Building a winner

JIM KERNAGHAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 11:38 AM ET

What do an ex-cop, a couple of firefighters, a trucker, a cab company operator, a computer specialist and a meter reader have in common? Along with some white-collar workers and two hockey executives, they constitute the London Knights scouting staff that is in large part responsible for the team's history-making season in Canadian junior hockey.

All told, they are 12 in number, which will mean a crammed Knights executive office in three weeks to prepare for the OHL player draft. It will be loud, it will sometimes get heated but every one of them will get to make a case for players they have scouted.

Who are these guys, these fellows who together witness thousands of games and even more players every winter in centres large and small across the province? Well, let's start with the chief scout.

John McDonald is a retired Ottawa detective who has been assessing potential major junior players since 1972 and is responsible for the bird-dogging tentacles the Knights have established. The young 72-year-old quips that he got the job because he scouted owner/general manager Mark Hunter and insisted he be drafted first when he was with the Brantford juniors.

"He says I must know what I'm doing," McDonald offers with a chuckle.

You go down the Knights roster and every player on it has one or more strong supporters among the scouts. Each one of the players is on the roster because a scout or scouts stood up and made a solid case for him when the bird- dogging brain trust got together prior to past drafts.

"It's a business trait of the Hunters," says assistant general manager Jim McKellar. "They like to keep everything open and they want input from everyone. If you aren't passionate about a player and don't say anything, nothing will happen."

Essentially, each of the scouts has a specific area. Two handle an area and also cross over into other areas so more than one set of scouting eyes gets a look at every player in whom the Knights might be interested. The two are McDonald and Terry Uniac.

The players have already been seen by Dave Syvret (captain Danny's father and trucking company owner in the Niagara area), Victor Carneiro, Brad Ostrom, Stu Robinson, London fire captain Dave Warren, Steve Warner, Mark Henry and Bob McKinnon. McKellar and Mark Hunter, who currently are in the process of calling more than 150 players to get a sense of their hockey ambitions (might they be leaning toward a U.S. university scholarship, for example), also scout, Hunter going far afield, McKellar more locally.

The talent scouts are scattered around the province. McDonald resides in Ottawa. Robinson, who scouted past and present Knights such as Danny Bois, Joel Scherban and Trevor Kell, works out of Sault Ste. Marie. Carneiro has the Toronto area. McKinnon goes into the U.S. as far west as Chicago.

Sometimes, they'll be looking at an individual or two. Other times, McDonald is looking at everyone on the ice at such events as minor midget prospects tournaments.

What do they look for? Well, talent, of course, but much more. The dean of the scouts came right to the point.

"Character," McDonald said. "We look for a lot of character. It used to be you'd draft a player who was very good or exceptional and that was the end of it. Now, you draft character more than anything else.

"It's a funny thing, though -- along with the skills there's usually good character. The better hockey players all seem to have integrity and character to them and that is what has made them what they are. We spend a lot of time finding out about a kid off the ice and what they do. It makes a big difference."

McDonald has considerable knowledge of adolescent proclivities, having spent 35 years as a cop. He was involved in investigations of everything from teenage pranks to homicides. A kid's attitude is critical, he says.

"Does he want to work hard? Does he take it easy on the ice? Does he get along with people? Is he out every night? The attitude of parents is important, too.

"Parents aren't wrong. It's their children and it's important they see they are treated properly. Some go overboard, though, and you can't put up with it. It puts pressure on the kid, too."

McDonald says the Knights are the best team he's ever been involved with and he's been with a few.

He started with the then-Hamilton Red Wings, which became the Fincups that won the Memorial Cup in 1976, and he also was with the Ottawa 67's and the Belleville Bulls. Mark Hunter worked with him when Hunter was coaching the Sarnia Sting and hired him to head up the Knights bird-dog department not long after the Hunter brothers bought the franchise.

It has been said one of the London team's strengths is that within a powerful lineup there is an abiding sense of respect among the players.

