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The scout: A.J. Toews knows NHL talent when he sees it
Jan. 13, 2014
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By Matt Kane
Sports Editor

DELANO — Attention amateur hockey players with NHL dreams: Play hard all the time, because you never know who might be watching.

If you are a big-time goal scorer, work hard. If you are an assist man, work hard. If you are a bruising defenseman, work hard.

“I think, at the high school level, there is an overemphasis on skill and skill and skill, and being a goal scorer and getting points, and an underemphasis on working and being gritty and being tenacious,” said A.J. Toews of Delano. “There are a lot of kids who put up 100 points in high school, but they cannot make juniors because they are not tough enough and they don’t want to work for it. And then, there are kids who do not put up those points, but they have the drive, and they will work and battle.”

So, who is this Toews guy, who thinks he knows what NHL teams are looking for in a player?

He’s not related to Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, and he never played a game of professional hockey. Who he is, is an amateur scout for the Washington Capitals of the NHL.

“I scout for the draft. That is strictly what I do. I do not watch NHL games — well, I do for fun — but I watch high school kids, junior hockey, USHL, North American and some college,” said Toews.

Toews is one of 11 amateur scouts with Washington. The Capitals’ scouting department also includes four professional scouts, and one free-agent scout.

From August through May, Toews will watch close to 275 high school and junior level games, from Michigan to western Canada, trying to deem whether a player is worth a draft pick in June. In that time, Toews sees a lot of players with a plethora of skill sets. The players with skill who give consistent effort stand out.

“What I see from high school kids is there are a lot of kids who can skate; there are a lot of kids who can stick-handle; there are kids who can toe-drag with the best of them; and there are a lot of kids who can shoot the puck and put saucer passes all over the ice, but, in a high school season of 24 games, a kid better play 22 of those games pretty outstandingly. That doesn’t always happen,” said Toews.

Toews pays attention to how a player plays in different situations, like during games that mean more in the standings compared to blowouts, or in games where the lights are dimmer on a Tuesday night compared to games played on a Friday night in front of a sold-out crowd.

Scouting a player begins with noticing his obvious characteristics.

“When I am watching, the first thing I notice is size. From size, I go in different directions. If he is small, the next thing I look at is skating. You can’t play in the NHL and be small if you are not a blazer. They don’t exist,” Toews said.

“People always bring up names, and ask, ‘Well, what about Martin St. Louis?’ Well, he is small, but he is also flippin’ fast and he weighs 190 pounds at 5-foot-8. He is small, but he is really thick and he can blaze on the ice,” he explained further. “If you fly, you have a chance. Even the guys in the NHL who don’t look fast, they only don’t look fast compared to the guys who are world-class fast.”

Size and speed are easy to see, but the Capitals are also concerned about a player’s makeup inside.

“With the Caps, we focus on skating, and hockey sense, like smart players. A lot of guys can fly, but they can’t think the game and they are on their own page. Those guys won’t play unless they can fight,” he said. “We want guys who can skate, guys who are smart, and guys who compete.”

It takes all types of players to fill a NHL roster.

“Not everybody in the NHL is a toe-dragger. Not every defenseman is Phil Housley or Paul Coffey or Brian Leetch. For every one of those guys, there is a Jeff Beukaboom,” he explained. “We have a guy named Karl Alzner, who is a solid stay-at-home defenseman who makes a great first pass. There are those types of guys who play, too. They don’t toe-drag, but they are tough; they are mean; they work; they block shots; and they are hard to play against. That’s another route. You don’t have to score goals and put up points.”

Toews points to current Minnesota Gopher Kyle Rau as an example of a player who impressed scouts with his overall game.

“When he was at Eden Prairie, he was really skilled and not a big kid. There were other kids close to him, but what set him apart was that he worked,” Toews said. “He was gritty and got to the greasy areas of the ice. He was poking at the puck; he got hit; he got up. He played way bigger than what his physical size was.”

That’s what Rau needs to do if he wants to play in the NHL.

“If he is to play in the NHL, he will have to play a gritty, tenacious, in-your-face style,” Toews said. “I don’t like guys who play smaller than they are. I don’t like 6-foot-4 guys who play like they are 5-foot-4. But I love 5-foot-8 guys who play like they are 6-2.”

