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Lightning has a scout with clout

If head scout John Chapman had his way, the Tampa Bay Lightning would look and play like linebackers on skates.

Big. Strong. Hard-nosed.

Those are qualities Chapman had as a player, demanded as a coach and now looks for in prospects.

Last year he saw those qualities in left wing Brantt Myhres, who played for the Lethbridge Hurricanes in Chapman's hometown in western Canada.

So at the 1992 entry draft in Montreal last June, while some at the Lightning's table were leaning toward another prospect, Chapman fought hard and got his man. Tampa Bay took the 6-foot-3, 200-pound Myhres _ and his 383 penalty minutes _ in the fifth round.

"When you believe in a player," Chapman said, "you go to bat for him."

Chapman and the rest of the Lightning's scouting staff will be back at the table for Saturday's entry draft, prepared to pick those teenagers who they think will one day help the Lightning win the Stanley Cup.

It's the one day of the year when the scouts come out of obscurity and into the limelight.

"I'll be just an observer," Lightning coach Terry Crisp said. "I will try to look pretty, shake hands and smile. It's like when you have company at the dinner table: Little kids are there to be seen and not heard. It's the same with coaches at the draft table."

The puck stops at Lightning general manager Phil Esposito on draft day. But after the first two or three picks, he, too, mostly is an observer because he hasn't seen the junior prospects play. It then becomes Phil's brother Tony, the team's director of hockey operations, and Chapman who run the show.

"Actually, we've already done most of our fighting," Tony Esposito said while pulling out a hard folder he calls his bible. "We're prepared. We go by our bible and we rarely deviate."

The hockey bible is the names of prospects, ranked according to the order the Lightning will select them. The top 40 prospects overall are ranked. More than 200 other prospects are ranked within their leagues. For example, all the top players from the Western Hockey League are ranked. It's the same for the Ontario Hockey League, Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, U.S. colleges, etc.

"The discussions get pretty heated making those lists," Tony Esposito said. "Blood pressure rises. But after we make a decision, that's it."

Chapman said the Lightning's scouting staff is good because the scouts fight passionately for players they believe in passionately. "No one sits on the fence and hems and haws," he said.

Scouts often tend to like players who are similar to themselves. For example, scout Don Murdoch tends to like players "who are not bangers, but more skilled, like he was as a player," Chapman said.

With the Lightning's first pick next week (third overall), Phil Esposito likes Chris Gratton (a center who parks in front of the goal and scores a lot of garbage/rebound goals). Remind you of anyone?

"I like grinding, physical players that maybe aren't blessed with as much talent but you know what you're going to get every night," Chapman said. "Guys like (Tampa Bay's) Robbie DiMaio."

But choosing players in the entry draft is, as Tony Esposito put it, "a crapshoot. Sometimes your sixth pick turns out and your second pick won't. Everybody makes mistakes. You're guessing a lot, too. Sometimes you go on your gut feeling. You just hope you're not wrong too often."

That's why the Lightning spends about $500,000 a year on scouting. As head scout, Chapman coordinates the schedules of eight full- and part-time scouts to canvass North America and Europe.

During one trip in February, Chapman and Murdoch spent 14 consecutive days together, going from Toronto to Detroit to Madison, Wis., to Dubuque, Iowa, to Boston to Detroit back to Boston back to Toronto. "I knew John before, but I really got to know him on that trip," Murdoch said.

Chapman, 47, grew up in Settler, Alberta. He played left wing through the minor ranks, but with only six teams in the NHL, he gave up trying to make the big time to take a managing job with the Centennials. He went on to coach and be a general manager, helping develop NHL stars such as Mark Tinordi, Ken Wregget, Danny Gare, Mike Rogers, John Davidson, Lanny McDonald and all six Sutter brothers.

Chapman, still close to a lot of his former players, was helping Tinordi with his contract with the New York Rangers in 1987 when Phil Esposito was the general manager. "He asked me if I wanted to become a scout," Chapman said. "I thought about it and decided to try it."

Chapman misses the hands-on work with the kids but enjoys the responsibility he has with Tampa Bay.

"The big reward as a scout is to see a kid you fought for or recommended eventually step up at the NHL level," Chapman said. "That makes all those long trips worthwhile."