If Norman Rockwell had become an existentialist instead of everyone's favorite uncle, he might have tried to express the frustration and unreality of the modern world by focusing closely on the details of hotel and motel rooms. Day after day tens of thousands of wayfarers wake up as "guests of the inn." A more correct term might be prisoner, for to one way of thinking the guest room is a form of torture as sophisticated as any to be found in a spy novel.
You lie in these color-coordinated plasterboard rectangles and reach the edge of hysteria looking at the objects emptied from your pockets on the imitation walnut, no-mar surface of the dresser: wallet, rent-a-car keys, Rolaids, room key, a creased hockey program, books of matches that lay out the last two weeks of travel through the Ontario boondocks and advertise a succession of restaurants to be avoided. Too, there are yesterday's socks, ticket stubs flecked with tobacco, full ashtrays, club sandwich remains and five credit cards face down like a blind man's poker hand.
On your way to the bathroom you check the room key to make sure that you know where you are. The similarity of motel rooms makes it possible to fall asleep in St. Paul and wake up in Rangoon. You make a cup of lukewarm instant coffee on the infernal machine hanging from the wall, retreat to the bed, put 25¢ in the Magic Fingers vibrator and watch whatever happens to be on television, holding on very tightly until it's time to go to the coffee shop for breakfast.
If you happen to be a professional scout in the National Hockey League you become hardened to these morning terrors. Jim Sutherland is a professional hockey scout. He is 45 years old and employed by the California Golden Seals. Before he became a scout Sutherland was a traveling salesman; he has been used to dealing with a kind of permanent dislocation most of his adult life. During the intense, 32-week hockey season Sutherland doesn't see much of his home in Amherst, Mass. "In the past 10 days I have been home for eight hours' sleep and breakfast," he muses over another breakfast, this one in Toronto. "Or was it dinner?"
That night Sutherland huddles against the cold, cement-block wall of Treasure Island Garden, an ice arena in London, Ontario. As he reads the evening's program—he does so with the care of a Biblical scholar—the metal doors keep opening, admitting Ontarians in pointy black shoes and '50s haircuts and a good deal of snow. But not even a full-scale blizzard will keep 4,000 fans from gathering to watch the London Knights take on the feisty Sudbury Wolves. This is the cream of Canadian youth hockey, the Ontario Hockey Association's Major Junior A League for players 20 and under.
What the fans may never know is that at least 18 NHL scouts will also be watching, and these men couldn't care less about towns, teams, scores, rules or standings. They sit high in the corner of the stands, Montreal scouts shoulder to shoulder with Boston scouts, and so on. Last night they were in Peterborough, tomorrow night they will be in Kitchener, the next night in St. Catharines. They go from arena to arena, meat-loaf dinner to meat-loaf dinner.
Sutherland is feverish before the game. He must know the height, weight and age of each player. He must know which players are on negotiation lists for other teams. There are added pressures. The Golden Seals have been sold back to the NHL by Owner Charlie Finley. This means a new general manager, Garry Young, has taken over. Heads may roll, and Sutherland's with them. Chief Seal Scout Ed Reigle is here tonight, nervous, pacing, whipping his men into action.
Bernie Assaly, a Seal scout based in Montreal, complains, "I don't think I'll ever get warm again. I'll see 120 hockey games this year. All that ice! And last night in the hotel...newlyweds in the next room. No sleep, frozen. Why does a reasonable man do this?"
There is no time to pursue an answer. O Canada comes over the P.A. system. By the time the first period begins, Sutherland has covered his program with numbers, lines, arrows, stars, shorthand and spilled coffee. It looks like the original score for a John Cage piano concerto. Trying to figure out each scout's private number and letter code would put a Pentagon cryptologist to the test.
"I've got my own statistical code," says Sutherland. "It makes me feel safer. If I dropped this program and another scout picked it up, he wouldn't even know who I was looking at. But mostly it's just for efficiency. There are too many things I have to write down. I think most scouts do the same. They develop a numerical shorthand so they can eventually see part of the game."