Rau was drafted by the Florida Panthers in the third round of the 2011 draft.

His own backyard
On a rare off day in December, Toews ventured to the Delano Area Sports Arena, purely as a fan, to watch the Delano Tigers high school team play. He noticed a few players.

“That Meyers kid can play,” he said, referring to Delano freshman Ben Meyers.

Toews wasn’t at the game for scouting purposes, but he noticed Meyers, as well as some familiar names — Delano seniors Justin Oja and Grant Prinsen.

“I remember the Oja kid from the elite league this summer and I remember Prinsen because he filled in in the elite league,” Toews explained. “I had never seen the Meyers kid play. That Meyers kid is a good player. Those guys can all play junior hockey at some level.”

Toews also remembers seeing Delano’s all-time leading scorer, Tyler Heinonen, play when the 2011 graduate was with the Muskegon Lumberjacks of the IHL. Heinonen also played with the Chicago Steel, a team Toews once coached, and is currently with Michigan Tech. Toews didn’t realized Heinonen was a Delano product until he moved his family to the Delano area.

As far as being considered for the draft, the Delano players and all other players in Minnesota’s Class A have an uncontrollable disadvantage compared to bigger schools in the state, according to Toews.

“Delano just doesn’t have the numbers. Wayzata has almost as many kids in high school as Delano has people in its whole town. That’s just a numbers game,” Toews said. “The biggest difference compared to watching a team like Wayzata is that (Meyers, Oja and Prinsen) could all play at a Wayzata or Minnetonka or Eden Prairie no problem. The difference is that Wayzata has three lines like that. They would be one of the guys, and maybe still a noticeable guy. The lack of depth is the difference from the A level to AA.”

Most of Toews’ scouting of the high school league includes teams in Class AA.

“I generally focus on, at least at the high school level, the high schools that produce players,” Toews said.

A game between Edina and Eden Prairie may have close to 20 NHL scouts in the crowd.

Delano has never had a hockey player drafted by a NHL team.

The State of Hockey
Delano is still waiting for its first NHL player, but the state of Minnesota is quite familiar with its boys of winter donning a NHL sweater. According to Hockey-Reference.com, 233 Minnesotans have played at least one game in the NHL.

“Minnesota high school hockey — non-boarding schools — is unparalleled. There is no other place that has the hockey tradition of Minnesota. I’m not a Minnesota guy, so I am not blowing smoke, it just does,” Toews explained of the hockey hotbed of America.

Whereas Minnesota’s hockey players are produced in a high school league, the other areas of the country known to produce hockey players — Michigan and the Boston area — are known for their Midget, or club, hockey leagues and prep schools.

“I don’t think the kids in Minnesota know how lucky they are, because, at any given game in the elite league, there are 10-to-15 NHL scouts in the seats. We go to a whole mess of games,” Toews explained. “There are junior leagues that don’t get that kind of attention, and here, in high school, they get all this attention.”

NHL’s Central Scouting identifies players to watch, and it is up to each team to send a scout.

“I watch a lot of the elite league games, which is great because the state of Minnesota divides the players according to region and has tryouts,” Toews said. “That is really good for me because I cannot possibly watch every high school in the state. When I see guys I think are worth following, I will go see them during their high school seasons.”

Each year is made up of a different crop of talent for the 30 clubs to chose from.

“My first year here, there were two Minnesota high school kids who went in the first round of the draft — Nick Bugstad (Florida Panthers) and Brock Nelson (New York Islanders) — which is pretty outstanding. That hasn’t happened since,” Toews said. “Some years there are some high-end kids with no depth (in the pool of players), and other years there are no high-end players and a lot of depth.”

Making a kid’s day
Even if Toews likes a kid’s on-ice skill set, it is important for him to get to know as much as possible about that kid and his upbringing.

“The first time I will talk to a kid is usually after a game,” he said. “I don’t know if I have ever been the first scout to talk to a kid. I always make sure I really like a kid before I will talk to him. I don’t want to waste his time and my time.”

Most of the kids being looked at are familiar with the spotlight, but some kids are pie-eyed when a NHL scout contacts them.

