The Philadelphia Flyers hold "The Meeting" every spring, and this was the one in 2006.
The team employs more than a dozen scouts, scattered in outposts around the globe. Their task is both simple and simply daunting: to identify kids who will grow up to look good in orange and black. In the weeks before the NHL draft, the scouts gather to assemble and sift through a list of these kids. Arguments are had. Voices are raised. It is the scouts' business, after all, and their passions are being tested, their reputations on the line.
"You get to learn everybody's personality, and how they might argue for a kid they really like," Paul Holmgren says.
He is the Flyers' general manager now but, in 2006, he was the assistant GM under Bob Clarke. In that management structure, Holmgren was the guy who ran this meeting — and the draft — for the team.
The financial costs for guessing wrong in the first round can be large; the opportunity costs can be even larger. To miss on too many first-rounders is to doom your franchise. That year, the Flyers had the 22nd pick. That far down, the permutations are impossibly complex, which means a fairly substantial list of potential names needs to be debated. You still need to find a player.
At some point — OK, at many points that day — the voice of scout Simon Nolet would be heard. A member of the Flyers' Stanley Cup-winning team in 1974, Nolet is the team's eyes and ears in the province of Quebec. And while many of the scouts had had a chance to see the top prospects being debated at that point, Nolet will have seen the Quebec kids the most, maybe 15 or 20 times. "Simon still has the really thick French accent," Holmgren says. "And he gets very excited. It's comical how excited he gets."
At this point, Holmgren — a soft-spoken Minnesotan — begins to put on his best impenetrable French accent to finish the story. This is funny for any number of reasons, but mainly because even as Holmgren mimics a volatile francophone, he remains the guy most likely to scare the hell out of a Flyers rookie with a silent glare.
This day, though, he is laughing loudly as he works to get the accent and the cursing and the cadence just right.
"So," Holmgren says, "Simon stands there with his hands in his pockets, deep in his pockets ... and he bounces up and down and he says, 'F--- me, we NEED this guy! ... F--- me, we've GOT to GET this PLAYER!' "
And with that, an 18-year-old kid named Claude Giroux was moved up a little bit higher on the list.
Giroux grew up in Hearst, Ontario, a place that is basically a working definition of the middle of nowhere. (Trust me. Or look at a map.) In 2002, his family moved to Orleans, a suburb of Ottawa, across the river from Gatineau, Quebec, where Giroux played his major junior hockey: the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
Today, six seasons after that 2006 meeting, Giroux is the star of a young Flyers team in the midst of a young playoff run. His coach, Peter Laviolette — in a synthesis of pride and hyperbole and truth —has called him "the best player in the world."
But in the fall of 2005, Giroux was arriving in Gatineau as a kind of free agent; nobody in the Ontario Hockey League had drafted him.
"Too small, I guess," Nolet says.
"About 140 pounds."
"Yes. One forty. Small."
The QMJHL is Nolet's circuit, la Ligue de hockey junior majeur du Québec. There are 18 teams, including six in the maritime provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. This is his territory, from Moncton to Shawinigan to Chicoutimi, and has been for 21 years.
Nolet was likely the first Flyers scout ever to have heard the name "Claude Giroux." But at the time, it was just that: an unfamiliar name on a stack of rosters.
"You go around and try to find talent. That's the job," Nolet says. "You look at the schedule and you try to get out and see everyone. So I go out and I see Gatineau. The first time, I'm going to see all of the guys who are going to be eligible for the draft that year — two or three or four guys on each team, something like that. Claude was one of the names for Gatineau. You try to get a first impression.
"The first game, you watch. I'm thinking that he's a little small. But you go around and you see him again. And again. And again. And you make up your mind."
It remains the hardest front-office skill in any sport — not coaching, not balancing the salary cap, but projecting talent to the next level. It is easy with the greatest players, but how many of those are there? For everyone else, the overwhelming majority, there is a level of professional judgment required, a special set of eyes.
At age 70, Nolet's eyes are legendary. Holmgren will tell you that when Nolet was making his pitch for Giroux in that 2006 pre-draft meeting, it reminded him of what he was like when they were considering Simon Gagne. And, last year, Sean Couturier.
"It's a feeling," Nolet says. "I played the game; I've scouted for a lot of years. You have a feeling for players. Hopefully, you don't make too many mistakes.
"You watch a game and they come to you. They do little things. Vision. How they pass the puck. Work ethic. So you watch for those kinds of things, but it is still hard to say after the first couple of games if a player is going to be a first-rounder. It usually takes about five times, unless the guy is a superstar — you see that right away.
"Mostly, you can't go on just one or two games. What if he has a cold one night? What if he is a little bit hurt? You don't get to see what he has. About five games, you can tell. You try to see him on the road, in different situations, how he reacts. About five games.
"You have to trust yourself," he says. "You talk to the other scouts, sure. I'm friends with lots of guys. But you work for your team. When I'm there at a game, I'm not talking much. You sit. You concentrate. You watch what you're there to watch."
And you file reports. In the fall of 2005, the first reports from Nolet mentioning Giroux's name came across the desks of Holmgren and Clarke. "His name popped up and the first thing it said was that he was a small player, but that you notice him every game because of his try," Holmgren says, "try" meaning "effort."
