Last week I finished my entry by briefly introducing you to the annual Bauer International Invite that was held this past weekend in Chicago. If you were able to check out the tournament’s website, you’ve probably got a pretty good idea as to how insane the schedule was. With a four-game Round Robin played over a 48-hour span for each team, 40 teams in each of the top four age/skill brackets, and 21 different rink locations throughout the Chicagoland area, it was hard to drive five minutes around town without passing a car sporting a hockey team’s logo on the rear window. I knew going into this weekend that Friday, Saturday, and Sunday were going to be a couple of extremely long days, but I had no idea that I’d be spending a total of 29 hours from Friday night to last night either in a rink, or driving between them.
While the Bauer Invite officially kicked off last Thursday night at Seven Bridges Ice Arena in Woodridge, IL, I was out of town Wednesday and Thursday and didn’t get back to Chicago until around 8:40pm Friday night – and that’s where it all began. I knew the Soviet Wings 95s were going to be playing just miles from my home at 9:25 that night so I had to hustle. Fortunately, as with most tournaments, the rinks were running a little behind and so I was able to make it with time to spare. As the Zamboni was working its magic on the ice, I began to browse through the stats that I had printed off on both the Wings and their nemesis for the night, the Barrie (Ontario) Colts. I noticed that in the Wings’ first game of the tournament, a 2-1 victory, both their goals were scored by the same player – Artem Prokhorov. I decided to pay special attention to him and see if maybe the last game was a fluke – especially since when Artem stepped on the ice I noticed that he was also one of the smallest players on either team. After three periods and three goals for Prokhorov, I was convinced that this kid definitely had talent. Artem seemed to be a very fluid skater with good vision and excellent hands. There was one issue, however – his size. What makes things difficult, though, is that at the Bantam Minor level you’re dealing with 14-year-olds. At ages that young, you never know when a growth spurt could occur.
Besides age, though, a change in scenery could also make a huge difference in his muscle development. Over the past few years I’ve noticed a major flaw in the Russian amateur hockey system – lack of proper nutrition. In many cases it’s merely a monetary issue – most families in Russia can’t afford to buy the large amount of calories required by athletes competing at such a high level. And as for nutritional supplements such as protein powders and weight gainers that have become commonplace in North America – I can assure you that for the most part such items are definitely not in the Russian family budget. I haven’t heard much of Russian amateur clubs providing nutritional assistance to their athletes, but it’s certainly something that, if properly implemented, could make a huge difference. It’s definitely one thing I plan on focusing on with all my Russian clients.
Anyway, I apologize for that digression. To get to my point, while I was impressed with some of what I saw from the young Russian squad, I needed to see more to be convinced. In addition, while the Wings handled the Colts by a final score of 6-3, there were a few players from Barrie that were very strong players and I made sure to make note of them.
So after a nice relaxing first night of play, Saturday morning started off with games at 7:00am at the Darien Sportsplex in Darien, IL. Knowing I needed to take advantage of having this much talent so close to my home, I managed to pull myself out of bed around 5:50am and head over to “the Plex” as we used to call it back when I was playing in these tournaments. I should note that one nice thing about the organization of the Bauer Invite was the selection of the facilities. Each age level had their games limited to basically two or three rinks which were close to each other in proximity. Thus, if you wanted to follow one age group, getting from game-to-game wasn’t too difficult. The 95s were playing in the three rinks closest to my home and the Wings were also a part of that bracket so I decided to follow them. Another factor in my choice to stick with the 95s was that I figured most of the scouts and agents would be lurking around the U16 games. For the most part, I heard that my theory was correct.
After watching my first game of the day, I wasn’t very impressed. Luckily, I decided to stick it out and see the next two teams. During that game I was able to notice three players on another team from Ontario that seemed to stand out among the rest of the kids on the ice. All three were forwards, but each had a slightly different style of play. While the flashiest of the bunch was also the smallest, I was extremely impressed by how “big” he actually played. At the same time, the other two were very solid physically and finished every check, but also had excellent vision on the ice. One final thing that really put it over the top with me was that all three players were gritty – each skated every stride like it was their last of the game. In my opinion, character can never be overlooked. If a kid’s constantly busting his butt, I’ll take him any day of the week over a slightly more skilled player that lacks a good work ethic. I glanced through my tournament program and noticed that the team’s next game wouldn’t be until just after 6:00pm back at Darien. I noted the three players in my notebook and highlighted their game on my schedule.
Next up – Soviet Wings vs. L.A. Selects at the International Ice Center in Romeoville, IL. The Selects are one of the top hockey programs in the States, so I didn’t’ want to miss this matchup. Physically, the Russians couldn’t hang with the bigger, stronger, and faster L.A. club. I was disappointed with the 6-0 score but really liked what I saw from a few of the Selects players. Before this tournament started, I decided that I wasn’t going to approach any players directly – I really felt that with kids this young, it just isn’t appropriate. Instead, I decided to find the head coach and chat it up with him for a bit. After a short talk, he let me know that he basically had an agent who he worked with and so he really couldn’t help me out. To be honest, I was just happy he decided to be upfront and not yank my chain around.
