Sunday, February 05, 2012
Written by Dave Sottile
Long before the puck dropped at Giant Center on Saturday, Al Hill was scribbling in his notebook.
Lineups for the Hershey Bears and Connecticut Whale were logged. Forward combinations and defensive pairings were registered.
It was only pre-game warm-up, and the evening’s main work lay ahead, but it was part of the routine for a professional hockey scout, something Hill knows well.
Now in his 14th season with the Philadelphia Flyers, Hill watches between 20 and 22 National Hockey League and American Hockey League games in person each month.
The former Flyers and Bears forward is responsible for filing reports on seven NHL teams and nine AHL teams as part of Philadelphia’s four-man pro scouting staff.
“We’re building a book on every team’s players,” said Hill, who lives in Harrisburg. “Each game I go to, I pick eight guys between the two teams and watch them exclusively. The next time I see particular teams play, I pick eight different guys.
“A lot of what I’m watching for is competitiveness. Will a kid battle during a game? Does he go and fight his way to the front of the net? Will he fight for pucks in the corner? How hard does he back-check? That’s something we watch closely. Skill level, too, and skating ability, obviously.”
Most points in NHL debut
The 56-year-old Hill knows hockey from all angles. He played 13 pro seasons from 1976-77 through 1988-89 – including 221 games for the Flyers and 348 games for the Bears.
Nearly 35 years ago, on Feb. 14, 1977, Hill set the record for most points in an NHL debut, scoring two goals and assisting on three others in Philadelphia’s 6-4 win against the St. Louis Blues.
He won three Calder Cups as an AHL player with the Maine Mariners (1977-78, 1983-84) and Bears (1987-88). He served as Hershey’s assistant coach in 1989-90, was a Binghamton Rangers assistant from 1990-1993 and head coach from 1993-1995. There also was a short stint as assistant coach of the New York Rangers.
Today, Hill works closely with Flyers player personnel director Dave Brown and fellow pro scouts Don Luce and John Chapman as the team keeps track of players in the top two North American leagues.
In the NHL, Hill is responsible for maintaining reports on the Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals, Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning, Minnesota Wild, Chicago Blackhawks and Winnipeg Jets.
Travel is a constant in Hill’s line of work. On a given week, he might see five games in a seven-day stretch. Other weeks he’ll take in six games.
“I pretty much make up my schedule around the schedule of games each week,” Hill said. “It all depends where the teams are playing.”
NHL trade deadline Feb. 27
Saturday night, Hill saw two of the teams he’s responsible for: the Whale and the Bears. His other AHL teams are the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, Binghamton Senators, Bridgeport Sound Tigers, Albany Devils, Springfield Falcons, Chicago Wolves and Milwaukee Admirals.
He watches each of his NHL and AHL teams play at least five or six times in a season. Hill also must see every other team in both leagues play at least twice for cross-checking purposes. That way an accurate picture – using various scouts’ reports – can be assembled.
The database of nearly 1,200 players helps the Flyers several ways, Hill said.
With the NHL trade deadline approaching on Feb. 27, teams are evaluating their organizational needs. Major roster shuffling must be completed three weeks from Monday at 3 p.m.
When a specific player’s name pops up in trade talks, the Flyers can check through their pro scouts’ reports on his performance during the season.
Such was the case on Thursday, when the Capitals and Flyers swapped minor leaguers as defenseman Kevin Marshall went to Washington in exchange for forward Matthew Ford.
“I probably filed six or seven reports on (Ford) this season, and Dave Brown had seen him enough, too, so we had a good idea what he would bring to our organization,” Hill said. “You also check around and find out what kind of guy he is off the ice. That’s John Paddock’s job.
“He’s the (Flyers) assistant general manager, but he handles our (farm) team in Adirondack. He checks into the character stuff of different people, too.”
Tracking players is a year-round job. Hill said a good portion of his work builds toward the NHL’s offseason shopping spree.
“Free agency is huge now, so whoever is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, you pay closer attention to them, since they could be guys we’re going after on July 1,” Hill said.
“We can look at our own reports and update them, but we can’t look at the other scouts’ reports within our organization,” Hill said. “Brownie can, as the head of pro scouting, but I can’t. Neither can Don Luce or John Chapman, who is based out West.”
The reports are kept separate so scouts form their own opinions. They are not influenced by previous reports filed by others.
Hill said the Flyers pro scouting staff met in Philadelphia each of the past two months, and has another gathering scheduled just before trade deadline day.
“Then we won’t get together until the season ends, when we start talking about NHL free agency and players we want to sign for Adirondack, too,” Hill said.
There is no doubt what gives Hill his greatest job satisfaction. It involves a phone call from Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren.
“When Homer calls and he wants an idea about a player, you better know it,” Hill said. “I take pride in knowing that. You can (fake) your way through a lot of stuff, but it’s all about the end result.
“If you’re not truthful and a guy (you recommend) performs poorly, then you’re in trouble. You’ve got to know your players.”