"They talked about his competitive spirit," he says. "They said he would get the puck a lot. You just had to hope that he would grow — grow physically. He was a late bloomer. To end up drafting a player in the first round who wasn't seen by any of our scouts until that year, that is unusual."
But that decision was still months away. Nolet liked him, but that was just the beginning of the process. The Flyers employ scouts in different parts of Canada and the United States and Europe, and there is a cross-referencing that occurs every year. Others who would end up seeing Giroux play that year include Chris Pryor, now the team's director of hockey operations; John Chapman, who then covered the Western Hockey League, and Dennis Patterson, who has been covering the Ontario Hockey League for as long as Nolet has been in Quebec.
"I'll do the Ontario league from September until around November 1st," Patterson says. "Then I give the names I like to Simon, and he gives me his names. We would do the same with the players in the Western league. And then we would go see the players. I saw Giroux for him. In other years, he has come to see Mike Richards, Steve Downie, Justin Williams for me. We all work together.
"Simon knows what he's doing. The most important thing is that he doesn't oversell his league. If he likes someone, he gets emotional about his players, but we're all kind of like that. But you can't oversell if it isn't there. So Simon saw Giroux, I saw him, Chris Pryor saw him. We all thought he was a special, smaller player. But that could be an issue with our team. We always had big guys."
It was, in fact, the most fundamental of issues. This just in — the Flyers liked big guys. They liked fast big guys, but they mostly liked big guys. By 2006, though, the world had changed. After the lockout and the lost season of 2004-05, the NHL rules were altered to eliminate the red line and minimize the need for what had once been a crucial skill set —the size and strength to fight through obstruction. It opened the door for players like Giroux —if Holmgren could open his mind to the notion.
Meanwhile, the reports coming in from the cross-checkers were validating Nolet's initial impressions.
"never gives up..."
"always around the puck..."
"makes good plays around the puck..."
"Probably in February, we started to consider him as a possibility," Holmgren says. Which meant that it was time for him to see the kid for himself.
He looks it up: March 25 in Gatineau. That is the first time Holmgren laid eyes on Giroux. He was actually there to see a couple of players, including Derick Brassard, a center from Drummondville who ended up being taken at No. 6 by Columbus.
Gatineau's Robert Guertin Arena is more than 50 years old, has fewer than 4,000 wooden seats, and is cramped enough that the turnstiles are removed from the ticket lobby at the start of the game so that people will have a little bit more room to move around. It sounds wonderful, the kind of place where favorites are celebrated and rivals are hectored and everyone hears everything.
"When I got there, I'm sure I sat with our guys," Holmgren says. "We talk. Of course we talk. There's a trust factor with your guys. They see these players 15 or 20 times. They see the progression. I might see him two or three times. Of course, you know what they've said up until then.
"But when you're there, you see what you see."
"I remember exactly," Holmgren says, laughing. "I remember my first thoughts were, The reports were right: this guy is small.
"But then you watch the game. The whole time, he either had the puck or he was working his ass off to get it."
Holmgren liked him. They all liked him. But there still was an interview process at the NHL scouting combine, and their annual meeting of the scouts, before the decision was made. They all remember it a little differently, too. Holmgren talks about Giroux being "one of three" players they wanted in the first round. Nolet says that Giroux "was about eighth on our list."
"When you're picking 22nd, it's such a big range of kids," Patterson says. They were never going to get the players at the very top—the first five picks were Erik Johnson (St. Louis), Jordan Staal (Pittsburgh), Jonathan Toews (Chicago), Nicklas Backstrom (Washington) and Phil Kessel (Boston) — but he remembered one name the Flyers liked was Trevor Lewis, a center taken with the 17th pick by the Los Angeles Kings. There was also a lot of talk that the Flyers would have taken Bobby Sanguinetti, a defenseman from Lumberton, N.J., if the Rangers had not chosen him with the pick before theirs. But both Holmgren and Patterson said that was not the case, that while they liked Sanguinetti, they always liked Giroux better.
"It's getting closer, getting closer, and his name was still sitting there," Nolet says. "And it's just, 'Oh boy.' As we got closer, we talked with Paul. He just said, 'That's it. He's our guy.'"
All that was left was for Clarke to make the announcement— and, hilariously — to forget Giroux's name. The faux pas has spawned a long-running gag that both men seem to enjoy: Every time Giroux runs into Clarke, he reintroduces himself.
Six years later, their guy is their team's unquestioned young leader (and listed at 172 pounds). Their team is young, admired, and in the second round of the playoffs. "Claude deserves the credit," Holmgren says, "He worked to get bigger. He did the right things off the ice to become the player he is." But Holmgren also played his part.
He has to push a lot of paper these days as a general manager, but part of him will always be a scout. "It pisses me off that I can't get out as much as I want," he says. "I did pretty well this year, but it's hard."
He stops for a second. "Scouts, these guys live and die with their team," he says. "I remember being out scouting the year we were the worst team in the league (2007). I didn't want to go in the scouts' room before the game. I walked around a lot with my head down.
"The scouting community is a tight-knit group, both for scouts within an organization and just scouts in general. They joke around with each other. They have fun. But it's tough when your team isn't doing very well—nothing is sacred, and you've got to be able to take it.
"But when your team is doing well, and when you have a player like Claude Giroux—I'm sure Simon Nolet is proud as hell. And he should be."
To which, Nolet replies: "There is no genius in this business. You work at it. Sometimes, you're right."