"Take Miss Furrow over there," he says, pointing to a knot of plain girls with nosegays. "You can bet there's a beauty scout around here, too."
One of those 10th-grade illustrations of the food chain came to mind—a small fish being swallowed by a larger fish being swallowed by a larger fish, etc., until there is finally a single immense shark taking up the whole Pacific with all marine life in its stomach. We may come to the day when the last Big Scout and the last Big Talent stand on a wind-torn cliff with the final Big Contract between them, everyone else having been recruited.
A few days later Sutherland is in Boston, riding to the Garden, that ruined dowager of American sports arenas, in a taxi with a popular bumper sticker: GOD BLESS ORR COUNTRY. The driver brandishes a copy of The Hockey News, a weekly paper devoted exclusively to the sport. "This is as close to hockey as I can get," he complains. "My doctor won't let me go to games or watch them on TV. My heart, you know."
"Yes, I know," says Sutherland. He had a heart attack himself, in prescouting, business days. He finds that scouting is not only less tense and demanding than business, but that scouts are even getting media attention. "When I go out to certain college games I get interviewed on local sports shows on radio and TV. They want to know what their team will be facing next week, things like that."
Boston's North Station is the entrance to the Garden, and walking through it is like traversing hell to get to heaven. Near smashed wine bottles stands a small, well-dressed group of hockey scouts. Tonight Boston plays host to the semi-finals of the Eastern College Athletic Association's hockey playoffs. Harvard, RPI, Cornell and Boston University are in contention. Most of the 18 scouts at tonight's games got here in three or four cars. "It may seem like a conflict of interest," says Sutherland, "but it gets lonely on the road, and you know the other scouts pretty well after a season or two. We don't discuss individual players or things like that, but it's damn nice to have company."
When RPI takes the ice against favored Harvard, the crowd does not set up the Ontarian howling heard in London. It is definitely college: Air Force parkas, brown-rice muscles and Norwegian sweaters that smell like baa-baa black sheep. Between periods the scouts gather in the press room for coffee or beer and talk with a college coach or two. "An NHL scout never actually talks to a college player," says Sutherland. "I've never even said hello to one. We all deal through the coaches. Some are better than others, of course. Some of them don't want you anywhere near the town, much less the players."
Like his colleagues, Sutherland is working against a strict deadline; he must have his talent sniffed out by May 28, the date of the NHL amateur player draft. "A scout's responsibility to a player ends with the draft," he says. "No one goes around saying, "Oh, Sutherland brought that guy in,' or anything like that. We really are talent scouts who just find and rate kids. We're not their advisers or coaches."
And rating may be the most difficult of a scout's jobs. "There is rarely any disagreement on who we're going to try to draft in the first round or so," says Sutherland. "The problem comes when you try to decide which player to rank 95th and which to rank 96th. That's where scouts earn their pay."
By the end of the second period of the second game of the night, the scouts are showing the strain. "This isn't the worst," says Sutherland. "Last year in the ECAC playoffs I watched three games in four hours—at Harvard for a period and a half, then a fast drive to BU for another period and a half, and then another roadrun out to BC to pick up the last period there. By the time I was done, it took a day or two to sort out what I'd seen where."
On the way back to the inevitable motel room, this one in Cambridge, an exhausted Sutherland sits in the taxi clutching an attaché case full of carefully noted player strengths and eligibility rules. He looks like a tired business rep after seeing his last client of the week. But he is in a reflective mood and talks easily about the coming scouting battle.