“I called a kid once and said, ‘A.J. Toews with the Washington Capitals, here; how are things going?’ He said. ‘They are going good.’ I said, ‘What’s happening; you got a hot date tonight?’ He goes, ‘No, I’m talking to the Washington Capitals. That’s awesome,’” Toews remembered. “That’s rare, but that was a cool conversation to have with a kid. Most of them are pretty excited and some are super nervous.”

Toews gets to know the kids he is interested in by conducting sit-down face-to-face interviews. The topics include family life, school, other sports, alcohol and drugs, and any behavioral incidents.

“Some kids lie and I know they are lying. You are always better telling the truth, because if we find out later that you are lying, that is worse,” he pleads. “We are investing a lot of money, potentially, on these kids.”

Draft day
“It’s exciting and nerve-racking. There is a lot of work leading up to it. Your entire body of work comes down to two days,” said Toews of the draft, which, this year, is in Philadelphia in June “There is some out-of-control stuff that happens.”

The draft can be a well-deserved pat-on-the-back for a scout, who puts thousands of miles on his car driving through the night to places like Cedar Rapids, IA, and Prince Albert, SK, Canada, during the frigid winter months.

“It’s fun when you draft a player from your area,” Toews said.

The draft can also be humbling, and remind a scout that he cannot possibly see every player.

“It is the worst if a guy gets picked from your area and you have never heard of him,” Toews explained. “It happened last year, where a kid who played briefly in my area was drafted. My guys looked at me wondering who he was. You don’t want that to happen.”

When a draft comes together, there is no better feeling for a NHL team’s scouting department.

“Last year, we got kids we really wanted and that is a big thing. We don’t want to draft kids just to draft them. We want kids our staff likes and wants and thinks have a chance,” Toews said. “Then it’s just sitting back and watching them and hoping they can fill some holes.”

When those lower-round picks crack the NHL roster, it is even a bigger thrill for the scouts.

“People always say, ‘Drafting Alex Ovechkin was such a great pick,’ and my boss always says that was an easy pick. We had the top pick in the draft. We had him, and I think Evgeni Malkin was available. The easy picks are the early picks. The difficulty comes in selecting players in later rounds,” Toews said. “The further back you go, the holes get bigger and bigger; the issues get bigger and bigger; and the reasons why they won’t play get bigger and bigger. It’s always a feather in your cap when that seventh-rounder or that fifth-rounder is playing for us.”

In his five years with the Capitals, one of Toews’ scouted players has skated in a NHL regular-season game for Washington. That player is Connor Carrick, who suited up for the Capitals in four games this season. He scored one goal. Currently, Carrick is with the Hershey Bears of the AHL.

Like in baseball, NHL draft picks may not play for their parent clubs for a number of years, if at all. In hockey, drafted players tend to play at college or in a junior league before signing with their NHL team.

“More of my guys will start finding their ways to the NHL next year,” Toews said. “That’s the weird thing about our business; we won’t know for four or five years whether our guy was a good pick or a bad pick. It’s hard to get fired because you don’t know if you are doing a good job or not.”

He is eager to see some of the draft picks from his scouting territory skate for the Capitals.

“I haven’t seen that yet, but a lot of our guys have been here for 15 years and have seen guys go from being a junior goalie to the starting goalie in Washington,” Toews said. “That’s got to be a pretty cool thing, and, in the next few years, I hope some of the guys from my drafts start trickling in.”

The list of the players the Capitals have drafted out of Toews’ territory in his five years of scouting includes Minnesotans Blake Heinrich of Hill Murray (2013), Travis Boyd of Hopkins and now the University of Minnesota (2011), Caleb Herbert of Bloomington Jefferson and currently Minnesota Duluth (2010).

An old blue-liner
Toews did most of his growing up in northern California, in San Jose, where he played his youth hockey. When the NHL expanded with the San Jose Sharks in the mid 1990s, Toews joined the Junior Sharks, where he played until he hit the ceiling of California hockey.

“I was pretty good in California. I would say I was one of the better players in California,” he said.

How good was he? What would Toews the scout have reported about Toews the amateur player?

“I would have said that I wasn’t very skilled. I would have said I worked hard and was very physical, but that I lacked skill. That would have been my assessment,” he said.

