliatti, Russia, our scouts know about him and have seen him. And not only once or twice. To have a good understanding of a player’s qualities, both physical and mental, you must have seen him at least five or six times at different occasions throughout the season. Only then you can make a fair judgment and rank him on our list.

And still, what you see at 16-18 is very often not what the player becomes at 22-23.

Correct. What we do is project. In many cases it is very difficult to tell if the youngster who looks so great at 17 will really be good enough to play in the NHL when he is 21 or 22. There are so many things that factor in. It would have been much better had the draft been for 20-year-olds. But the U.S. and Canadian labour laws don’t allow that. If you are 18 and can take any job, you can also be drafted. That’s the reason the decisions have to be taken at 18. So for this draft the player can be born as late as 15th September 1995.

Looking at the historic relevance of the draft, one could say that it is very important for the clubs, but not for the players. Do you agree?

Yes. For the player this is just one of many steps. If a player is drafted very low or not drafted at all, he can still become a very good and valuable player. At the end of the day, it’s really all up to him. There are so many examples of players who were not regarded very highly at the time of the draft and they became stars both for their club and country. Some were never even drafted and became great.

But if a club makes bad mistakes at the draft table, it can influence a club’s fortunes in a very negative way for many years. Conversely, good drafts can build dynasties. The best example is Detroit which has been a consistently great club thanks to the way they have drafted and mainly with late picks.

Chicago is also a good example. Some years ago, they didn’t draft very well and it showed in their performance. With the new management, they upgraded their scouting, drafted better and look where they are now. Clubs which are consistently good are the same which spend resources on scouting.

Apart from “vacuum cleaning” you have another analogy for good scouting.

Yes, I compare investing in a player with buying a house from a previous owner. Would you really invest heavily into a new house without first properly making a total evaluation of it, like bringing a plumber, carpenter and maybe a floor-layer to have it checked out from top to bottom? Probably not. It’s the same with a player. Before you draft him and later reward him with a handsome salary, you must know everything about him.

SZYMON SZEMBERG


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