Commentary

Plan D

Scouting is more art than science, but Detroit's formula works

Updated: September 23, 2010, 11:57 AM ET
By Lindsay Berra | ESPN The Magazine
Andreas Ackerup for ESPN The MagazineScouting talent at small rinks in Finland is one of the reasons the Red Wings are so successful.

The November air blowing off the Gulf of Bothnia into the fishing village of Luvia, in southwest Finland, is damp and raw. It's 3 o'clock in the afternoon but already nearly dark. A small crowd files into a prefab steel building, the kind the Finnish Ice Hockey Association put up in bulk to house ice rinks throughout the country. Just inside the doorway, on an open grill, a man cooks makkara, Finnish sausages served charred and hot in waxed paper cones filled with mustard and ketchup. "You've got to try one of these," says Jim Nill, leaning close to the grill for warmth. As assistant GM for the Red Wings, Nill directs the team's amateur scouting program. Given his renown for spotting quality, you would do well to sample the links.

Beyond the entryway, scouts from nearly every other NHL team settle into a bank of frigid bleachers at the Four Nations Cup to grade under-18 prospects on teams representing the U.S., Sweden, Finland and Switzerland. The scouts are friendly in an adversarial way. They chat about the weather and the three-and-a-half-hour drive from Helsinki, buy one another cups of grainy black coffee, ask after wives and kids back home. But they keep opinions about what they see on the ice close to their puffy down vests. On only one topic do they agree: No team uncovers hockey talent better than Nill's Wings.

Lindsay Berra is an avid CrossFitter and a national correspondent for MLB.com. Follow her on twitter @lindsayberra.