"No team is 100 per cent but the Knights players get along better than any team I've ever seen," McDonald said. "A lot of that has to do with (head coach Dale) and Mark. The kids look up to them. They respect them; they know hockey and they know what they're doing. It brushes off on everybody in the end. It starts with honesty and goes from there."

A former defenceman who played minor pro hockey in Milwaukee and also baseball in Florida, McDonald says some scouts have an innate knack for projecting developing talent in a young player but sheer hard work is the formula to successful scouting and drafting.

"The players aren't going to come to you. As head scout, I have to see that every (prospective pick) is covered by our staff. We see many of them several times."

The difficult part is trying to imagine how a minor midget player might look in a couple of years.

"It's pretty hard to take a 15-year-old and say he's going to become a pro player and we have to do that," McDonald said. "You have to have some sense of projecting them, what they'll be like in a few years. Luckily, we're more right than wrong."

The Knights were painstakingly assembled for this Memorial Cup season and it's evident in the lineup. Roles are clearly defined, special team alignments are clear-cut and the goaltender package was the product of much planning.

When the draft comes up, there's no doubt where McDonald stands.

"In the first round or two, you get the best player you can get," he said. "After that, you look at what you need. You're not going to pass on a real good player for a defenceman because you need one."

Junior hockey and the NHL are similar in one respect. Teams that pick players from the later rounds who turn out to be strong assets tend to do well.

The Knights have done well in that area. They got Syvret in the fifth round, Marc Methot in the sixth, Trevor Kell in the fourth, Jordan Foreman in the seventh.

McKellar recalls McDonald jumping out of his seat in the Knights office during the 2001 draft when they got Corey Perry as fifth pick overall. The scene was re-enacted a year later when David Bolland was still available when the Knights had eighth pick of the first round.

The coming draft will be a bit different from previous ones. The Knights have identified a strong London-area group of potential picks and in their calls to players and parents outside the area the reception has been much different than in the early years of the Hunter regime.

"You'd get some who didn't know much about the Knights," McKellar said. "I'm finding it's a lot different now. You ask how much they know about the Knights and they tell you they know a lot, that they see them on the TSN highlights almost every night."

While that is nice to hear, it won't have as much impact now. The Knights pick 20th.

Much depends on the work of the devoted dozen and the thousands of kilometres they've racked up beating the bushes. One or two gems from the deeper rounds would go a long way in the rebuilding process that awaits the team that hopes to be holding the Memorial Cup next month.

HOW THEY ARRIVED

2. Frank Rediker Trade with Windsor, 2004

3. Marc Methot Sixth round, 2001 OHL draft

4. Matt McCready Seventh round, 2004 OHL draft

7. Drew Larman Trade with Sarnia, 2004

10. Josh Beaulieu Second round, 2003 OHL draft

11. Trevor Kell Fourth round, 2002 OHL draft

14. Kris Belan Free agent, 2005

16. Steve Ferry First round, 2004 OHL draft

17. Robbie Drummond Second round, 2002 OHL draft

23. Kelly Thompson Free agent, 2004

25. Danny Syvret Fifth round, 2001 OHL draft

27. Ryan Martinelli Free agent, 2004

33. Brandon Prust Free agent, 2002

44. Rob Schremp Trade with Mississauga, 2003

49. Danny Fritsche Trade with Sarnia, 2005

52. Jeff Whitfield Trade with Sarnia, 2004

55. Daniel Girardi Trade with Guelph, 2005

57. Jordan Foreman Seventh round, 2003 OHL draft

71. Harrison Reed Third round, 2004 OHL draft

74. Bryan Rodney Trade with Kingston, 2004

79. Dylan Hunter Second round, 2001 OHL draft

87. Adam Perry 12th round, 2003 OHL draft

91. David Bolland First round, 2002 OHL draft

94. Corey Perry First round, 2001 OHL draft


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