After the Wings/Selects, I headed back to Darien and met up with fellow SportsAgentBlog.com contributor and “Rookie Duties” follower Ryan Ballard. We grabbed a quick lunch and talked a little puck, but then it was right back to work scouting in the rinks. We were able to catch some good games and noticed a few talented players but nothing that really jumped out at me.
From there it was over to my third rink of the day, the Rocket Ice Arena in Bolingbrook, IL, for the Wings second game of the day. This time they faced the Cleveland Barons, and while the score was much closer, the Wings once again looked flat and fell 3-2. Since registering six points in the Wings first two games, Prokhorov had been held to just one assist in the last two. In addition, with the Selects’ fourth straight win in Round Robin play, the Wings had been officially eliminated from competition.
By the time I got back to Darien for Ontario club’s second match of the day, I was completely exhausted but excited to catch the game I’d been waiting for all afternoon. Once again, the three boys I had noticed before played extremely well and their team was able to pull off a victory, which put them through to the quarterfinals. I had done a little small talking with some of the family members during the contest but I didn’t want to really flaunt the fact that I was an agent scouting their kids (although I’m sure it was fairly obvious) – parents can get protective when it comes to agents and rightfully so.
I knew I needed to talk with this coach at some point, and I decided to stake out the team’s locker room. As I caught him walking out, I first congratulated him on a solid win. Although he immediately seemed like a very approachable, friendly guy, he wasn’t extremely pleased with his team’s performance that night. Apparently the team had played games Wednesday and Thursday as well, bringing their total number of games played in the previous 72-hour period to six. When you include a nine-hour drive to Chicago in the same block of time, a little fatigue is certainly understandable. After talking hockey for a few minutes the coach asked which players I had been looking at. He agreed that the three I was most interested in were his three strongest players and told me I should see them skate when they aren’t as tired. I offered the coach my business card and he immediately asked for a few extras to give to some of his kids. Obviously I agreed and gave him all that I had left from the day. That’s when he did what I didn’t expect – he asked if I wanted to meet the three players I had been scouting. At first I was reluctant (or at least I wanted to appear that way) because I didn’t want to stress them out with anxiety the night before a big game. I was never a talented enough player to have agents coming after me at age 14, but I can imagine that while it may be exciting, the pressure that comes with the attention can be overwhelming. After the coach assured me that these kids would only be thrilled knowing that an agent had singled them out, I decided to talk with them for a bit. The coach pulled all three kids out of the locker room and I spoke with them as a group. I kept the conversation light and told them to just have fun and keep playing well. Their coach had suggested a few dates on their schedule that would be good for me to visit their town and watch them play at their home rink and so I also explained to the three boys that I’d probably be making a trip up to Ontario to see them play later in the season. While this is certainly true, I really just wanted them to know that their next game wouldn’t be a make or break performance. Like I said, the last thing I wanted to do was stress these kids out.
After talking a bit longer with the Canadian coach, I headed back to Romeoville to catch the rest of the games for the night. Nothing really blew me away, but I was still feeling pretty good about my encounter with the Ontario club just a few hours earlier. Their next game was scheduled for 7:00am Sunday, so it was going to be another early day. I spent Saturday night doing a little research on the Ontario boys and unfortunately didn’t get to sleep until about 1:30am.
On my way over to the Romeoville rink Sunday morning, I debated whether or not I should bring a “Box-o-Joe” from Dunkin’ Donuts to the rink. I’d been to enough tournaments to know the parents probably didn’t get to bed early Saturday night and it might be a nice way to get to know them. On the other hand, I was worried that buying coffee for everybody would be a little too much. In the end, I bought the coffee and shared it with a handful of the parents while others were a little hesitant. The coach also grabbed a cup while we talked briefly before the game. Although my contribution might not have gotten the reviews that I had hoped for, bringing it certainly didn’t seem to hurt and may have only made me stand out in the parents’ minds a little more. In most cases that’s a good thing – a few of the parents did in fact thank me for my hospitality.
Unfortunately, while my three potential advisees had another strong outing, their team fell in the quarterfinals. After the game, I was able to talk a little more with the coach and parents and I even got the chance to watch some of the remaining games with two of the three boys before they headed home. While I didn’t want to ask for their contact information, I made sure they had my card and told them to call if they needed any help with anything. I also let them know that when I get my Ontario trip figured out, I’d get a hold of their coach and make sure the word gets passed along to them. It’s funny how I only had met the kids twice for a total of about 30 minutes but it was sad to see them go.
To top off the weekend, I caught a semifinal match of the 95 AAA Bracket (to that point I had been following only the 95 AAA Elites), and finally the 95 Elites Championship between the L.A. Selects and the Westchester (NY) Express. While the final game wasn’t exactly a nail-biter (L.A. won 7-1), I was able to meet with two other coaches and get some positive responses back from them. While most of these leads might not pan out to anything, getting our hockey division (and myself for that matter) exposure could never hurt. You never know what breaks you might catch.