From outsider to QMJHL scout
Posted by Dean Holden at January 13th, 2014
by Sean Gordon, 11 Feb 2011
He’s seen their eyes glaze over, heard the mumbled excuses from friends who had wearied of being prodded to go sit in out-of-the-way arenas to watch midget hockey.
This particular passion, he quickly realized, was one he’d mostly have to follow on his own.
But a couple of decades later, Simon Boisvert wouldn’t have it any other way.
The 45-year-old translator and model of persistence has fulfilled a lifelong ambition by working his way into the cloistered world that is big-time hockey.
And he’s done it in a thoroughly modern way – his Lana Turner soda-fountain moment coming courtesy of the comments section on a popular Quebec hockey blog.
Boisvert, you see, recently landed a paying gig as a part-time scout for the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
But unlike most people in the hockey industry, he has never played, never coached, never volunteered in a minor hockey association.
He stands as the embodiment of every hard-core fan’s dream: an uber-passionate and freakishly knowledgeable outsider who managed to get professional hockey people to actually listen to what he has to say.
And he has quite a lot to say.
As in: Scouts often lack the imagination to spot subtleties … veteran free agents are almost always over-priced and almost never worth it … most general-managers are determinedly following yesterday’s trends … goalies should never be drafted in the first round.
“It used to make my teeth grate in the early 2000s when I’d see a team pick a Rick DiPietro or a Kari Lehtonen with the first or second pick overall … last year you had [Philadelphia’s Michael]Leighton and [Chicago’s Antti]Niemi in the Cup final, and all of a sudden everyone started saying ‘you don’t need an elite goalie to win.’ I was saying that 10 years ago, and people would throw tomatoes at me,” said Boisvert, who lives in Montreal’s north end.
The gregarious, animated Boisvert, a high-energy type who owns his translation business, is perhaps best described as a free thinker – not a quality frequently associated with the hockey industry.
But it’s what made Richard Liboiron, the Screaming Eagles’s director of hockey operations, sit up and take notice.
“I was struck by just how passionate he is,” said Liboiron, who agreed to meet with Boisvert on a lark last autumn, and essentially ended up hiring him on the spot 90 minutes later. “He has a lot of interesting ideas and very impressive knowledge of players. I call it a hard disk in his head.”
While Liboiron is the first to acknowledge most of the people who work in and around major junior and pro leagues follow the more conventional path – through connections, word-of-mouth, working with former teammates and coaches and the like – but adds he’s always been attracted to original thinkers.
“Anyone can follow the template and give you the empirical information, it’s much harder to find people who can give a detailed overall picture and extrapolate a given player’s profile,” Liboiron said. “Simon can do that. His reports are like a turnkey project – it’s all there, just move in.”
From the first time he sent him to check out players on a trial basis, Liboiron says he could tell he and Boisvert were on the same wavelength.
And Cape Breton, currently languishing in 16th place in the 18-team QMJHL, can use all the help it can find in digging up uncut gems. <Currently as of 12 Jan 2014, they are 11th out of 18.>
Boisvert is eager to pitch in, but he also has a broader goal: to become a chief scout or GM in the QMJHL, or a chief scout in the NHL.
And if Boisvert can harbour those ambitions – which Liboiron suggests are reasonable if he’s prepared to be patient – it’s due in part to alter ego Snake70, his handle on the blog run by Mathias Brunet, a hockey columnist at La Presse who often writes about junior and minor-league prospects.
Snake70 began standing out a couple of years ago as an acerbic and aggressively opinionated voice who trashed other commentators with panache and delighted in demolishing conventional wisdom.
The ad hominem attacks were an act, the crusades against the hockey consensus weren’t (he has since retired Snake70 in favour of a regular satellite-radio gig).
Brunet, who is friendly with Liboiron, eventually put the two in touch.
Among the Snake’s many predictions: for all the hype, the best player of the 2009 draft wouldn’t be top picks John Tavares or Victor Hedman, but Matt Duchene, picked third overall. So far, he’s right.
In 2010, Snake harangued commentators who were touting one of Taylor Hall or Tyler Seguin as the best prospect, arguing the true franchise player in the draft was a certain Jeff Skinner, picked seventh overall by the Carolina Hurricanes – a surprise in itself, most observers had him as a mid to late first-round pick.
“Almost all the pro scouts saw Skinner as a second-line, 20- or 22-goal guy. I always saw him as a top-line, 40 to 50 goal guy,” said Boisvert, who wouldn’t have hesitated to pick Skinner first or second overall.
And unlike many armchair prognosticators, Boisvert didn’t content himself with just watching the kid on television or YouTube, he decided one weekend to drive to Kingston, Ont., to see him live. Then, a few weeks later, made a second trip.
“What can I say, I just had to see if I was right about my impressions,” Boisvert said.
Skinner’s rookie numbers are eloquent testimony that he was.
Evaluation is something that comes naturally to Boisvert, who studied commerce and actuarial mathematics at Montreal’s Concordia University.
By then Boisvert was already a massive hockey fan and nurturing his ambitions (“it sounds dumb when you say it, but it was addictive, like a drug, I was going to an industrial quantity of midget and bantam games on weekends”).
His fascination with hockey began as an eight-year-old in the early 1970s, when he used to go see Norm Dupont and Mario Tremblay light it up for the QMJHL Montreal Bleu Blanc Rouge with his dad.
“Even then I was trying to predict which guys would be good as pros and which ones wouldn’t,” he said.
In his 20s, Boisvert contacted dozens of hockey and baseball teams – he is also a huge baseball nut, and was once asked by a friend to give a pep talk to a fellow-traveller. Things worked out okay for the kid in question (it was Toronto Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos).
Then followed years of cold-calls and faxing résumés – getting a rejection letter was a minor triumph, most just ignored him (in the end he decided to go into translating).
Through it all, Boisvert kept going to games and honed his evaluative approach, which blends empirical, on-ice factors with intangibles and more esoteric methods.
“The real skill is in projecting how a player is going to develop … I’m always trying to think a few years ahead, how teams are going to be built and how that will influence the market,” he said.
Boisvert has also assimilated the basic Moneyball lessons: prize factors others underestimate, ignore what the others overevaluate, and don’t buy into reputations.
“I try and run against the herd,” he said.
Boisvert doesn’t need a GPS to find obscure arenas. He’s been to them all in the course of his quixotic quest.
And lately, his longtime girlfriend has developed a stronger interest in the game, so he doesn’t sit alone as much as he once did.
In fact, at a recent midget tournament, she pointed out a player she liked (“it kind of shook me up, because I hadn’t even noticed him,” he said).
“Listen, if people like Richard were open-minded enough to listen to me, I have to keep an open mind too, right?” he said. “And she was right.”
Boisvert won’t reveal anything about the player, lest the other scouts catch a whiff.
And his approach has already paid at least one dividend for his new employers: the Eagles this week added a U.S.-based player, whom Boisvert uncovered, to their protected list.
No other team had yet contacted him, and Boisvert spotted him watching games on the Internet.
“I think he’s good enough to play on the top line,” he said. “But that’s just my opinion.”
<As I am reading the book ‘Scorecasting’ right now, this article ties in with the theme of keeping an open mind while debunking many commonly accepted myths in sport! I think that one must at least acknowledge that analytics can play an important role in sport. It is nice to see Simon (
@simonsnake70) get a chance after dedicating some much of his intelligence and time. Note that the Eagles made some staff changes after this article was published, and Simon is now a scout for the Val-d’Or Foreurs, also in the QMJHL. – DH>