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Eyes on the ice

As one of 12 Bruins scouts worldwide, Scott “Fitzy” Fitzgerald sees some 225 amateur games a year, looking for tomorrow’s Bobby Orr.

Josh Campbell

Scott Fitzgerald got the chance to join the Bruins’ scouting team in 2006. “My brother played for them, I’m a Mass. guy,” he says. “It was a no-brainer.”

About 30 seconds into the third period of Union College’s hockey game against Princeton, Fitzy gets excited. This is a big deal. Fitzy doesn’t get excited at hockey games. “Honest to God, I don’t,” he’ll say if you ask him. “I’m just trying to do my job.”

But sure enough, on that frigid February night in Schenectady, the guy he drove more than three hours to watch makes a play that stops him mid-sentence. “This kid cou – oohhh, would you look at that pass,” he says to fellow Boston Bruins scout Ryan Nadeau, standing next to him. “Wow, look at that,” Nadeau says, smiling. “Even Fitzy got excited about that one.”

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Now that the Bruins are the reigning Stanley Cup champions, the pressure to find and draft high-quality players is even more intense than usual. So they rely ever more heavily on the opinions of guys like Fitzy, aka Scott Fitzgerald, their assistant director of amateur scouting. As the title suggests, he’s in charge of assessing nonprofessional players in North America and Europe who are eligible for the National Hockey League draft. As the nickname suggests, Fitzgerald is from the Boston area, having grown up in Charlestown and Billerica as part of an extended family that is, if not Boston hockey royalty, then at least in line to be knighted.

His older brother, Tom, played 17 seasons in the NHL for seven teams, including the Bruins, worked as a postgame studio analyst for NESN in 2006-07, and is assistant to the general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins. His younger brother, Brian, was captain of the hockey team at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His cousin Keith Tkachuk played at Malden Catholic and Boston University, was a four-time Olympian, skated 19 seasons in the NHL, and is one of four American-born skaters with more than 500 goals in a career. Another cousin, Jimmy Hayes, plays for the Chicago Blackhawks, and Jimmy’s brother Kevin (the Blackhawks’ first-round pick in 2010) is starring at Boston College. Fitzgerald’s nephews, who play for Malden Catholic, have both already accepted full rides to play at BC. “We’re really just a hockey family,” says Fitzgerald. “It’s what we know and what we do.”

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Unlike some other family members, Fitzgerald’s path to the NHL was less conventional. After playing in high school at Austin Prep (1986 state champs – go Cougars!) in Reading, he went to State University of New York-Plattsburgh to play hockey, only to transfer to Salem State after a year, going there at night while he worked for the Middlesex County Sheriff’s Department.

In 1998, the president/general manager of the Columbus Blue Jackets in Ohio, Doug MacLean – who’d gotten to know Fitzgerald while coaching his brother Tom on the Florida Panthers – needed a scout in New England and asked whether he’d like to do it part time.

“Scott was raw back then, but he always had an eye for talent,” says Tom. “I told Doug how passionate he was. He took a chance, and it paid off for everyone.” For eight years, Scott Fitzgerald worked for the Blue Jackets, until 2006, when an opportunity arose to move to the Bruins. He jumped at the chance. “My grandfather and my father were season ticket holders, my brother played for them, I’m a Mass. guy,” he says, listing reasons on his fingers. “It was a no-brainer.”

***

Photographs by Josh Campbell

A recent Wednesday night found Fitzgerald in Wilmington watching St. John’s Prep play Bishop Fenwick High.

The Boston Bruins employ 12 scouts, 10 in North America and two in Europe. Two of these are pro scouts, watching and evaluating players in the American Hockey League and the NHL, but the other 10, including Fitzgerald, focus on amateurs. Most scouts are based in Canada, as our neighbor to the north is to top hockey prospects what Martha’s Vineyard is to T-shirts with black dogs on the front.

If they created a So You Want to Be a Pro Hockey Scout television show, A) it would probably need to run in Canada to make any money and B) the first three things the casting directors would look for would be encyclopedic knowledge of the game and its players, an eye for spotting and evaluating talent, and an extremely understanding significant other. From October 1 through the end of April, Fitzgerald is on the road. Take the movie Up in the Air, subtract George Clooney and firing people, add Fitzgerald and hockey rinks, and you’ll get an idea of what the job entails. “We are all super elite in some airline,” he says. Not counting playoffs, the NHL season is 82 games. Fitzy sees about 225 amateur games a year. Just listening to him describe a typical week can leave you dizzy: “OK, say I flew out on Wednesday to Edmonton; I’d go see a Western Hockey League game, then head to British Columbia to check out one or two BCHL games, then probably fly to Seattle to see a couple more, then to British Columbia, then over to Halifax, Nova Scotia, to see another. But then I’d probably go home.”

