With every passing year the world junior tournament has grown in popularity in Canada, largely because it offers fans a first look at stars in the pipeline, players many of whom will go on to long and distinguished pro careers.
This, in part, has given rise to the notion that the world junior championship is a place where such great talents are discovered by the scores of National Hockey League scouts in attendance. If this idea is not altogether inaccurate, it's certainly slightly misguided: Rarely is the world junior tournament a place where an unknown is discovered. More often it's where scouts grade the progress of players widely known by the pros and most often already drafted by a NHL clubs.
Consider the towering presence in the crowds in Halifax of Archie Henderson of the Washington Capitals. While the Capitals have staffed the tournament with their scouts who usually work the amateur ranks (the Canadian juniors, U.S. colleges, and European age-group tournaments), they have also brought in Henderson, their pro scout who, on most nights of the hockey season, files reports from NHL and American Hockey League arenas.
"It makes sense to have a pro scout taking a look at players here because this isn't really a 'draft' tournament," Henderson said. "The real draft tournament is the under-18s which are played in Europe in the spring. At the under-18s most of the players are eligible for that year's draft and those who aren't come up the next year. The world juniors is really a 19-year-old tournament. Most of the players here are already on NHL teams' lists. They've already been drafted. We have players here, including (Canadian defenceman) Steve Eminger, who has played for the Capitals already this season."
Further, the players who go to the world under-18s rarely have flown under the radar previously. NHL scouts have almost inevitably seen them in other under-18 tournaments or in under-17 events before the world championship.
During opening-round play at this year's tournament, most of the amateur scouts opted to take in games in Sydney rather than contests involving Canada and the rest of the other side of the draw. There were two compelling reasons: a U.S. squad with ten draft-eligible players, including Patrick O'Sullivan of the Mississauga Ice Dogs and several other members of the American squad that won this year's world under-18s; and, the Russian team which features the top European prospects for the 2003 NHL draft (Nikolai Zherdev) and the 2004 draft (Alexander Ovechkin).
"The reasons for the amateur scouts going to Sydney were the reasons for me staying on in Halifax," Henderson said. "Reports on draft eligible players are the responsibilities of the amateur scouts. I'm interested in players who are someone else's property and whose names might come up in trade talks with our club."
While fans in Halifax might have bumped into NHL general managers in the halls at the Metro Centre (Washington's George McPhee, Detroit's Ken Holland, Vancouver's Brian Burke, Ottawa's John Muckler, Minnesota's Doug Risebrough, Edmonton's Kevin Lowe, Calgary's Craig Button, Columbus's Doug Maclean, Anaheim's Bryan Murray, Florida's Rick Dudley and Montreal's Andre Savard, among others), the GMs are likely outnumbered ten to one on any night by pro scouts, amateur scouts, and directors of player personnel.
McPhee, a regular at the world juniors, said he looks forward to the event. "It's important (for NHL GMs) to stay in touch with this level of the game and to get some sense of the players who are here," he said.