A soft California boy Toews was not. He was rough, aggressive and physical — three traits he may have inherited early in life while living in Pittsburgh as the son of Loren Toews, a linebacker on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Steel Curtain Defense that won four Super Bowls.

“Not a lot of guys like to play like I played. I loved it,” Toews said. “I loved hitting and blocking shots, and the physical nasty side of the game. I excelled at it.”

In California, Toews also played football and baseball, but hockey was his game. He was good enough to keep advancing in the hockey world, but the problem was there was nowhere to go in California to do so.

“There are three ways to get better: You play with good players; you have a good coach; and you play against good players,” is Toews philosophy. “If you have the combination of the three you will get even better.”

Where does a hockey player go to become a better hockey player? Why, Minnesota, of course.

After getting noticed at a tournament, Toews enrolled at Shattuck-St. Mary’s boarding school in Faribault, where he made the hockey team as a senior, and played until his graduation in 1996.

Shattuck has produced 55 NHL draft picks, including a couple guys named Zach Parise (2002) and Sidney Crosby (2005), since 1995. Toews did not get drafted but two guys who share his surname, Toews, did — Jonathan (2005) and David (2008). Toews is quick to point out that Shattuck was not yet the hockey factory it has since become when he was playing.

“When I was there, it was only the third year they had hockey,” he said. “I went to Shattuck before it was Shattuck. I used to say I went to a small school in Faribault and people used to say, ‘Where?’”

The best player from Toews’ team at Shattuck was goaltender Ty Conklin, who played 11 seasons in the NHL and is currently the goalie development coach for the St. Louis Blues.

Playing at Shattuck didn’t make a draft pick out of Toews, but it did earn him a scholarship to Northeastern University in Boston.

Toews kept improving and by his sophomore season he was one of the best defensemen on the Northeastern team. Toews’ coming out party as a hockey player, ironically, came in Minnesota, when he was playing with Northeastern at the Mariucci Classic, hosted by the Gophers. Northeastern won the tournament, and Toews scored a rare goal and was voted onto the all-tournament team.

“That tournament is when it starting clicking,” Toews said. “I could feel it. I knew that things were clicking and I saw the game differently.”

Scoring goals was not Toews’ game. Instead, he was the steady, team-leader type defenseman every team needs.

“I was not a Nick Leddy. I was the other guy who could play with Nick Leddy because I could keep up and I was fast,” said Toews. “I was a hammer. I hammered and penalty killed and blocked shots. I was a simple player who could move the puck.”

But then the bottom fell out of Toews’ playing career, two-thirds of the way through that sophomore campaign.

It turned out the paralyzing stingers he kept getting after violent body checks during games was actually a birth defect called spinal stenosis. The condition caused one of the disks in his neck to pinch off his spinal chord when his head was jarred in a certain way, which happened often with Toews’ physical style of play.

“That was devastating,” Toews said. “I was playing a ton and I never missed a game. My game was exploding right when it happened, but then I had to stop. And that was it.”

Toews was on top of his game and had thoughts of playing professional hockey after graduating from Northeastern before his condition was diagnosed.

“I thought I would be able to play in the American League, and I thought maybe I would get a sniff in the NHL,” he said. “I thought I would have to fight, and add that to my game. I thought maybe I could be a call-up guy when somebody gets hurt.”

Now, Toews is the guy looking for those call-up guys for the Washington Capitals.

Toews still finds himself in highly-competitive hockey games during the winter months, when he skates with a number of former college players at New Hope Arena. The pick-up team recently scrimmaged the US Women’s Hockey team, beating the Sochi-bound gals 6-3.

Getting back in the game
After graduating from Northeastern with a degree in communications and sociology, Toews stayed in hockey for a few years as a coach. He was an assistant for the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders in the USHL and then became head coach of the Chicago Steel, also in the USHL, where he was fired after one season.

After little success as a coach, Toews returned home to San Jose to work in real estate. He sold houses for six year, and during that time met his wife, Crystal. It was Crystal who pushed her husband back into the hockey world.