Mostly, he says, he’s at the mercy of whoever it is he needs to see in person. “Look, if one of my area guys [a scout working in a particular region] says, ‘This guy’s got a chance,’ I’ve got to get out there. But it’s a puzzle. If you fly to Slovakia to see one particular guy, and on the night you’re there he hurts his hand in warm-ups and doesn’t play, you’re going to have to go back out to Finland and see him again. You’ve got a certain amount of days – you’ve just got to try and make all the pieces fit.”

Though there is some truth to the stereotypical image of the scout alone on the road with just his thoughts and his BlackBerry, “especially if you’re in Moosejaw, Saskatchewan, and it’s negative 40 degrees, and the next gas station is 20 miles away,” usually he’s not the only one around evaluating a player. “It’s a very small fraternity; you see the same guys all the time,” says Fitzgerald. “At some of the big tournaments in Europe, there’ll be like 100 scouts in the same hotel. Everyone moves in herds.”

Traveling around looking at the same guys in the same remote locations draws the fraternity closer, and after games, it’s common to see scouts from opposing teams grabbing a beer and some wings – though each carefully guards his opinions on the players he’s scouting. Fitzy, it seems, is a popular guy. “I don’t think you’ll find a single scout who doesn’t like him,” says Nadeau, and it’s true. “Fitzy’s a riot,” says one area scout from a rival NHL team. “He can crack anyone up. But he’s a hard worker and he’s paid his dues, so people respect him, too.”

“The qualities you need to be a good scout: passion, commitment, sacrifice. Scott’s got all three,” says his brother Tom. “Plus, he’s sarcastic as hell.”

But it isn’t all hockey and laughs. The hardest part for Fitzgerald is the time away from his wife, Stephanie, a nurse, and their three kids. “You’re traveling all the time,” he says, “so you’re missing major events. And for part of the year, your wife is basically raising your kids like a single mother. It’s tough. You might see six hockey games in a week, but you miss three your kids are playing in, too. It’s a sacrifice. But if you love hockey and you love the Bruins, it’s one you’ve got to be willing to make.”

***

The night Fitzy got excited, I’d managed to persuade him to let me tag along during the six-hour round trip with Nadeau from Boston to Union in Schenectady. Listening to them go back and forth during the drive, the two seem like one of those stereotypical pairings of opposites that makes for interesting plot resolutions in movies.

At 42, Fitzgerald is the older, more traditional Boston guy. First off, his nickname is Fitzy. Second, he has the type of accent that character actors from The Town would have had a fistfight to acquire. He pronounces Illinois “Illahnoise” and idea “idear” and calls almost everyone he comes into contact with “buddy.” Third, with his newsie cap, baby face, and wide, rounded frame, he looks uncannily like the bouncer who lets Matt Damon and the Afflecks into the “Harvard bar” in Good Will Hunting.

On the other hand, there’s Nadeau, who is 35, from Taunton, went to UMass Amherst, and has been with the Bruins for nine years. Nadeau came to scouting from the business operations side and has the wiry frame of someone who gets up in the morning and actually goes for runs. He speaks with no noticeable accent, especially when he says “idea,” as in “I have an idea. Let’s go to Panera so I can get tea and a cookie before the game.” Nadeau loves Panera.

But once you get them talking, the differences blur. They both like good players, the guys who find a way to compete, who will do anything you ask them, players like Patrice Bergeron. Guys who aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel, who’ll move the puck and won’t shy away from a battle. You win with those guys because you can see them sacrificing, and it makes you feel good when you’re out on the road, away from your kids, busting your butt. Above all, Fitzgerald and Nadeau both respect “the list.” The list is the index of players the team would like to take on draft day. Each guy has his own, but the scouts and the assistant general managers meet regularly to update the master version. In hockey scouting, there is no jealously keeping the players you like to yourself. If you think a guy’s got a chance to play in the pros, if you’d think you’d rather play with him than against him, you want as many of your team’s other scouts in there seeing him, too. Ultimately, you’ve got to get in the rinks, and you’ve got to see the games. And for both Fitzy and Nadeau, that’s the only way to get the list right.

