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Inside the Blackhawks’ pandemic scouting process and plan for the NHL Draft

Three Hawks scouts describe how they adjusted to video scouting, Zoom interviews and the draft’s postponement from June to Tuesday.

The Blackhawks’ draft day setup at Fifth Third Arena.
Chicago Blackhawks photo

On Tuesday evening, Jim McKellar will settle down in his office at home in the small town of Ingersoll, Ontario.

He’ll turn on his TV, plug his laptop into his monitor, open Zoom and join the Blackhawks’ call.

And then he’ll watch, help and provide player insight when needed as the Hawks’ front office and scouting team navigates through the first all-virtual draft in NHL history.

“It’ll be a little different,” McKellar said, slightly understating things.

Tuesday’s first round (6 p.m., NBCSN), during which the Hawks will pick 17th, and Wednesday’s second through seventh rounds (10:30 a.m., NHL Network), during which the Hawks will (probably) make six additional selections, will be unlike anything the hockey world has ever seen.

After half a year of adapting to the strange realities of working during a pandemic, though, the Hawks’ robust scouting department is as ready for this as they’ll get.

McKellar — the Hawks’ head Eastern Canada scout — as well as scouting director Mark Kelley and regional Quebec-based scout Alex Rouleau all opened up to the Sun-Times this week about the journey to this moment.

“It’ll be nice to wrap it up, because it’s been a really strange and extended time for everybody,” McKellar said. “The biggest thing is to have some closure for both the players and for us.”

The junior hockey seasons in the U.S., Canada, Sweden, Finland, Russia and every other country the Hawks regularly scout were winding down in March when COVID-19 shut everything down.

Seventeen-, 18- and 19-year-old prospects eligible for the 2020 draft — initially scheduled for June 26-27 in Montreal — never enjoyed their playoff runs, and scouts eager to watch those postseason performances never got that tape.

The NHL combine, annually held in late May in Buffalo, was also cancelled. The Hawks normally interview a large number of players during the combine and deploy head trainer Paul Goodman to gather physical testing data; they never got to do that, either. Instead, the Hawks called each player’s trainer to obtain rough testing data.

“Our daily routine has been changed quite a bit,” Rouleau said. “As a region of scouts, our primary job is to travel around, see lots of games, meet people 1-on-1... The biggest change for me was not being able to travel and not having that 1-on-1 contact.”

With all of those normal scouting process staples eliminated, the Hawks turned to two alternatives: closely watching and rewatching videos of pre-pandemic games, and interviewing players over Zoom.

Both ultimately worked far more effectively than expected.

“We took 140 players and we divvied them up amongst the staff,” Kelley said. “Everyone got about eight players and watched those players maybe five times each. We started doing that, and then we started rotating players around. We were losing live viewing, but we gained a lot of time on archive film.”

The ability to pause and rewind videos, two luxuries obviously not possible during in-person viewing, proved to be a smash hit.

“Generally in these games, there’s usually two or three players you’re watching, but if something happens, you can hit the pause button,” Kelley said. “If you want to write something down, you can stop it. And if you think you saw something, you can go back. What we’ve learned is we can use film a lot more to go with live viewings.”

Less advantageous was the limited camera view, which made it difficult to sense players’ post-shift emotions and often didn’t capture events away from the puck.

“When you’re sitting in the crowd watching the game, your eyes control what you want to see,” McKellar said. “When you’re watching a game on video, you’re watching what the camera wants to show you.”

The Blackhawks’ Eastern Canada head scout Jim McKellar (left) and Quebec regional scout Alex Rouleau (right) show off their home office draft set-ups.
Chicago Blackhawks photos

The Zoom interviews were more unequivocally successful.

In Buffalo, prospects shuffle on a tight schedule from interview to interview in 20-minute windows. On Zoom, the Hawks’ front office spent 40 to 60 minutes with each player, and were often the very first team that player had spoken to.

“[Previously], depending on what went on in the interview before, sometimes you’d get a player that was a little bit rattled or uncomfortable,” Kelley said. “When they were sitting in their home, in their room, it was very comfortable for us and we found the players got very comfortable also.”

“They had more time to collect their thoughts,” McKellar added. “That’s something we’ll use going forward because it was very, very valuable.”

After the draft was officially postponed from June to October, Hawks scouts used their extra months to review players from outside their usual regions.

Rouleau, for example, spent his summer watching junior games from Europe.

“It gave us an opportunity to mix in these guys on our regional list that we’re forwarding to Mark,” Rouleau said. “So on my [Quebec] list, I was able to add a few guys from outside Canada, which was pretty interesting.”

Junior hockey games in Quebec — unlike other provinces — actually resumed Sept. 1, so Rouleau has recently been scouting draft-eligible players in the the early weeks of the season after their supposed draft year.

“It does give us a good idea if a player was not training very hard or if he’s gained a few bad pounds in the summer,” he joked.

But on Tuesday, albeit 102 days late, the Hawks will finally finalize their draft selections.

The NHL will run the draft process through its offices in New Jersey, and a small number of Hawks employees — including Kelley, general manager Stan Bowman and U.S.-based scouts Mike Donaghey and Rob Facca — will man a makeshift war room in Fifth Third Arena.

The podium setup at which the Blackhawks will announce their first-round draft pick Tuesday.
Chicago Blackhawks photo

Everyone else, including McKellar and Rouleau, will operate from miniature equivalents in their home offices and chime in through Zoom.

The Hawks nonetheless expect the actual drafting process to be relatively normal, in sharp contrast to everything that has preceded it.

“We’ll be chatting like we normally do,” McKellar said. “We do a lot of our preparation prior to [draft day] with our meetings, so there isn’t a huge conversation going on during the draft. But in this case, there will be a bit more freedom, because we’re not sitting at a table where people are watching.”

Bowman and Kelley won’t be able to present a jersey to their first-round pick and shake his hand in person, but they will get to at least see him in a red Hawks cap — the league is reportedly sending 31 hats, one for every team, to every top prospect.

And after all seven picks are made and the draft hopefully finishes without any glitches, the scouting team will be able to fully — if only briefly — relax for the first time in 16 months.

“It’s going to feel very good,” Rouleau said.

Then he corrected himself.

“It’s going to feel awesome.”