“Crystal told me, ‘You need to find something you like, because you are miserable when you come home, and this is not going to work,’” Toews remembers of the conversations with his wife, while the two were back in California. “She asked me, ‘What do you think you should be doing?’ I said, ‘I have always thought I should be in hockey.’ She remembered me talking with old hockey friends who were coaching, and she told me, ‘You light up when you are talking hockey.’ I told her I would look, but that I had been out for six years so it might be tough to get back in, and if I do get back in, we would have to move.”

Crystal is from Santa Cruz and Toews from San Jose, but neither objected to leaving California.

After months of job searching, Toews finally got an offer. It was from an old coaching buddy who needed an assistant in Topeka, KS. Even though the job didn’t pay well, it was a door back into hockey. Toews accepted the job on a Friday night. The next morning, things changed drastically for the Toews family, when the Washington Capitals called.

“I had been in conversations with (the Capitals) on-and-off for months, just shooting them an e-mail regularly to let them know I am interested. One day, (Washington) called me,” Toews said.

He was certainly interested in talking to the Capitals, but having already accepted the job in Topeka, Toews was straight up with Washington, telling them he would only consider the position with the NHL club if they were serious.

“I said, ‘I have a job offer, and I haven’t been offered a job in six months, so I am going to take it. But, if you guys are serious, I would love to explore it. I’m not trying to hold your feet to the fire, but this is my reality,’” Toews recalled. “They said, ‘What are you doing Thursday?’ I said, ‘I will be around.’ And they said, ‘We will meet you at the San Francisco Marriott.’”

Washington called Toews a week after the interview and offered him the job.

“They said, ‘Do you want to talk it over with your wife?’ I told them, I had already talked it over, and she told me, ‘Do not get off the phone with him to call me to see if it is OK. Take it.’ Six weeks later, I moved to Minnesota,” Toews explained.

The Capitals gave Toews the choice of moving to Omaha, NE, or the Twin Cities area. Toews familiarity with Minnesota from his Shattuck days and the draw of a big city and all its amenities drew the Toews family to Minnesota.

The Toews couple packed up their belongings and two young girls and moved to a rental property near Wayzata High School in August of 2008. Eventually, they bought a house in Loretto, and, last June, just weeks before Toews flew to New Jersey for the NHL draft, the family, which now had a third daughter, moved to Delano to be closer to the schools.

The life of a scout
To be a scout, a person needs the right family and a good car.

“I have buddies who say they want to scout, but, if you don’t have the right wife, you will be miserable. You have to have a wife who understands,” Toews said. “(Crystal) has to be flexible when it comes to my schedule. I am so grateful I have the wife I have. Most of the guys I work with have awesome wives who are go-getters and don’t need us there to do everything.”

Toews is gone as many as three nights consecutively during the week, usually from Thursday through Sunday.

“I discussed it with her before I took the job. Her biggest thing was she wanted me to do something I love,” Toews said. “What’s cool for me is I may be gone from Thursday until Sunday, but I am home all day Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, so I get up with the girls, make them breakfast, take them to school, and pick them up from school. While most families might be doing stuff together on Saturday, I am not there. That is where my wife is awesome. She is very capable, and she doesn’t need me to take care of stuff.”

Crystal admits having her husband gone so many nights out of the week is not ideal, but realizes the payoff is worth the sacrifice.

“Minnesota is amazing and I can be home with the kids. And he does get summers off, and he does volunteer at the schools,” she said of A.J. “If you look at the negatives, it can be horrible, but if you look at the positives, it’s not that bad.

“Our kids are great, too, so that makes it managable.”

She also remembers her husband being miserable when he worked in real estate.

“Having a husband who loves what he does, even though he is gone, I would never change it,” Crystal said.

Crystal is a stay-at-home mom, who doesn’t stay at home much. She is a volunteer at Delano Elementary School, where oldest daughter Elyse, 6, is a kindergartner, and also at Joyful Heart Preschool, where Sienna, 4, is enrolled. Gymnastics and swimming lessons are also on the schedule this winter for the Toews girls.

“She’s got her hands full.”

Sounds like Toews’ best scouting job was when he found the right wife to draft for his own team.

There are benefits to having an NHL scout as a dad. Like getting to meet one of the best hockey players in the world.

For her 4th birthday Jan. 4, Sienna, with the rest of her family, was able to meet Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin after the team’s morning skate at the Xcel Energy Center, where later that night the Capitals played the Minnesota Wild.

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