***

“All right, let’s see what we’ve got here,” Fitzy says as they drop the puck to start the Union-Princeton game. It’s 7 p.m. on a Friday, and Messa Rink, which, thanks to its unpainted wooden roof, looks like the world’s biggest circular barn, is packed. It’s an eclectic mix: proud parents wearing Union hockey gear, Schenectady families with young kids asking whether they can buy Union hockey gear, college girls wearing black leggings and fitted plaid shirts, college boys wearing hooded sweat shirts and practiced looks of disinterest, and a full roster of scouts, agents, and other hockey professionals. The scouts are the easiest to pick out. They’re all carrying around a piece of paper, put together by each college ostensibly for the media, called a “line chart,” which lists the line and position of each player, along with bios and stats, and even how to pronounce their names. The scouts are also all wearing some combination of black dress pants and shoes, half-zip sweaters, button-downs, and black coats. “We either look like we work at a funeral parlor or park cars for a living,” Fitzgerald says, only kind of joking. Another way to spot scouts: During the game, they almost always stand either at a vantage point just above the glass or close to the ice.

Fitzgerald and Nadeau opt for proximity to the ice, and as they make their way down, a veritable who’s who of US hockey calls out to them. First there’s Tim Taylor, former US Olympic men’s hockey coach, now scouting prospects for USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program, then Paul Kelly, a Boston lawyer and former head of the NHL Players’ Association and executive director of College Hockey Inc. (who several days later would resign from that job), and finally hockey agent Brian Bartlett. Suddenly, Fitzgerald taps Nadeau on the arm and tilts his head to the side. Two middle-aged men wearing dress pants and dark coats and holding rolled-up sheets of paper walk by. They glance at the two Bruins scouts and nod. Keeping his eyes on the ice, Fitzy talks out of the side of his mouth: “Those two are free-agent guys from the Philadelphia Flyers.”

Free agents are players who weren’t drafted at age 18, 19, or 20. Unlike in football or basketball, getting drafted in hockey doesn’t mean you have to leave school right away. It just means that when you do, the team that drafted you has your rights. Free-agent scouts (like the Philadelphia guys and Nadeau) look for late developers, college juniors and seniors who slipped through the cracks in previous years.

Nadeau and Fitzy spend the first period staring forward, occasionally talking quietly to each other while using the line chart to shield their mouths, like football coaches calling plays. As Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok” blares over the public-address system during intermission, I ask Fitzgerald what they saw. A player on Union “was very impressive,” he says. (Note: At the Bruins’ request, player names were removed so that critical information would not be revealed before the June draft.) “Every play he made out there was smart.” Fitzgerald immediately texts one of the assistant general managers, telling him he should come watch this kid the next day when Union plays Quinnipiac.

At the end of the second, it’s only 1-0, but Union, the eighth-ranked team in the country, has taken 42 shots to the Tigers’ 10. At one point, He Who Must Not Be Named on Union fakes a shot, causing a Princeton defenseman to fall over. As I let out a yelp of excitement, I glance at the scouts. Neither visibly reacts, but both begin scribbling on their line charts.

In the final period, Fitzy gets excited, Union adds to their lead, and, with around a minute to go, the scouts have seen enough. “All right, boys,” says Nadeau, “I think it’s time to call it.”

“Yep,” says Fitzy. “Put a bow on it.”

***

In the car on the way back to Boston, as Fitzgerald plugs his notes about the game into his phone, Nadeau puts on Pearl Jam and snacks on a sleeve of Fig Newtons. They talk in hushed tones about several guys they saw tonight. From the back seat, I hear only snippets: “He blocked a shot from a monster and didn’t even flamingo” and “That guy competes. He battles in corners and can really shoot, but his skating is choppy” and “I think [this player] will sign an NHL contract because of that shot. He’s got an absolute cannon.”

As we pass signs for Worcester, talk shifts to the future and where a scouting job can take you. Nadeau says he’s perfectly content, but, when pressed, adds that he could “someday down the road” see himself working as an assistant general manager.

When asked the same question, Fitzy goes uncharacteristically quiet, staring out the passenger-side window. “You know, I’m not so sure I’m anything more than a guy who goes into a rink, has a few laughs, and fills out his charts,” he says, still looking out at the passing signs. “That sounds pretty good to me.”

Kevin Alexander, a senior editor at Thrillist.com, cannot even skate backward. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.
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