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Nature of hockey is harsh on scouts

The rental car trudged slowly along Highway 401, trying to outlast the blizzard that attacked the two-lane road between Regina and Toronto. The car had slowed to 20 mph, and the driver was trying desperately to keep in sight the taillights of a diesel truck ahead.

Eventually, he could not. The truck moved out of sight, leaving nothing visible but relentless snow. It was several minutes before another sight came into focus _ that of the truck, now in a ditch because the road curved and the truck did not.

That was when the three hockey scouts decided to play it safe, to pull to the side of the road, 100 miles from nowhere, and let the snowstorm pass. For more than an hour, they sat, the engine running for warmth, and wondered how long it would be before they could move again. Someone glanced at the gas gauge and wondered if the fuel would be gone before the blizzard, thereby exposing them to the sub-zero temperature.

It was about that time that the man in the back seat _ Don Murdoch, erstwhile scout for the Tampa Bay Lightning _ began to question his chosen line of work.

"A lot of things go through your mind," Murdoch said, laughing softly. "For instance, I've heard of that movie where the people end up eating each other to stay alive, but those other two guys were pretty ugly."

In the National Hockey League, it is the season of the scout. With the draft approaching (June

26), the fate of every team in the league rests in the hands of these men who maneuver the backroads leading to every small town in Canada, to hidden rinks in foreign countries, to outdoor rinks in big cities.

It is a tough profession, hockey scout. It is a life of knowing every service station on every Canadian backroad between Moose Jaw and Swift Current. It is knowing the 30-minute drive through the scrub to find the rink in the hockey factory of Notre Dame (the one in Saskatchewan). It is standing at an outdoor rink in Boston and being so cold that you cannot write your reports. It is 7-Eleven coffee and fast food and reading maps as you drive.

"What we do is go where the players are," said John Chapman, head of scouting for the Lightning. Chapman and his staff of five full-time and three part-time scouts thusly make sure they travel "to everywhere you want to be, and to some places you don't want to be."

Murdoch, for instance, sees about 250 hockey games a year, most at places that make Expo Hall look palatial. Chapman estimates he made "between five and seven" trips to Europe and the former Soviet Union last winter. Tony Esposito, the team's director of hockey operations, estimates the team has spent $500,000 on scouting during the 1992-93 season.

The top prospects in the draft, players such as Alexandre Daigle, Chris Pronger, Rob Niedermayer and Chris Gratton, have been scouted "about 20-25 times each" by the Lightning. Other players? If they can skate without training wheels, odds are the Lightning has seen them.

"You can't do this by watching tapes," Chapman said. "You have to be there, to see the flow of the game and the flow of the player. I would never scout a player on film."

And so they travel. On Christmas, Murdoch was changing planes. "They love me on Northwest airlines," he said. "They want me to buy stock."

Of course, every sport has scouts, and every scout searches for talent like some modern-day prospector. Like other sports, hockey has changed with its game (fewer hammerheads, more skaters). But there are pronounced differences in scouting hockey.

For one thing, the players involved are usually 17 or 18. It would be like the NFL signing players out of high school. "It's tough," Murdoch said. "I don't want to take anything away from other sports, but they usually can see a guy over three or four years. We have to make a decision on him the first year we see him. The big word we use is projection. We have to say where a guy will be when he's 25 or 30."

For another, there is the weather. These aren't baseball bird dogs, sitting in the sun with a scorecard. These are men challenging the Canadian winter, playing dodge ball with the weather. This year, for instance, Murdoch and Esposito left London, Ontario, to attend a game at Niagara Falls. Halfway there, they heard that an ice storm was about to hit Niagara Falls. "This is nuts," Esposito said, "turn this car around and take us to Toronto."

Chapman remembers his first scouting trip for his old team, the New York Rangers, when he had to purchase tire chains to make it through the mountains. "You should have heard the accountants yell about that expense account," he said. That's nothing, however. Murdoch remembers spending $60 for a pair of long johns in Finland _ at an indoor arena.

Another factor is the demand for foreign players, which has sent scouts scrambling to other countries in the face of indecipherable directions. Chapman remembers a 14-hour flight to Poland that was followed by a 6{-hour van ride to a rink, simply to make sure another team didn't know about a prospect he was unaware of.

When it is all done, the Lightning will break down files of some 265 players, ranking them by region, position and ability. And then it drafts, and it waits.

"The biggest satisfaction is making that projection," Chapman says, "and then watching them go on and develop. The nightmare is making the projection, and then the player not reaching that plateau."

And so it drives them on, through the nights and the blizzards, making sure that some other team doesn't know of a talent that is hidden, or of a hidden insight to a talent that is not. It is a demanding job, a job sometimes as hard as the weather outside. Most of the time, however, it has its rewards.

That is, until you are stuck in a blizzard by the side of the road.

"Then," Murdoch said, "you kind of wish you had been a lawyer."